Oxford, England: Prestigious University – Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Guide – Travel Bite

Oxford, England: Prestigious University – Rick Steves’ Europe Travel Guide – Travel Bite

October 13, 2019 93 By Stanley Isaacs


Oxford, founded in
the 10th century, is home to the oldest university
in the English-speaking world. Its university was born
back in the early Middle Ages, and ever since the first
homework was assigned, the university of Oxford’s
graduates have helped to shape
Western civilization. It brags that its teachers
and alumni include a couple dozen prime ministers, over 50 Nobel Prize winners,
and nearly a dozen saints. Today, it’s a thriving town
of 160,000 — part industry, part university, and part
bedroom community for Londoners. It’s a lively town
filled with fun and energy during both the academic term, when you’ll see
students everywhere, or during summer break. We’re here in July, when
tourists outnumber the students. Like in Cambridge, the river
is filled with tourists still working on
their punting skills. -Oh, we’re going to smash. Ooh.
-Ah! -Oxford’s main drag,
High Street, is lined with both
shops and colleges. Again, it’s a mix
that illustrates that town-gown division. ♪♪ There’s been a tension between the privileged
university population and the hardscrabble
regular people of Oxford for over 800 years. In fact, it was a town-gown spat
back in 1209 that drove a group of professors
and students out of Oxford and to the more welcoming
town of Cambridge, where they helped to found
that rival university. The historic heart
of Oxford University is its
Old Schools Quad[rangle]. In the courtyard
of its main library, the quad is surrounded
by the university’s first set
of purpose-built classrooms each marked with
the original curriculum — metaphysics, astronomy, music,
moral philosophy, and so on. Oxford, like Cambridge, is designed on
the collegiate system. While each of the many colleges nurtures its students
in its own way, the university
provides the curriculum, and while students
live and study and are mentored in
their respective colleges, it’s here in the university
buildings that they go to class, are tested, and enjoy
the great ceremonial events that come with being a student
at Oxford. To imagine studying here
in the 1400s, pop into the Divinity School to see the university’s
first formal classroom. Here, under this impressive
fan-vaulted ceiling, the mission of higher education
was particularly respected. ♪♪ Upstairs
is Duke Humphrey’s library. In those days, libraries were
placed above classrooms for maximum sunlight
and minimum moisture. It’s a world of books
dating back to the Middle Ages stacked neatly under
a painted wooden ceiling. ♪♪ Books were considered
so precious that many were actually
chained to the desk. Of course, there are plenty
of modern buildings, too. In a wing of the university’s
fabled Bodleian Library, visitors are free to peruse
its treasures gallery, a literary treasure chest celebrating the genius of Oxford
over the centuries. You’ll see a Shakespeare
first folio, 18 plays from 1623; an original score of Handel’s
“Messiah” written in 1741; a copy of the Magna Carta
from 1217, when King John was forced to grant his nobility
certain rights, opening the door to democracy. It seems this copy
was nibbled on by a mouse. Fancy meal. ♪♪ Across the street is the Museum
of the History of Science. It’s filled with
scientific equipment that the scholars of Oxford
used to change our world. There’s chemistry,
the 18th-century boom in the study of oxygen
and other gases. Medicine — after 1850,
anesthetics and antiseptics made major surgery
more survivable. Microscopes
helped scholars observe and tell them unseen worlds. Science enjoyed the support
of England’s royalty. King George III had
his own ornate microscope made of silver in 1770, and Einstein’s chalkboard
still features his hand-scrawled equations
from 1931. Obviously,
from the last four lines, the universe is expanding. Like at Cambridge, you can visit
many of Oxford’s colleges. Magdalen College, where C.S.
Lewis taught, is the prettiest. Established in 1458, its cloister is
a monastic-feeling square ringed by the dining hall,
chapel, and student dorms. The grounds are
meticulously kept, as if to inspire
Magdalen students to excellence. Christ Church is Oxford’s
grandest college, with the most esteemed
list of alumni. ♪♪ It was founded
by King Henry VIII back in the 16th century
on the site of an old monastery. While it still has
a close connection with the royal family,
it’s most popular these days because scenes from the “Harry
Potter” movies were filmed here. ♪♪ “Harry Potter” fans
love the dining hall. The grand hall, with its
splendid hammerbeam ceiling, is ringed with portraits
of alumni gazing down, as if wondering,
“Who is Harry Potter?”