Originally published as a smartphone guide app article in Shoestring Magazine Issue #4.
I had come to Oxford in a spur of the moment. The city is world-famous for its ivy- league University of Oxford and the prestige that goes with it.
Oxford is the birthplace of such literary gems as Alice in Wonderland and The Lord of the Rings, but also the setting for Inspector Morse. I wanted to see it, experience the city and take in that air of academia that seems to linger around the colleges and halls.
The city and the university have been written about at length in various guidebooks, and maps of the city centre are readily available at bookstores throughout the country. I, however had nothing but my hostel’s address and my smartphone in my hand when I left the car at a Park & Ride and headed into town. A quick look through the online application store on my phone, and I had not only a map of Oxford in digital format, but also a handy little app called “Oxford City Walks Lite.”
This free guidebook contains details for nine walks through Oxford, with specializations such as “Museums and Galleries”, “Nightlife”, “Interesting Shops” and “Religious Buildings” as well as the obligatory “University Tour” and city introduction. Each of these walks is up to two hours long and takes in an average of eight sights in the city, but all the walks can be combined.
Once I reached the city center, I started walking around with my phone and camera at the ready, admiring the architecture. One thing I immediately realized was how similar most of the colleges look. Luckily, my plucky little app included pictures of the colleges featured on the university tour, which made distinguishing them a whole lot easier.
My point of orientation became the Carfax tower in the city center. Standing at the foot of this 14th century clock tower, I had the busy intersection of Cornmarket, St Aldates, Queen and The High to explore with the tower as a landmark I would recognise if I lost my way.
I started by getting an ice cream from George & Davis’, an Oxford institution on St Aldates, before I set about exploring Christ Church College across the street.
The custodian was very nice and gave me student discount for the tour around the college. All I could do was marvel at the medieval architecture as we were guided through dining halls, past ancient dorm rooms and across spacious quads. I felt a little like Harry Potter on the first day at Hogwarts.
Back on The High, I found the entrance to the Covered Market, and I could have spent hours browsing the stalls for flowers, books, and clothes, but settled on trying one of the cafés instead. Emerging into the sunlight of Cornmarket Street, the map on my little smartphone app told me that there is more to see if I head towards Broad Street.
The Saxon Tower of St Michael at the Northgate is one thousand years old and was once used as a prison. Turning fully onto Broad Street, I just have to stop at the famous Blackwell Bookstore, with the Norrington Room – the establishment’s basement – having 3 miles of shelving, which stretches all the way under Trinity College.
Just opposite the book shop is one of Oxford’s most famous buildings, The Sheldonian. The app tells me that it was designed by Christopher Wren in the 1660s and named after the chancellor of the university, Gilbert Sheldon.
Also on and around Broad Street is the Bodleian Library – housed in five buildings – which is one of the main research libraries of the University of Oxford, one of the oldest libraries in Europe and is only second in size to the British Library. Due to my short stay in the city, I didn’t have enough time to check it out, knowing full well that if I ventured inside I would get distracted by all the books and not see sunlight again that day.
Turning down Catte Street towards the famous Radcliffe Camera, I have to dodge a group of students on their bicycles. The amount of bikes in the city is incredible, but with narrow lanes, and Oxford’s flat topography, I can see why it’s the students’ number one choice of transport.
I make a mental note to take my bike next time I pay Oxford a visit. A glance down New College Lane on my left stops me in my tracks as I see the sunlight catching the Bridge of Sighs, which links the Old and New Quads of Hertford College and resembles the Rialto Bridge in Venice.
Strolling down New College Lane, I notice a very narrow alley called St Helen’s Passage, just behind the Bridge of Sighs. It doesn’t look like it leads anywhere, but I follow it and end up at the Turf Tavern, a 16th century public house, where I have lunch sitting among students discussing lectures and tourists asking the barkeeper whether Bill Clinton really used to frequent the pub when he was a student in Oxford.
Back-tracing my steps to the Radcliffe Camera, my phone app informs me that it is not actually a camera obscura, as the name might suggest, but a library. The word camera simply means chamber or room. Following Catte Street back to The High I turn right and make my way towards Magdalen College, past University College, The Queen’s College and All Souls. The side-by-side colleges and shops on The High make way to the spacious grounds of Magdalen College. Magdalen – always pronounced “Maudlin” – is one of Oxford University’s richest colleges, which shows in the beautiful deer park and spacious cloisters.
Crossing the river Cherwell, I watch the punters on the water below. Sitting down to take a short rest in the shadow of a tree along the shore, I am tempted to give it a go myself, but eventually decide to let the university teams practice in peace without the annoying visitor splashing around in between.
Walking back towards my hostel, I pass some more impressive looking buildings that I cannot tell apart. A quick glance at my phone tells me they are colleges and halls as well. The entire university consists of almost 40 self – governing colleges, some of which are almost 800 years old and they are scattered all over the city.
The next morning, I get up early to see Oxford when it’s quiet. The sun is shining, and I make my way up the tiny and tight spiral staircase to the roof of the Carfax Tower to see Oxford’s legendary Dreaming Spires.
The sun catches the spires of all the college towers and churches as I take in the aerial view of the entire city sprawling out beneath me. Unfortunately, I have no time to explore this amazing city further, but I keep thinking that I would have loved to study surrounded by all this history and tradition. That, and that I’ll definitely be back for a longer visit.