Oxford, England

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The ancient city of Oxford, the home of the oldest surviving university outside of Bologna, Italy. With teaching started from at least the year 1099, the University is older than numerous civilizations such as Mexica (the Aztecs) and the Incas.

No-one knows the actual circumstances of the University’s founding, and for sure it was nothing like how universities and colleges are founded these days. Legend has it that teaching began after King Alfred the Great debated with a group of monks around the area.

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The Radcliffe Camera in the Radcliffe Square, is a part of the hundred plus Bodleian Libraries. It was named after University and Lincoln Colleges alumnus Dr The Hon John Radcliffe MP, and is now the University, as well as the city’s, most iconic structure.

In the past, people were allowed to walk on the balcony, but alas, that’s no longer the case for safety reasons.

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It is a truly magnificent building, most felt when it’s sunny and you’re circling it from the ground. One of Florence’s famed buildings was similarly designed (albeit in a different colour), but without the open space on the ground, it felt nowhere near as impressive as the Rad Cam did.

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The Oxford skyline is world famous and various colleges and churches near the square are just as brilliant.

The best spot to take a good photo of the Rad Cam as well as the skyline, in my opinion, is from the tower of St Mary’s the University Church. The University Church charges merely around £5 for a trip to their terrace, but since the paths are narrow up there, only a few visitors are allowed up at the same time. Allegedly, a former parish priest of the church publicly proclaimed his lack of belief in god – the CofE is wonderful.

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Whilst All Souls College is a must-see from the inside, it’s challenging to do it justice with a photo from their quad.

The college is most famous for not really having any students around 6-8 at any given time. This is because they don’t accept any undergraduates, nor do they admit postgraduates in the usual manner. A finalist, or a registered postgraduate matriculant must sit their unique and somewhat unpredictable examination, in order to gain the opportunity to win an “examination fellowship” from them, that guarantees a full seven years of funding to live, study, and/or work at Oxford. (They don’t offer all courses, however.) The successful candidates may likewise opt to collect a reduced sum of money in lieu of staying in academia at the college.

Fun fact: They used to have undergrads, but only as household servants.

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Other students may, with the endorsement of their supervisor(s), visit their library should there be a genuine research need.

I believe this photo was taken from the terrace behind the fellows’ garden at Exeter College.

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In the square, there is also Brasenose College, one of the more popular ones and the one attended by former British prime minister The Rt Hon David Cameron, a distant cousin of Her Majesty The Queen.

The college has a weird arrangement with the nearby Lincoln College, providing extraordinarily crappy beer to them once a year, due to a duel several centuries ago resulting in the death of a Lincoln man.

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A popular alternative to St Mary’s tower is to go on the Sheldonian Theatre (free for Oxonians). It has got quite a different few and the Rad Cam is not the focal point from there. The only issue is that the theatre closes very often for a variety of reasons, as it’s the go-to place for university ceremonies.

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Even though it may be more difficult to capture the magic in the evening/late afternoon, in person it was a real sight.

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University College – they have now dropped their bogus claim of being the oldest college at Oxford.

Rhodes scholar President Bill Clinton went there and might or might not have smoked weed. He did a BCL – Bachelor of Civil Law – it’s weird because despite the name, it’s actually a master’s degree, equivalent to the MJur degree, with the only difference being whether you’re reading for common or civil law.

Degrees at Oxford are all quite messy. Most undergraduates read for a BA – Bachelor of Arts – degree, regardless of their discipline. 21 terms after matriculation, they may “upgrade” it to an MA – Master of Arts – with only a minimum payment and next to no requirements (they cannot be in prison at the time – although in the past the conversion might also be delayed if the royal court wished to). Science undergraduates most likely to integrated master’s degrees (unless they fail the test to progress), but they may still get a BA that can turn into an MA with no additional studies or examinations.

Postgraduates do not enjoy that.

To make it even more unfair, there is the system of “incorporation” between Oxford, Cambridge, and Trinity College Dublin. If you were an undergraduate at any of the three, and the move to the other, you get an instant free degree after the ceremony.

So:

Person A –

Studied BA at Oxford;

studied MSc at Cambridge;

studied PhD at Trinity College Dublin;

gets designated MA (Oxon) MA MSc (Cantab) MA PhD (TCD) in the end. Five degrees for the price of three.

At Oxford, academics with a college fellowship (usually lecturer or above, but only those getting the title from a college, instead of just a department), likewise get awarded an MA as the MA status is essential for them to vote in the congregation, ie the university’s parliament (the second-highest authority, only below the convocation that has everyone in it and meets very rarely).

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St Edmund Hall. One of the two colleges that have kept their historic name “hall” – it is the oldest surviving academic society that houses and teaches undergrads.

I now have bad blood with them tho. I, out of sheer politeness, asked to take a quick picture of the front quad, identifying myself as an alumnus. The staff didn’t let me do it, citing the need to keep the corridor I was already standing in free for the entire time (it was empty and it would’ve taken literally 2 seconds). He refused even after learning that I was flying on the Saturday and couldn’t have waited until open day.

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Exeter College. I stayed here for my summer school earlier this year – on this day, they welcomed Their Catholic Majesties The King and Queen of Spain (and so forth), even though I missed them as I flew to Ireland for the weekend.

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Merton College. It contains the oldest-surviving academic library. They have the strange tradition of walking backward in the circle when daylight-saving time hits.

There is also a real tennis court close-by where I played, although I’m uncertain whether the college owns it.

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(From left to right) The Clarendon Building, the Sheldonian Theatre, and the Museum of the History of Science.

The first one used to be the second home of Oxford University Press and is now some random offices. The theatre is one of the most important buildings at Oxford, as it is the place for both matriculations (entering the University) and graduations (leaving the University). When a massive attendance is expected, congregation meetings may congregate there.

The museum is the oldest-surviving purpose-built museum building, and it used to house the internationally renowned Ashmolean Museum, the first public museum in the world.

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St Mary’s at night.

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As a “life friend” (life donor) of the Bodleian Libraries, the secretary took me on a tour that ended on the terrace of Weston Library.

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One of the most significant, yet lesser-known, structures in the city. The Oxford Castle is a Norman complex where Her Imperial Majesty The Empress Matilda, Holy Roman Empress, Queen of the Romans, Duchess of Normandy, Lady of the English hid during the anarchy. Her Imperial Majesty was an English princess whose regal father made the lords agreed to make queen after his passing. The barons broke their promise when the King died, she reluctantly attempted to seize the throne but failed, mostly due to Londoners not welcoming her. 

Gay pride also ends here.

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Two different sides, built obviously at different times, of the Old Library, It houses the Duke Humfrey’s Library, better known as Hogwart’s library’s restricted section.

Up there you can see a statue of His Majesty The King James, King of England, King of Scots, King of France, Lord of Ireland. Yes, the one who was gay and made King James’s Bible happen

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Another iconic site at Oxford, the Tom’s quad at Christ Church (a college, but officially without “college” in its name). His Majesty The King Henry VIII (the one with many wives) founded the college, as well as the cathedral, in order to further cement the supremacy of the newly protestant Anglican church.

The college produced the most number of prime ministers and my college, Kellogg, rows with them.

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The Christ Church dining hall, better known as Hogwart’s dining hall before photoshop.

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Christ Church garden. This and the overrated Christ Church meadow (very typically English, basically just grass) are free to the public. Going into the college, the fee isn’t that big of an issue but rather the huge, huge queue.

As a student, there may be events at the college from time to time and you don’t have to queue for them. Or you may just go to church. They still use the obsolete Oxford time (5 minutes behind Greenwich time).

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At Christ Church, this is supposed to be the oldest recorded graffiti in the world. People argue over whether this was a protest against prime minister Sir Robert Peel, or just something to do with the food.

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Owned by Wadham College but closer to New College, this is the oldest music room in the world.

Wadham is usually known as the most leftist and liberal college at Oxford – it’s difficult to tell if heterosexuals actually exist there.

New is “new” only relative to Oriel College, so named as both are officially called “St Mary’s College blah blah blah”. Oriel is where prime minster Cecil Rhodes went, and where his controversial statue stands (honestly you won’t notice it despite it being in quite a prominent position).

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Magdalen tower at Magdalen College. Every evening before May Day, people stay up all night drinking and party, then at around 6am we get here to listen to their choir sing two songs. A few years back, some people jumped into the shallow river and hurt themselves.

I stayed up too, but before 6am I volunteered for Oxford Nightline to be a cartoon owl promoting our services. Loads of drunk people. Quite awkward when you couldn’t speak.

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The defunct observatory at Green Templeton College. GTC is a graduate college with a few undergrads due to their being medics, and represented the first merger at Oxford, as there was a Green College and a Templeton College before 2008.

The observatory was modeled after Temple of the Winds (the name is not very consistent…) in Athens, Greece. It’s better than the Roman one in Athens, actually.

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The oldest-surviving structure at Oxford, St Michael’s tower. St Michael’s is the city church (not always has been) and was built by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were immigrants from what is now today around Denmark.

I believe it also acted as the prison for the clergy members from Oxford Movement.

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The Bridge of Signs of Hertford College, one of the other main attractions of the University, just opposite to the Sheldonian Theatre. Hertford College was where the author of Brideshead Revisited attended.

Two things:

  1. Even though in Venice, Italy (as well as numerous other places in Europe) there also is a Bridge of Signs (near St Mark’s Square), theirs look nothing like this. This looks more like a smaller version of Venice’s most famous bridge, aka Shylock’s Bridge.
  2. No matter what people tell you, the Hertford today came actually from Magdalen Hall. Magdalen Hall used to be a house near Magdalen College and their building was burnt down by an undergrad. They wanted to be renamed Magdalene College like the one at Cantab, but for obvious reasons, Magdalen College opposed to it. That’s why they completely took over Hertford College, both the body and the heart – the coat of arms at Hertford’s porter’s lodge is still the same as the Magd one. So what happened to the original? Their head died and even though people still went to work (or pretended to be working), they stopped admitting students and so they just died off.

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A Lego version of Hertford College displayed on open days. Very popular.

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The School of Divinity (entrance from the Old Library). This was the first department at Oxford (universities were basically priest-training institutions) and leads also to the usual congregation house as well as the now defunct university court (I was told Oscar Wilde went on a trial there for not paying his battels).

Nowadays, this place, when not a tourist spot, is a waiting/changing room for when people attend a matriculation or a graduation ceremony (as we are required to change gowns midway).

Harry Potter was likewise filmed here.

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All Souls from the inside. Told you it’s not that flattering.

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In the Museum of the History of Science, a blackboard used by Nobel laureate Prof Albert Einstein (who didn’t invent atomic bombs, btw).

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In Blackwell’s, the Norrington Room holds the world record for the largest room selling books (many qualifiers).

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One of Exeter’s alumni is the current president of Perú, His Excellency President Pereo-Pablo Kuczynski #PPK. He donated money to do something to this particular room.

See the “MA”? It meant he was an undergraduate. If you convert your BA to an MA, you are not technically allowed to say you have both a BA and an MA, but only the MA.

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One of the buildings of my department. It’s got loads of different names and some of the doors still have its older name.

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My college, Kellogg. It’s the largest graduate college, one of the most international at Oxford, and by student population, the second-largest overall. The vice-chancellor is somehow traditionally an honorary fellow.

It’s the only college that focuses on part-time professional studies and was established by the Department for Continuing Education specifically for that purpose (although there are many full-timers now). Since it hasn’t got a royal charter yet (the other one being St Cross College), it’s still legally a “society” under the department. The president of the college has always been the director of the department.

Although the current president, Prof Jonathan Michie (son of Dame The Hon Anne McLaren and Dr Donald Michie – he worked with Dr Alan Turing during the war – as well as the grandson of Baron Aberconway), told me after him that may change.

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I’m a recognized “major donor” of my college. My name is somewhere here.

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The beautiful Lady Margaret Hall. My connection to it was that they gave us education students dining right at their college.

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Wellington Square, near where I resided, the University’s headquarters. That day it was converted to a fictional police station for a television series.

Whilst I don’t have photos for that, the other museums are also very worth visiting. And in front of the Natural History Museum, there’s a symbol representing evolution, and one representing creationism.

Additionally, the botanic garden was the first in the British Isles.

The current OUP complex is another hidden jewel. But to visit, you will need to make an appointment (it’s free). There’s a small museum and a library.

There’s a site for Beaumont Palace/The King’s House where King Richard the Lionheart (allegedly gay and famous for being a crusader who hadn’t really lived in England) and King John (the one who signed Magna Carta) were born. But there’s nothing left to see.

Tips:

  1. The entrance fees and punting fee and all that could add up, so ideally you should get a student or alum to take you around. It’d all be free as long as you’re not bringing a big family with you. But even current students can’t go into another college at any time they want.
  2. Oxford is very walkable, so doing the tourist bus would just be a waste of money (we did that the first time we went).
  3. If you don’t have much time, you can just try going into the colleges a bit to look at their front quads. Those are usually the best ones anyway.
  4. If you are really pressing for time, go to Magdalen College, Christ Church, Keble College, All Souls College, Rad Cam, Old Library/Divinity School, Worcester College (they have a lake), and look at Trinity College’s back garden. Walk on High Street and Board Street. Check their opening hours – All Souls, for example, only opens between 2pm and 4pm on weekdays.
  5. If you want to rush through all of Oxford, it’s possible to do it in a full day (as long as you’re not getting north of LMH, not getting east to Linacre/St Catherine’s, and not going south of Magdalen/Christ Church.

Blenheim Palace, Oxfordshire, England

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Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO Heritage Site in the oddly shaped county of Oxfordshire. The city of Oxford totally deserves this designation, and I have no idea why it doesn’t already have it.

It’s the only palace in Britain that’s privately owned (by His Grace The Duke) and was the birthplace of British wartime prime minister, the incredibly racist and hawkish Sir Winston Churchill. The misogynistic aristocrat also proposed to his wife in the gardens.

A fun place to be, and indeed it’s worth the cost (they also want to lure you back by giving you a complimentary offer to turn your ticket to a one-year one).

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