Oxford and Stratford

On The Road Travel Essays

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Oxford and Stratford

The road from London to Oxford is 60 miles on the M40 motorway. It is pleasant enough but fairly dull. You pass little of particular interest en route. It should take no more than 1 hour 15 minutes. (The road is better than it once was. In 1575, the first mail service between London and Oxford began. A "carrier" left Oxford on Wednesday, went to London, and was back in Oxford by Saturday. Average speed: 2 mph. After better roads were established in the C18, the average speed jumped to 6 mph. In the 1830s, it had reached 10 mph.)

About 8 miles out of London, just before the urban sprawl ends, you might want to point out RAF Northolt on the right. Northolt was built in 1938 as part of a defensive ring around London. There is a memorial to the Polish squadron as one approaches, and a Spitfire behind the main gates (easily visible.) Nowadays this is the airport that the Royal Family use. The road lights here (orange for better penetration) are lower so as not to be confused with landing lights at Heathrow.

As you go out into the countryside you pass through the rolling chalk hills of the Chilterns. The motorway cuts through the chalk dramatically at one point, showing only a few inches of topsoil. This may be of interest to anyone from the Western states, since it illustrates the "dustbowl" effect of erosion. Without grass or crop roots to bind the soil, it can easily be blown away during dry periods. Local people have always put importance on permanent cropping (keeping crops in the soil at all times), to keep the precious topsoil from blowing away. The view now opens out on to a wide plain just before Oxford. You will be approaching Oxford from the north via the Woodstock or Banbury roads with their large Victorian houses, most of which belong to the various colleges of the university.

INTRODUCTION TO OXFORD

"O" stands for Oxford. Hail! Salubrious seat
Of learning! Academical Retreat!
Home of my Middle Age! Malarial Spot
Which people call Medieval (though it's not).
The marshes in the neighbourhood can vie
With Cambridge, but the town itself is dry,
And serves to make a kind of Fold or Pen
Wherein to herd a lot of Learned Men.
Were I to write but half of what they know,
It would exhaust the space reserved for "O"
And as my book must not be over big,
I turn at once to "P" which stands for Pig.

Hilaire Belloc, Balliol College

Oxford is a biggish town of 120,000 unhabitants and the capital of the eponymous county. It is situated at the confluence of two rivers, the Thames (here called the Isis) and the Cherwell. It is basically two cities: the university on the one hand, for which it is best known, and the depressed industrial city on its east side. These two sides of Oxford, "town and gown," have very little to do with each other. It has been that way since the foundation of the university over 800 years ago (see below for further details). The university, England's oldest, perhaps its finest and one of the great centres of learning in the world, is also very beautiful and the reason for your visit. You need to spend a minimum of two hours here, three if you're staying for lunch. Make sure you leave some free time for people to go shopping and buy the obligatory Oxford T-shirt.

The history of the growth and development of Oxford is of limited relevance. Rather you should concentrate on its university life, which tends to be of most interest, especially to the teachers. Once there you should do a walking tour (see below) including a visit to Christchurch (entrance included), the biggest and perhaps the best known of the university's colleges.

The University  In the Middle Ages, around 1200, a number of monastic schools grew up around the town of Oxford. The students came principally from Paris. The fame of this loose monastic federation spread quickly throughout Europe. Finally the king granted the schools a royal "charter", which incorporated them into one university. This origin, with the university developing from individual schools banded together, is responsible for the collegiate nature of the university so that over the years, different colleges evolved. The same system is true of Cambridge. Neither Oxford nor Cambridge have campuses as such.

Oxford University, then, is really a collection of more-or-less independent colleges, comprising a total of about 30,000 students. The university as a whole is mainly a degree-granting institution. The actual study goes on at each separate college. A student applies for admission to one or another college, not to the university as a whole. Each of the 36 college consists of at least three things: a chapel, a refectory (dining hall) and a quad (quadrangle, or central courtyard). All other buildings are centered around these. The colleges are small, with between 200 and 800 undergrads.

The faculties at the colleges are different from one to the other. Some colleges have specialised in the sciences, others in maths, others in philosophy, literature or history, etc. Teaching is done differently from in the average American university. Students, especially in the humanities, usually do not attend large lectures. Instead, each student will team up with a professor on a "tutorial" basis, meeting with the professor once or twice a week, reading a research paper, and have the professor evaluate it for him on the spot. Instruction, thus, is more on a one-to-one basis than in most American colleges; this often makes for lasting friendships between teacher and pupil; or a professor will gather around him a few "disciples" who will tend to echo the professor's viewpoint when they themselves become teachers.

So the students living in one college all eat in the college refectory; they attend "tutorials" there, share many of the same social activities, and develop an esprit de corps connected with that college's traditions. For this reason each college has developed its own powerful stereotype: St. John's is very academic, Balliol is left-wing intellectual, Trinity shy and retiring, Jesus is Welsh, Merton has the best food and Oriel has the best rowers, for example.

The nature of study at Oxford is very different from that at American universities. A student does not have majors and minors or semester-long courses. He or she simply studies one subject (maths, English Lit., chemistry etc.) for the duration of the course, which is usually 3 or 4 years. About half way through the course they take a preliminary exam to check that all is OK, and then a final exam at the end of the course on which the degree (First, 2:1, 2:2, Third) is based. (Incidentally, one used to be able to say that university education in England was free. This is no longer the case, since 1998. It is certainly true that the charges are minimal but the principle of free higher education seems sadly to have gone. In this respect Oxford is no different from other English universities. The charges are around 1,000 GBP a year.)

Town/gown rivalry at Oxford  As the university gained greater wealth and prestige in the Middle Ages, the kings granted it special privileges which gave it a dominating position in local politics. This was often resented by the townspeople, and frequent skirmishes broke out between the two groups. In 1354, a real battle occurred between students and townspeople. Bows and arrow were used, and the fighting went on for two days. The town won, and some students were killed. The mayor and 60 citizens had to make reparations to the university every year thereafter (by royal decree), a tradition that lasted all the way up until 1825.

Oxford Walking Tour  Have the bus drop you off on St. Giles opposite the Martyrs' Memorial. Rendezvous with the driver at an appropriate time on the other side of the street next to the Taylorian Institution and Ashmolean Museum. There are loos, if you need them, right next to the Martyrs' Memorial. The following walk should take no more than an hour.

Continue south a few yards to the corner and turn left on Broad Street. Cross the road at the Sheldonian Theatre and walk through the courtyard of the Bodleian Library. Go round the Radcliffe Camera and past the University Church to the High Street. Cross over and continue down Magpie Lane. This brings you out on Merton Street. Continue straight down to come out in Christ Church meadow. Follow the walls of Christ Church round to the right. You are looking at the imposing neo-Gothic pile of Meadow Buildings, Christ Church, the entrance to the college. After paying (NB If you have a large group you may have to split them up), show them the Cathedral, the Refectory or Hall and Tom Quad. If you have time take a quick look at Peckwater (or Peck) Quad and the library. Exit through the gate on Tom Quad. Turn right on St. Aldate's to the High Street. End of tour. Point the group towards the bus (straight up Cornmarket, the pedestrianised shopping street, and its continuation St. Giles) and leave free time.

Places on the Route Balliol College  The college was founded in 1268 by John de Balliol, from an old Norman family. The buildings date from the C15, but the front part that we see (including the massive tower) was rebuilt in the 1870s. In the street nearby, the stake was used for the burning of Protestants (including Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury) during the reign of Bloody Mary (a plaque in the pavement marks the spot). They're commemorated in the Martyrs' Memorial.

Trinity College  Right next to Balliol (lying some way back from the street), founded in 1555. Its Garden Quadrangle was built by Christopher Wren, and is one of Oxford's first classical structures. Some famous members: Lord Baltimore, one of the founders of Maryland (1594), and the C19 explorer Sir Richard Burton (1840), the first non-Muslim to visit Mecca. He was sent down (expelled) for trying to fight a duel.

Blackwell's Bookshop  The most famous bookshop in England. It's familiar to many generations of U.S. graduate students, who order British and Continental publications direct from the bookstore. Nowadays it has branches all over the country.

Sheldonian Theatre  The central "auditorium" of the university, and considered one of the finest neo-classical buildings at Oxford. Designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and built (1664-68) under the patronage of Archbishop Sheldon (hence "Sheldonian"). The design imitates the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. It holds 1500 people. This is where matriculation and graduation ceremonies are held.

Clarendon Building  It was built in 1713 in pure classical style. It is now used for the University administrative offices.

Bodleian Library  One of the oldest and most distinguished libraries in the world. It is the main library of the University, although all colleges have their individual libraries. The library contains 2,500,000 volumes and 50,000 manuscripts, many of them rare. Most of it os contained in underground tunnels below your feet. The library is so big it used to have an underground railway connecting its various parts. It was founded in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, who donated his personal library to start the collection. To use the library, one must be a graduate of the University, or else recommended by an Oxford "don". The Bodleian Library is one of six in Britain that enjoy a right to a copy of every book published in the U.K.

Radcliffe Camera  This beautiful rotunda is the History Faculty of the Bodleian. It sits in the middle of Radcliffe Square, famously called "the most beautiful square in England." Surrounding it are the Bodleian, All Soul's College, the University Church and Brasenose College. (The name Brasenose comes from a brazen door knocker shaped like a lion's head, which used to be on the gate, and is now kept in the college Hall. But there's another theory about the name: it comes from "brasenhus," an old English word for "brewery," which once stood on the spot. Brasenose College is famous for sport, especially its rowing and cricket teams.) All Souls' is the great graduate college of Oxford. To be a Fellow of All Souls' is the highest academic honour that can be bestowed by the university.

University Church  One of the major University churches, famous for being the centre of the "Oxford Movement" in the 1830s: a movement to restore Catholic-style ritual to the Anglican service. Its tower affords an excellent view of the university "quads" and is a possible suggestion for free time (there is a small charge).

High Street  This street is the main thoroughfare running among the colleges. It goes from the centre of Oxford (Carfax) to Magdalen College, passing Oriel College, University College, and Queen's College on the way. Famously, it has been called "the most beautiful street in England."

Merton College  A pretty little college whose fame is spread far and wide among the starving students of the university as the college with the best food in Oxford.

Christ Church Meadow  A flat and misty expanse, populated by cows, leading down to the river Thames (or Isis). In the early morning tired legions of unwilling rowers can be seen tramping across it to their college boathouse for some invigorating exercise and muscle building.

Christ Church  The largest of the Oxford colleges. It was founded in 1524 by Archbishop Wolsey and originally named after him. After his fall from grace it passed to the hands of the king. Once you go in through the Meadow Buildings (student rooms) you come to the chapel. This is also the cathedral of Oxford, curiously the smallest cathedral in England. Its highlight is the decorated choir roof. From there go through the cloisters and up the stairs to the Refectory (or Hall). This is the college dining room. It is typical for any Oxford college, if a little grander than most. The raised table at the end is for the professors and any distinguished visitors. The long tables are for the students. Walk through admiring the pictures on the wall of Christ Church's most famous professors, benefactors and alumni. The list of famous names is unbelievable: King Henry VIII, who took charge of the college from Wolsey; King Charles I who took refuge here during the English Civil War; fourteen British Prime Ministers; John Wesley, founder of Methodism; the poet W.H.Auden; the philosopher John Locke; the physicist Charles Boyle, as in Boyle's Law; and Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known to the world as Lewis Carroll. There are many more. Return by the same stairs into Tom Quad, the main quadrangle built by Cardinal Wolsey. It was originally meant to be arcaded - you can clearly see the foundations of the arcades on the walls and on the floor. Tom Tower, the oddly-shaped main entrance into the college, was built by Christopher Wren. At 9.05 each evening it rings 101 times, for the original 101 students of the C16 college. If it is possible leave through the Tom Tower. (If for some reason that exit is closed you will have to go out through Peck Quad into Oriel Square.)

Apart from Christ Church, the other colleges have equally produced their fair share of famous alumni and professors. The list is so long that it is quite impossible to name more than a few, but here's a start:

Stephen Hawking, physicist (now at Cambridge); Percy Bysshe Shelley, romantic poet; Tony Blair, Prime Minister; Margaret Thatcher, former PM; J.R.R. Tolkein, author; Oscar Wilde, wit and playwright; Dr Johnson, he of the dictionary; Edmund Halley, he of the comet; Dudley Moore, actor and comedian; Bill Clinton, US President.

On the Road to Stratford  Depending on your time frame there are two possible routes to Stratford: up the M40 which is dull but efficient, taking 45 minutes; or via Woodstock and Shipston on Stour on the A3400, which takes 20 minutes longer and is very pretty. The following notes take the scenic route . They also presume that you have time for the short detour to the Rollright Stones, which may or may not be the case.

Woodstock and Blenheim Palace  Woodstock, built in the soft yellow Cotswold stone, is a charming, well-heeled village of 2,000 inhabitants on the edge of the Cotswold chain. (You skirt but don't pass through the Cotswolds on this journey.) Woodstock used to be a "Royal Borough" with a palace (now destroyed). King Richard II was born in this palace, and Queen Elizabeth I stayed here during a period when she was out of favour with the court, before she became queen. Woodstock's outstanding feature these days is Blenheim Palace, the most magnificent baroque stately home in England. This is the ancestral home of the Churchill family, the Dukes of Marlborough. The most famous family member to be born and brought up here was Winston Churchill (1874-1965). He is buried in the churchyard at Bladon nearby.

As you drive into the village the main gate to Blenheim Palace is on your left. Even if you crane your neck you will barely catch a glimpse of the house itself. You can, however, get an idea of the vast size of the estate. Its boundary wall continues on your left for miles beyond the village. You will have a good view of the memorial column, 135 ft high, to the Duke of Marlborough for whom the palace was built in the early after his victory over Louis XIV at the Battle of Blenheim on Austrian soil. The trees around the column are planted in formations imitating the array of the troops at that battle.

(NB You may be able to drive into the grounds through the main gate to take a look at the palace from the windows of the coach if the bus driver and the gateman are willing [there is a charge]. It is spectacular. The palace, designed by John Vanburgh, is vast and overwhelming in grandeur. It took 25 years to build. The grounds are equally magnificent. The park covers 2,700 acres and has a deer reservation, a model railway, formal gardens and an artificial lake. They were the greatest creation of the landscape architect Capability Brown.)

The Rollright Stones  (Ignore these notes unless you are intending to make the detour. There is no point mentioning them otherwise. The detour is definitely worth it if you can afford the time. Fifteen minutes, enough for people to count the stones, should suffice here. The stones lie a couple of minutes' drive off the main road. Take the small road signposted for the stones just after the exit for Chipping Norton. Park by the roadside. If the monument is attended there is a nominal charge of about 20p a head.)

The stones, sitting in a field, form a circle about 100 feet in diameter, are composed of some 70 to 80 small monoliths. These are known as the King's Men. On the other side of the road is a solitary tall stone, surrounded by an iron railing, and known as the King Stone. A few hundred yards away is another group called the Whispering Knights. They all date from the early Bronze Age, and are contemporary with the last phase of Stonehenge (2000-1800 B.C.). So if you don't have the chance to visit Stonehenge on your trip to England, this gives you a "miniature version" of the same experience.

Nothing is known for sure of the purpose of these stones, but they were probably used for religious rituals involving the worship of the sun, moon, and stars. The builders used the local oolitic limestone, which over the past 3,500 years has been sculpted by wind and rain (and people chipping off bits for luck) into strange, twisted shapes.

The King Stone  It is very common in these ancient megaliths for a solitary stone to stand outside the main circle of stones (at Stonehenge, the Heel Stone stands outside). Various theories have been proposed to explain these "outliers": some say it helps the alignment of sight for the purpose of marking the point on the horizon where the sun rises on the longest day. Others say that these outliers form an altar used for special ceremonies taking place outside the circle.

The legend  The Rollright Stones are first recorded in a C12 manuscript, and since then many historians have speculated about them. Almost all accounts mention the following popular legend. An ambitious king was marching northwards with his army. At Rollright he met a witch, who challenged him to advance seven strides and:

If then Long Compton thou canst see
King of England shalt thou be.

The king stepped forward confidently, but a slight mound still hid the village of Long Compton from his view. The witch went on:

As Long Compton thou canst not see,
King of England thou shalt not be.
Rise up, stick, and stand still, stone,
For King of England thou shalt be none.
Thou and thy men hoar stones shall be,
And I myself an eldern tree.

Thus, the witch turned the king into the King Stone, and his soldiers into the smaller stones in the circle. In addition, the legend claims that five of the king's knights were plotting against him when all this happened. The witch changed these five knights into stones too, and they stand apart from all the others. These "Whispering Knights" stand about 1/4 mile to the southeast of the circle, and are older than any of the others (probably late Stone Age, earlier than 2,000 B.C.). Finally, the witch changed herself into an eldern tree ("Rise up, stick...").

Rollright Folklore  The Rollright Stones are very much the stuff of legend and folklore. The best known tradition is that they are uncountable. Have the group try it: they will surely come up with at least four or five different figures. In the past young women were said to touch the King Stone with their breasts at midnight to get pregnant. At times the stones will dance. The King Stone goes downhill to the strem to drink. Fairies live under the stones. The witch elder, which can apparently be found in a nearby hedgerow, bleeds when cut.

Return to the A3400 and continue towards...

Shipston-on-Stour  This is the largest town between Woodstock and Stratford. It's a very pretty little place with a mixture of vernacular building styles. There are still one or two houses in the mellow Cotswold stone, some red-brick Georgian houses and an example of half-timbered "wattle-and-daub" construction that is a hallmark of Tudor dwellings, and the essential style of Stratford houses.

Between Shipston-on-Stour and Stratford, at various points along the side of the road you can still see what appear to be small lampposts with two arms and no lamps. These are a rare survival from the earliest days of the mail service. In the C18 mail, delivered by stagecoach, would be hung from one arm of these posts and mail to be delivered would be collected from the other. This is why today we still talk of posting a letter and of the Post Office, etc.

Alderminster  There is a milestone just outside the village on the Stratford side which carries a little rhyme:

6 miles to Shakespeare's town,
Whose name is known throughout the earth,
To Shipston four, Whose lesser name
Boasts no such Poet's birth.

The milestone is a little thing, about 3 feet high, on the left at a road junction.

INTRODUCTION TO STRATFORD

Stratford, with a population of about 20,000, is amazingly the most popular tourist attraction in England outside London. It is pretty enough but that has really nothing to do with it. The entire reason for its fame is Shakespeare, in whose honour Stratford has become something of a shrine.

If you are intending to have lunch in Stratford now is the time. Head straight for the coach park. Walk people into the town centre and leave them free. Make a rendezvous at a suitable time for your sightseeing. At the least this should include Shakespeare's Birthplace and Anne Hathaway's Cottage in Shottery outside the town. This is probably enough for most groups. If they want to see more there are other sites associated with Shakespeare that are also very attractive. They are described in the suggested tour below. If you have already had lunch it is easiest to do Anne Hathaway's first and then spend the rest of the day in town.

Stratford Sightseeing  First to Anne Hathaway's Cottage. Shottery is a beautiful little village about 10 minutes from Stratford. The coach park is next door to the cottage. After buying the tickets you follow a path through the garden, planted in C16 style, and into the cottage, half-timbered, thatched and lovely. Inside is some original furniture, including Shakespeare's "second best bed" and the "courting settle" on which he is said to have wooed Anne. The Hathaway family lived here until the C20. There is little of particular interest but the ensemble is very pretty. There are volunteer guides in every room who will help with any questions. On leaving the cottage you are forced through a gauntlet of little souvenir shops selling cutesy English things like marmalade and tea.

Stratford itself is very small, and as soon as you see the sign, you'll be about 1 minute away from the River Avon. The sights you will be mentioning are very close together so ask the driver to go slowly. You cross over Clopton Bridge (built by Hugh Clopton, a Stratford resident who became Lord Mayor in the C14). You see as you cross the river the famous swans, and the small boats that are to be found here. You also get a nice view of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and the riverside terrace used by the actors who perform there. Crossing the river, don't forget to point out the Gower Memorial in the park on your immediate left. This is the little statue of Shakespeare, with Hamlet, Prince Hal, Falstaff, and Lady MacBeth, representing different aspects of Shakespearian drama. Turn along Waterside, past the back of the R.S.T. and the adjoining Swan Theatre. After the theatre is a pub on the right called The Dirty Duck - much frequented by the stars of the R.S.C. In fact the pub has two names. On one side the sign reads The Dirty Duck, and on the other The Black Swan!

You then drive past the churchyard of Holy Trinity, in which Shakespeare is buried along with some others members of his family. The spire of the church stands out splendidly from among the trees. Here is the famous curse written on the tombstone: "Blessed be the man who spares these stones, and cursed be he that moves my bones." The bus can't stop here. If anybody wants to go in — it is a very beautiful late Gothic church in its own right — they do so later in their own time (a small charge to see the tombs).

Shortly after the road turns you reach a lovely C16 and C17 half-timbered house on your right called Hall's Croft. This was the home of John Hall and his wife Susanna, Shakespeare's eldest daughter. Hall was a famous doctor who, among other things, is said to be responsible for the phrase "having a frog in one's throat." His bizarre cure for a sore throat was to insert a frog on a piece of string into the throat to tickle it better. The most bizarre of all his cures was to attach leeches to hemorrhoids.

Take the next right on to Church Street. After a hundred yards or so the long, low, half-timbered building on your right is the Grammar School, built 1417, where Shakespeare was a pupil.

The whining schoolboy, with his satchel,
And shining morning face, creeping like a snail
Unwillingly to school.

It is still a school. On the right in the next block is Nash's House, half-timbered again but much restored. This was the home of Shakespeare's granddaughter. Today it houses an exhibition about the history of he town. The adjoining garden sits on the foundations of New Place, the house that Shakespeare built for himself when he returned to Stratford to retire. Only the foundations survive because in the late C17 its owner, Reverend Frances Gastrell, got so sick of all the tourists gawking at his house that he set fire to it and burned it to the ground.

Now look left in the next block to Harvard House, small, half-timbered again, built 1596. Note the American flag. It was the home of Katharine Rogers, mother of John Harvard, founder of the great American university. In free time it can be visited if anyone is interested. Immediately afterwards go over the roundabout, left on Guild Street and left again at Windsor Street to the coach park. End of coach tour. From arrival in Stratford this should have taken no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Now walk the group 200 yards to the Birthplace on Henley Street.

Before you go in to get the tickets for the Birthplace you should give a quick explanation. (There is no point you going inside unless you want to. You can just arrange to meet the group in 20 minutes or so outside to orientate them for free time.) The house was bought by Shakespeare's parents, John and Mary, in the 1550s. Shakespeare himself was born here on April 23, 1564. After him it remained in the family but fell quickly into disrepair. Though it became something of a shrine to the playwright in the C18 it was never properly looked after. By the C19 it had become an inn. The English were only galvanised into action in 1846 when Phinias T. Barnum, the great American showman, turned up with $5,000 and a plan to dismantle the house and ship it back to the States as a tourist attraction. The following year the Shakespeare Birthday Committee was formed to raise money to save the house for the nation. Under the patronage of Queen Victoria and aided by such literary luminaries as Charles Dickens they were successful. The house was saved and restored. As a result this is a largely C19 reconstruction, faithfully rebuilt according to C16 techniques and retaining as much of the original as was possible. Among the original features is a window graffitied by some famous visitors, including among them Sir Walter Scott. Again, there are guides in every room who can help you with any questions.

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