8 Things You Might Not Know About Oxford and Cambridge

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge have been around for hundreds of years – their respective cities even longer.

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So it’s not surprising that even those who think they know a great deal about the history, geography, art, architecture, culture and traditions of these two great cities and their universities can sometimes still be surprised by an unexpected fact. That might be arriving in Headington and seeing an apparently normal terraced house that also happens to have a shark sticking out of it, as if it had just crash-landed from some manner of Sharknado. Or wandering past Trinity College, Cambridge, and wondering why Henry VIII appears to be holding a chair leg rather than the sceptre that he presumably ought to be holding. Or the point when you discover that Cambridge – more than 50 miles from the sea – used to be a port before the Fens were drained, and its neighbouring Ely an island accessed by boat.
We hope this article contains enough unknown or unexpected facts about Oxford and Cambridge that even a long-term resident will learn something that they didn’t know before. And if you’re a relative newcomer to Oxford or Cambridge, you’ll see just how much these wonderful places have to offer their visitors, residents and students.

1. Oxford’s amazing gargoyles and grotesques

Whoever carved this had an odd sense of humour.

When visiting Oxford, you might have spotted the gargoyles and grotesques decorating the buildings. Technically a gargoyle has to be spouting water, whereas a grotesque can be any sort of carving with a sense of personality- but usually the terms are used interchangeably. Most of them looking like the kind of gargoyles you would see on medieval buildings anywhere – an assortment of demonic figures pulling faces, mythical beasts and the odd kindly-looking man or woman who you might suspect to be the sculptor’s family members dotted in among them. They’re a normal part of Gothic architecture.
But in among Oxford’s medieval gargoyles, there are also quite a lot of modern gargoyles – either on older buildings where the original carvings were so eroded with time that they had to be replaced, and in new buildings designed to blend in with Oxford’s medieval architecture. The new buildings of the Bodleian, for instance, feature literary carvings such as Lewis Carroll’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Jerome K Jerome’s Three Men in a Boat. And when Exeter College’s first female rector, Marilyn Butler, retired, its walls were decorated with gargoyles of items where the initial letters spell out her name. There are many more delights among the gargoyles of Oxford if you look out for them, reflecting stonemason humour from the medieval to the modern day.

2. Cambridge’s boathouse clocks

Jesus College holds the record for Head of the River.

Oxford and Cambridge both have too much folklore and too many traditions to keep track of them all. One good reason for this is that popular myths about the cities and their universities every so often end up getting transposed into actual university customs.
One former myth is the idea that the boathouses of Cambridge colleges are only permitted to build a clock tower if the college has been Head of the River for five years – that is to say that they have come first in the top division in the rowing races between the colleges, which are known as bumps. A variation on this is that they have to do it 10 years in a row, but that isn’t a feat that any college has managed since the 19th century. The last time was In 1875 to 1886 when Headship was held by Jesus College, who added a clock tower to their boathouse not long after – perhaps sparking the myth. When Gonville and Caius was Head of the River for the fifth consecutive year, they opened a new boathouse the year after, and their own reporting noted their five-year streak. So it may be that the rule about the building of clock towers has transferred from myth into observed tradition.

3. Oxford’s nineteenth century graffiti

Christ Church expressed its disgust in no uncertain terms.

In the early nineteenth century, there was a heated religious and political debate about whether Catholics should be permitted to enter British public life, from which they had been barred by a number of Penal Laws over the years. For the most part, Whigs and more liberal Tories supported Catholic emancipation allowing them to participate in public life (such as entering Parliament), while more conservative Tories opposed the move, fearing that it damaged the principle of Britain as a nation founded on Anglicanism; as the Church of England was inseparably tied to the monarchy, it was believed by some that removing Anglican faith as a requirement for public office threatened the entire basis on which the country was ruled.
At the time, Oxford University elected its own MPs, separate from those for the city. One of them, elected unopposed in 1817 as a Tory, was Robert Peel, a graduate of Christ Church. He was initially one of the most outspoken opponents of Catholic emancipation, but in 1829 announced he had reversed his position, and took charge of the passing of the Roman Catholic Relief Act. His former college, always a bastion of Conservatism, was horrified, and to this day a doorway in Bodley Tower bears the result of their anger: the graffiti “no peel”. Peel lost his Oxford University seat, but was successfully elected in Tamworth instead, and went on to become one of Britain’s most celebrated Prime Ministers. But it remains the case that there is no picture of him within Christ Church’s magnificent Hall.

4. Cambridge’s night climbers

Do you fancy leaping between these two buildings?

A long-standing and exceptionally dangerous Cambridge student tradition is that of night climbing – sneaking out of college at night and climbing all over the roofs. It’s also practised at Oxford, but the Cambridge tradition is better known. There are even famous night climbing feats, such as the 2.5m ‘Senate House Leap’ between a turret window at Caius and the roof of Senate House.
Of course, simply knowing that they’d carried out a death-defying climb has proven not to be enough for some night climbers, who have chosen to leave mementos of their climbing on college buildings. A popular choice is placing Santa hats on the pinnacles of buildings – in 2009, Cambridge night climbers left 25 Santa hats on buildings including the porter’s lodge at Pembroke College, and the pinnacle of King’s College Chapel. In 2016, an Oxford student similarly left Santa hats on high points at Christ Church, Brasenose, Exeter, and Pembroke colleges. Each hat contained a toy Austin Seven. This was in tribute to perhaps the most famous night climbing stunt of all, when in 1958, Cambridge students from Gonville and Caius hoisted an Austin Seven car (as in the full-size, real car – not a toy) on to the roof of Senate House, which is 21m high – four times the height of a double-decker bus.

5. Oxford’s North and South Parade

Summertown, now a leafy suburb of Oxford.

A curiosity for visitors to Oxford is two streets, running parallel to each other about a mile apart, called North Parade and South Parade. Where this becomes curious is that North Parade is the southernmost of the two streets and South Parade is the northernmost.
A popular explanation for this is that it dates from the time of the English Civil War. Oxford was in Royalist hands, and the story goes that at one point during the siege, North Parade was the northern front of Royalist forces, and South Parade was the southern front of the Parliamentarian forces.
Unfortunately, it doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The only time Oxford was under lengthy formal siege in the Civil War, in 1646, it was surrounded on all sides, and beyond that, North Parade was only developed in 1855, some two hundred years after the Civil War. The earliest known reference to South Parade is 1859. But the idea that the names were contradictory would have been laughable in the 1850s, when North Parade was at the north of Oxford, and South Parade was at the southernmost end of Summertown, a village that was a mile away and quite separate from the city. It’s only as Oxford has grown and absorbed Summertown that the names have become noteworthy.

6. Cambridge’s grave of Oliver Cromwell

Not far from here, an unknown head might be buried…

A Civil War-related story that may have more truth to it is the idea that Cambridge is secretly the home of Oliver Cromwell’s grave – or at least, the grave of his head. Cromwell had died of natural causes, probably septicaemia, at the age of 59 – not a ripe old age, but a reasonable lifespan in the 17th century. He was given an elaborate funeral and buried like a king at Westminster Abbey. But when the monarchy was restored under Charles II, he ordered Cromwell’s body to be exhumed, and he was given a posthumous execution, his decapitated head placed on a spike above Westminster Hall. It remained there for nearly a quarter of a century, until a storm brought it down, and some enterprising person collected it.
It passed through the hands of various private collectors for a couple of hundred years (which has led to some doubts about whether it might have been exchanged for a different head in that time period) until it was bequeathed to a man named Horace Wilkinson in 1960. Wilkinson arranged for it to be buried in a secret location near the antechapel of Sidney Sussex College – the Cambridge college that Cromwell had attended. Even the burial was a secret; it wasn’t announced until 1962. There’s a plaque in the college that marks the approximate location, but precisely where Cromwell’s head is now laid to rest is unknown.

7. Oxford’s many murders

Poor Inspector Morse had his work cut out for him.

In real life, Oxford is an extremely safe city. But in fiction, it must be one of the most dangerous places in the country. There are a remarkable number of crime stories that are set in Oxford, including Dorothy Sayers’ Gaudy Night, Guillermo Martinez’s The Oxford Murders, Edmund Crispin’s The Case of the Gilded Fly and Veronica Stallwood’s Death and the Oxford Box. But the most famous of all are Colin Dexter’s thirteen novels about Inspector Morse, a member of Thames Valley police force who investigates murders in Oxford. Morse is himself an Oxford graduate and something of a snob, contrasted with his working class, easygoing sidekick, Lewis.
In just thirteen novels and a handful of short stories, Dexter managed a considerable body count – killing off 81 Oxford residents, students and visitors, including three heads of colleges, over the 24 years in which he was writing the novels. That’s several times the real life murder rate in a city the size of Oxford in such a period.

8. Cambridge’s alphabetical staircases

This impressive quadrangle conceals some oddly-labelled staircases.

A traditional Cambridge college is structured around courts and staircases that lead off those courts to different sets of rooms and offices. So you might be able to give your office address as staircase A, room 3 or similar. This is the case for one of Cambridge’s largest colleges, Trinity College, which is probably also its grandest. Cambridge’s second grandest college is St John’s, which happens to be next door, and so the two have a rivalry that dates back centuries. A popular taunt for students to shout while punting down the Cam past St John’s is “I’d rather be in Oxford than St John’s” – obviously, going to Oxford would be awful for a loyal Cambridge student.
Trinity College labels its staircases alphabetically, except that it jumps straight from I to K; there is no J staircase. It’s a popular suggestion that this is because J is for St John’s, so it’s omitted as a snub to the college. Unfortunately, St John’s doesn’t have a J staircase either, and they’re probably not snubbing themselves. What’s now a j sound in English words used to be represented either with an i or with a dg (think “hedge”); only in the early 17th century did j come into common use. The relevant part of Trinity was completed in 1535, some hundred years earlier. J staircase was originally not included because the letter j didn’t really exist; its absence from the staircases of Trinity is now maintained by tradition, or at least in the knowledge of how annoying it would be to relabel all of the staircases.
Images: grotesque carving; jesus college boathouse; christ church staircase; senate house leap; summertown; sidney sussex college; morse plaque; trinity college quad