8 Things That Are Extraordinary About Oxford

Almost everyone who’s heard of Oxford knows how remarkable both the city and the university are.

A place of learning for countless generations, Oxford has made its mark across every field, from history and politics, to science and technology, to literature, art, and even the worlds of comedy and acting. And when you visit the city, and even more so if you have the chance to explore the university, it’s easy to see why: this is an extraordinary place. In this article, we take a look at some of the things that make Oxford so fascinating, and so special.

The university

1. It’s astonishingly old

Image shows Merton College.
Parts of Merton College are exceptionally old.

The University of Oxford is so old that no one knows for sure how old it is. Evidence of teaching there dates back to 1096, and the earliest colleges were founded in the 13th century. That said, legend has it that the university is even older than this; it holds that the university was founded by Alfred the Great in the 9th century. That’s almost certainly not true, but given that Alfred’s focus in the later part of his reign was the promotion of education and scholarship, has at least some justification if not actual basis in fact.

But even going on the basis of what can be reliably documented, the University of Oxford is extraordinarily old. Its oldest colleges were founded before humans set foot in New Zealand. The university was thriving, attracting scholars from overseas and earning a royal charter, before buttons were invented. Students studying with Oxford Royale Academy’s Oxford summer school may, on particular courses, have the chance to live and learn in Merton College – in which case they will be living and studying in buildings that predate not merely the fall but the rise of the Aztec Empire, a fact that never fails to fill us with awe. And for all that time, Oxford has been educating first the scholars of England, then an ever-increasing number of students from across the world, producing world leaders, writing great literature, and generally influencing the shape of the world as we know it today.

2. It has some strange and wonderful traditions

Image shows crowds by the tower of Magdalen College on May Morning.
There are always crowds of people celebrating May Morning.

One aspect of being so ancient is that Oxford has created and picked up some remarkable traditions over the centuries. One of the better-known ones is May Morning, where a choir sings from the top of Magdalen College Tower at 6am to a crowd of both townspeople and students gathered below. Before everyone has to go off to work and lectures, there’s then something of a street party that takes places throughout the city centre, with food, music and other forms of celebration. It’s a tradition that’s now been going for over 500 years.

And this kind of enduring tradition applies in other places, such as the admissions process for All Souls College. This college has only a handful of students at any time, all of whom are automatically fellows, who can study anything they like and who receive free room and board, plus a stipend. This amounts to an incredible amount of academic freedom for the best and brightest; notable past fellows include Isaiah Berlin and TE Lawrence.

But one of the things that makes Oxford special is that its traditions are not all so serious and often reflect the university’s dedication to whimsy. One such tradition is Christ Church’s dedication to free cake. Every student is entitled to one free cake per year; they simply have to get in touch with their Cake Rep and the cake they request will be delivered to their pigeon hole.

3. It’s a tremendous vehicle for collaboration

Image shows students eating in a college dining hall.
When scholars from different disciplines meet regularly, brilliant collaboration can happen.

The University of Oxford has a collegiate system. Every student there isn’t just a member of the university; they’re also a member of a college. Students are taught in their colleges, and while not every college offers every course, most colleges offer most courses and there’s no such thing as a college that specialises in a particular subject or group of students. Students may live in their colleges or in college-provided accommodation, and will typically eat, study and socialise in their college too. Each college is like a mini-university in its own right, some more mini than others: All Souls College has just 6 students, while the largest college, St Catherine’s, has over 900.

At other universities, it’s possible for a student to spend time only with people who are studying the same subject as they are; in fact, it can be hard work in some universities to spend time with students who aren’t studying the same subject. That’s not the case in Oxford, where the college system encourages students to spend time with their peers from other disciplines, and to talk about their work.

The result is a hugely stimulating collaborative environment, avoiding academic silos and promoting original and creative interdisciplinary work. MIT’s Building 20 is famous for having promoted brilliant work by cramming scientists and researchers of assorted different disciplines into one space and leaving them to get on with experimental work, bounce ideas off each other, and generally work in a creative and unconstrained way. The Oxford college system can have much the same effect.

4. The teaching is second-to-none

Image shows a one-to-one tutorial.
Tutorials are a very effective way to learn.

Of course, none of this would work without outstanding teaching as its foundation. Thankfully, teaching is something in which Oxford excels. The reason for that is Oxford’s tutorial system, which is nearly unique (the other university with a similar approach is, naturally, Cambridge – though tutorials are called supervisions there). While Oxford students do attend large lectures in the same way as students at most universities, lectures are usually not compulsory and are not the main method of teaching.

Instead, the focus is the tutorial: typically a weekly, hour-long meeting between two or three students and their tutor. Students are typically required to prepare an essay for each tutorial, which is then read and discussed in detail. It’s very rare outside of Oxford and Cambridge for students to receive this kind of intensely focused tuition by a leading expert in their field, as Oxford tutors usually are. The tutorial system is academically rigorous, because students not only have to write essays and receive feedback, they have to defend their position too. This builds confidence and critical thinking. A tutorial isn’t just a one-way process: students respond to their tutor, and to one another as well, which helps to provoke new ideas and challenge entrenched ways of thinking.

The city

1. It’s home to amazing museums

Image shows the exterior of the Ashmolean.
The Ashmolean is over 300 years old.

Despite being a relatively small city – with just over 150,000 inhabitants – Oxford has museums that in the UK are second only to the capital cities of London, Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast. It’s home to the Ashmolean: the world’s first university museum, public museum and purpose-built museum. In its own right it represents a remarkable history of the role and function of museums in society, beginning as a home for the ‘cabinet of curiosities’ left to the University of Oxford in the Will of Elias Ashmole, then gathering an ever-greater collection through further donations and bequests, particularly the collection of Sir Arthur Evans, who is best known for his controversial restoration of the Minoan Palace of Knossos.

But it isn’t just the Ashmolean that makes Oxford notable for its museums. There’s the Museum of Natural History, which is particularly famous for hosting the 1860 debate on Darwin’s theory of evolution; the Pitt Rivers Museum of archaeology and anthropology, which holds half a million items from across the world; the History of Science Museum, which holds scientific instruments from the Middle Ages onwards. Then there’s the Story Museum, the Museum of Oxford, the Bus Museum, and probably more besides. The result is that Oxford isn’t just a stimulating educational environment for students at the university; it’s also a great place to be for anyone with intellectual interests who wants to broaden their horizons.

2. It has more published authors per square mile than anywhere else in the world

Image shows a second-hand bookshop piled high with books.
Want to meet writers? Come to Oxford.

All that academic activity results in a huge amount of publications: papers for scientific journals, academic books, works in popular science and history, conference and workshop outputs, monographs, and more besides. And that isn’t all. There are also a startling number of writers of fiction, poetry, plays, screenplays, who are graduates of the University of Oxford, or who are based in the city, or in many cases, who are both.

The end result is a city that has been the setting or inspiration for settings of a number of fictional worlds that is completely disproportionate to its size. It’s been the magical world of His Dark Materials, where Lyra sneaks around the dusty libraries and runs over roofs of colleges at night, her daemon at her side; it’s where Lewis Carroll, on boat trips down the river, created the absurd and comical world of Alice in Wonderland; and it’s been home to remarkable number of fictional detectives, from Harriet Vane and Peter Wimsey in Gaudy Night to, famously, Inspector Morse, Lewis and Hathaway in film and TV. If you’re interested in creative writing and looking to be inspired, there are few places better to be than Oxford.

3. It’s both ancient and modern

Image shows cars being assembled at the Mini plant.
The Mini plant is part of the modern side of Oxford.

Sometimes descriptions of Oxford can give the impression that it’s a kind of living museum: an ancient university, medieval buildings, centuries of traditions – you might be wondering if there’s anything in the city that’s new. But this impression is misleading. Oxford certainly has a storied past and enjoys its own history and traditions; that doesn’t mean that it isn’t at the forefront of modernity where it counts, such as in its embrace of modern architecture.

Or for another example, take science and technology in Oxford. Oxford is part of Motorsport Valley®, a hub for motorsport in Britain and internationally that is home to eight of the eleven teams that compete in Formula One. If you join Oxford Royale Academy’s new course in Mastering Automotive Engineering, then you’ll have a chance to explore this highly competitive field, where Oxford is at the cutting edge. Oxford is also home to BMW’s central assembly factory for the Mini range of cars, using advanced engineering techniques for mass production. On the Oxford Science Park, there are more than 60 companies across genetics, pharmaceuticals, security, chemical engineering and more. Oxford has been involved in many of the most exciting companies operating in the UK today, and what’s more, the city and university are determined to stay at the forefront of these highly-skilled, in-demand industries such as pharmaceuticals and tech.

4. It has beautiful green spaces

Image shows Port Meadow at sunset.
Port Meadow is wonderfully tranquil.

One aspect of Oxford that isn’t often discussed is just how green the city is. Alongside all those grand university buildings and museums, there are a remarkable number of trees and beautiful parkland. The traditional layout for a college, with buildings arranged in a quadrangle around an area of lawn, means that green space is incorporated into every college. Beyond this, many colleges are also rightly proud of their gardens; Magdalen College even has its own deer park, called the Grove, which is home to a herd of fallow deer.

But it’s not just the colleges that are home to beautiful gardens. Generally accessible within the city is South Park, which offers stunning views over Oxford; the University Parks, which is 70 acres of riverside parkland, and Christ Church Meadow, which is particularly beautiful on misty mornings. You have to pay to get in, but the University of Oxford’s Botanic Garden, founded in 1621, is an oasis at the heart of the city and home to over 8,000 plant species. If you’re going punting, you might go past the Botanic Garden, and it’s worth looking out for – especially in spring and summer, when the flowers are in bloom.

But perhaps most noteworthy of all is Port Meadow, a vast open ancient area of grazing land, which has not been ploughed for at least 4,000 years. It has been the right of the Freemen of Oxford to graze cattle there since 1086, a right that is still enthusiastically exercised. For those who don’t mind the cows and horses grazing around them, it’s a popular walking and picnicking spot – a peaceful flood meadow that’s still a short walk from the bustling city.

Image credits: May Morning; books; Mini plant; Port Meadow.