10 Oxfordshire Sights off the Beaten Track
Oxford, like Venice or New York, is one of those destinations that has been so thoroughly photographed, filmed and written about that when you arrive for the first time, the city already feels familiar.
Sometimes that’s a good thing, because you immediately feel at home. But you might be wondering what there is to see in Oxford that you haven’t already seen on a screen or read about in a book. If you join us on our Oxford summer school, you’ll have plenty of opportunities to see hidden Oxford, including on tours of the city and living and learning in Oxford colleges that are usually not open to the public. In this article, we take a look at some sights in and near Oxford that you might not have heard of before, but that are still very much worth your time.
1. Godstow Abbey
Britain used to be full of monasteries and abbeys like Godstow, but these were closed down in Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the late 1530s, their lands and valuables taken to provide funds for the Crown. The impact of this on British society can’t be overstated: monasteries were centres of education, supported the poor and infirm, and represented a significant power base in some areas, as well as their obvious religious role. The destruction of monastic libraries also represented considerable cultural vandalism. Many of the grand monastic buildings were repurposed; others were left to crumble, and today form some of Britain’s most dramatic ruins.
One such abbey is Godstow, which can be found at the north-west edge of Oxford. Though not much of the buildings remain, there’s enough still there to imagine just how huge and impressive the abbey would have been at its height. Even in ruined form, it’s acted as inspiration to painters and writers – and more recently, the ruins were a background to the ‘When I Kissed the Teacher’ scene in Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again.
2. Another Time II
Sculptor Antony Gormley is best known for his vast Angel of the North sculpture, a 20m-tall angel based on a cast of Gormley’s own body, that overlooks several key travel routes into the North East. But Gormley’s work can also be seen in Cambridge. The Another Place series of sculptures is a collection of 100 cast iron sculptures, again of Gormley’s naked body, now permanently installed on a beach in Merseyside. Another Time is an identical set of 100 sculptures, distributed across the world. One was donated anonymously to Exeter College, who installed it on top of Blackwell’s Art and Poster shop in central Oxford, looking down over Broad Street, where it remains today.
Though the centre of Oxford might not sound like it’s off the beaten track, it’s easy to walk past the sculpture and never notice it’s there. But when you do spot it, it makes a stark, impactful contrast to the surrounding street. Though the statue is 7 feet tall and weighs half a tonne, from street level it looks like a normal-sized man and has even been mistaken for a real person after dark.
3. The Shelley Memorial
Poet Percy Shelley may have left the University of Oxford in disgrace – expelled in his second year for writing a pamphlet promoting atheism – but he is still the subject of a remarkable memorial there. Shelley’s life was short and troubled; he struggled to get his works into print because of his then-controversial religious and political views, and his personal life included his abandonment of his first wife while she was pregnant. When sailing in Italy, shortly before his 30th birthday, his ship was caught in a sudden storm and Shelley was drowned.
Though University College washed its hands of Shelley when he was studying there in life, since his reputation began to recover in death, the college has become more comfortable with celebrating him. In the late 19th century, Shelley’s daughter-in-law, Lady Jane Shelley, commissioned a grand marble sculpture to act as a memorial to him: it shows Shelley in death, having washed ashore after drowning. But there wasn’t enough room for the vast sculpture in its intended destination in Rome. After some difficulty, University College agreed to take the sculpture, and it can still be seen there today.
4. Faringdon Folly
In the 18th and to a lesser extent the 19th century, it was fashionable for the wealthy in England to build “follies” on their estates. These were buildings that served no real purpose but to be decorative, and often drew on Romantic or exotic ideas: lighthouses nowhere near the sea, Gothic towers and ruins, Greek and Roman temples (often also built in a “ruined” state), Chinese pagodas and so on.
Dating from the 1930s, Faringdon Folly is believed to be the last folly built in Britain. It was built by the eccentric Lord Berners, and it took him over a decade to secure planning permission for it. The tower is particularly odd, even by the standards of follies, because Berners left it to his friend Lord Gerald Wellesley to oversee the building while he holidayed in Rome. Berners wanted the tower built in a Gothic style, which Wellesley hated; Wellesley had built most of the tower in a Classical style by the time Berners returned, and insisted that the remainder be built in a Gothic style. The end result is a spectacular folly with excellent views over the surrounding countryside and an abrupt change of style three metres from the top.
5. Boarstall Duck Decoy
Duck decoys, invented in the 16th century, used to be common in rural England as a means of catching ducks and other birds. The principle was simple: a fake duck would be used to lure other ducks onto a pond, which would lead to a long, wicker tunnel. A trained hunter and dogs would then herd the ducks into the tunnel, where they would be trapped, and could be caught as needed, and then used for food. Unlike ducks that had been shot, there was no danger that they would contain tooth-breaking lead shot, so more money could be charged for ducks caught this way. But the use of duck decoys died out, with only 41 still in use by the late 19th century, and now only a handful remain.
One of those can be found in the village of Boarstall, on the edge of Oxfordshire. Regular demonstrations of the duck decoy are still held, though now any birds caught are tagged and released for scientific study, rather than being eaten.
6. Ovada Warehouse
When you think of art in Oxford, you might be inclined to think of the oil paintings hanging in the Ashmolean, rather than any contemporary art. But the city isn’t just home to paintings that are celebrating their 200th birthdays. Tucked away behind Oxford Castle is Ovada Warehouse, a contemporary art gallery housed in an old warehouse, with a strongly industrial feel. It’s deliberately distant from the styling of other galleries with stark white walls and controlled lighting; the paintwork here is whatever’s still peeling off the walls from when it was a warehouse, and the lighting comes in from the windows in the ceiling and changes over the course of the day.
Beyond these aesthetic choices, what sets Ovada apart from many other gallery spaces is that the emphasis here isn’t just on the sterile observation of art, but also the creation of art – to continue the industrial theme, it’s less warehouse, more factory. There are studio spaces for hire, classes taught that include creative coding for artists as well as more conventional options like life drawing (though even that is from a fresh Ovada perspective), and artists’ get-togethers organised.
7. Cowley Road murals
When you head down Cowley Road in East Oxford, you’ll see a mural painted up high on the wall of one of the bars: “Welcome to the Sunny Side of Oxford”. No matter whether you agree with that description, it’s indisputable that Cowley Road has a different vibe from much of the rest of the city. One of the reasons for that is that this end of the city is full of street art – not the chalk rowing commemorations you’ll see in the colleges, but vast planned murals that typically take up one side of a house.
These are commissioned by Cowley Road Works, an organisation that organises the Cowley Road Carnival and aims to engage diverse and marginalised communities through art and culture. They engage local artists to paint murals that reflect and celebrate the community around them, and the murals are regularly refreshed, too, so it’s worth checking back each time you’re in Oxford to see what new works of art are decorating this area of the city.
8. Wolvercote Cemetery
While some cemeteries – most notably Père Lachaise in Paris – have become tourist attractions, others are generally quieter despite the notable people buried there. Wolvercote Cemetery contains over 15,000 burials, but typically remains calm and peaceful. It contains several different sections for people of different faiths, from Bahá’í to Russian Orthodox, as well as for stillborn babies.
But the main reason you would visit Wolvercote Cemetery, other than to mourn a loved one buried there, is to see the graves of the famous. Most notably, JRR Tolkien, author of The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, is buried there alongside his wife Edith, and their eldest son. Tolkien and his wife’s graves are marked ‘Beren’ and ‘Lúthien’, for the lovers whose story is told in several of Tolkien’s works, mostly notably The Silmarillion. Along with Tolkien, buried in Wolvercote Ceremony you can find philosopher Isaiah Berlin, poet Elizabeth Jennings, and chemist EJ Bowen.
9. Annora’s cell
An odder and now often-forgotten aspect of medieval Christianity was the concept of the anchorite (or anchoress if she was a woman). An anchorite would feel a calling to a religious life, like a monk or nun, but the path they followed was considerably more extreme. They would live within a tiny cell, usually attached to a church, which would be walled up around them. Their vow would be that they would never leave that cell for the rest of their lives, but would instead spend their time within in contemplation and prayer, with their needs taken care of by the community. They answered to no religious authority below the bishop, and regardless of gender, would be called on for guidance by the people of the parish – which gave an anchoress an unusual degree of power for a woman in the medieval church. This may be why there were nearly a hundred anchoresses in 12th and 13th century England, and only around 20 anchorites.
One such anchoress was Annora, who lived in a cell adjoining St Mary’s Church, Iffley. You can still see the remainder of an arch there, which is believed to be where her cell stood, and a 13th century grave slab, which is believed to be her tomb. Through the arch she would have been able to see the altar of the church, and observe services.
10. Wayland’s Smithy
After you’ve seen the better-known sight of the Uffington White Horse, about a mile further along the 5,000-year-old path called the Ridgeway is Wayland’s Smithy. This is a Neolithic chambered long barrow dating back to around 3,500 BC – an ancient tomb. Based on radiocarbon dating of the burials found within it, it was in use for less than a hundred years.
What’s particularly fascinating about Wayland’s Smithy, other than visiting such an ancient monument, is the way it’s been perceived in the millennia since its construction. The name Wayland’s Smithy associates the long barrow with a legendary smith in Norse and Anglo-Saxon mythology. In Beowulf, the eponymous hero wears a mail-shirt made by Wayland (though the poet might not have intended this to be taken literally). The barrow has been associated with Wayland since at least the 10th century, and by the 18th century, folklore had changed this into the idea that an invisible smith lived there. The story went that if you left a horse unshod there, and some money for payment, then returned later, the money would be gone and the horse shod. Even today, some visitors put coins into the cracks between the stones.
Image credits: Godstow Abbey; Another Time II; Shelley Memorial; Faringdon Folly; Boarstall Duck Decoy; The Hunt in the Forest; Cowley Road Carnival; Tolkien’s grave; St Mary’s; Wayland’s Smithy; Wayland’s Smithy entrance.