13 Fascinating Stories of Oxford Life

Image shows an illustration of Alice and the White Rabbit.

With a history that goes back more centuries than any other UK university, it’s little wonder that Oxford University and the important city in which it’s located have more than their fair share of colourful stories and local legends.

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Shedding light on the long and fascinating history of both the university and the town, these stories are a delightful part of Oxford culture and appeal to tourists, residents and students in equal measure. Here are some of the best stories from Oxford – both “town” and “gown” – with which you can regale your friends and family next time you visit Oxford.

1. The real Alice in Wonderland

Image shows an illustration of Alice at the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.
Alice in Wonderland has become iconic.

One of the best-loved of all Oxford stories is that of the real Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll – real name the Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – was teaching at Christ Church when he befriended the Dean of the college and his family. The daughter’s name was Alice Liddell, and she was ten years old and on a boating trip on the River Isis (a branch of the Thames that flows through Oxford) with her sisters, a gentleman named Reverend Duckworth and Lewis Carroll when she asked Carroll to entertain them with a story. He’d done so before, but Alice asked him to write this one down for her. The result was what we now know as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, originally titled Alice’s Adventures Under Ground, which was later published. The connections with the real Alice in Wonderland is one of the many attractions that draw tourists to Christ Church, and a shop dedicated to Alice – known as Alice’s Shop – now stands opposite the gates to Christ Church Meadow on St Aldate’s in Oxford. This shop was originally a grocery shop, and it was written into the second of the Alice books, Through the Looking-glass, in which it was depicted as a shop run by a sheep. The illustrator of the original publication modelled his depiction of The Old Sheep Shop on this very shop, which is said to have been run by an old lady whose voice sounded like a sheep bleating.

2. The Inklings at the Eagle and Child

Image shows the Eagle and Child pub on St Giles.
The Inklings were famously harsh critics of each others’ work.

On St Giles – the big thoroughfare leading out of Oxford towards the north – is a historic pub called the Eagle and Child, owned by St John’s College. Thought to date back to around 1650, the pub’s most notable historical punters were a group of writers who called themselves “The Inklings”. The most famous members of this informal literary group were none other than J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, and C.S. Lewis, best known for The Chronicles of Narnia. Their gatherings started in 1933 in Lewis’ rooms at Magdalen College, but this progressed to a more regular meeting in a private room (the “Rabbit Room”) at the back of the Eagle and Child, on Monday or Tuesday lunchtimes. These meetings – in which the writers discussed their works and did readings – continued for several decades, and were the setting for the first airing of Lewis’s most famous novel, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and for Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings.

3. Distinctively Oxonian exam regulations

When a new student starts at Oxford, they are given a copy of a thick “grey book” that is the University’s extensive Examination Regulations (which, owing to the fact that nobody ever reads it and usually finds another use for it, is also known as ‘the Doorstop’). Legend has it that somewhere within this weighty tome is the stipulation that if you arrive at the Exam Schools (where all University exams take place) on a horse, in full armour and carrying a sword, then the examiners are obliged to give you a glass of sherry. One student is said to have tried this and to have been given the glass of sherry, but at the same time was fined a shilling for failing to wear a sword as part of his outfit. Variations on this story include that students dressed in such a fashion are automatically granted a First, but we’re not aware of anyone having tried this successfully! In fact, the story is also known by students at Cambridge, which adds an extra layer of doubt to its authenticity.

4. The alleged closing of the Bridge of Sighs

Image shows the Bridge of Sighs.
The bridge was completed in 1914.

Oxford’s Bridge of Sighs is a popular tourist attraction and photo opportunity, though it doesn’t look much like its famous Venetian namesake. It’s part of Hertford College (Evelyn Waugh’s old college), connecting two parts of the college over New College Lane. The story goes that a survey carried out decades ago found that students of Hertford College were the heaviest in Oxford. In response, Hertford is said to have barred access to the bridge, forcing students to take the stairs instead, which supposedly gave them more exercise. In fact, the bridge was never closed, and it’s a route that requires more stairs than other alternatives – but it’s a good story, nonetheless.

5. The headless ghost of St John’s

Legend at St John’s College has it that the library is haunted by the ghost of Archbishop William Laud, a former Chancellor of Oxford University, who had a lot of involvement in the building of various parts of the college, including the library. His ghost is said to be headless (Laud had been beheaded in 1645 for supporting Charles I), and to disturb studious students by kicking his head along like a football.

6. The Four-Minute Mile

Image shows Roger Bannister shortly after running the 4-minute mile.
The Iffley Road track where Bannister ran the 4-minute mile now bears his name.

In 1954, Roger Bannister became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. He did this on relatively little training (he was a junior doctor at the time) at Iffley Road sports ground, which has a blue plaque commemorating the achievement. The commentator for the attempt was Norris McWhirter, who would go on to found the Guinness Book of Records. Bannister’s time of three minutes, 59.4 seconds was beaten just 46 days later, but that doesn’t change the fact that it’s one of Oxford’s proudest sporting achievements.

7. The founding of Oxford University… by a princess who just wanted to be a nun

It’s said that Oxford University was founded by a beautiful Saxon princess, whose name was Frideswide. Her intention was to devote her life to the Church, but this vision was threatened by the advances of a king who was set on marrying her. He pursued her to Oxford, but upon reaching its boundaries, was struck with sudden blindness. He begged her to forgive him, and agreed to give up on the idea of marrying her – whereupon his sight was miraculously restored. Frideswide then founded a nunnery, on the site now occupied by Christ Church Cathedral (which is part of Christ Church college). Legend has it that Oxford’s earliest colleges then grew up around the nunnery as centres of monastic scholarship. The original nunnery – of which Frideswide was the abbess until her death around 727 – was destroyed in 1002 during the St Brice’s Day Massacre, but she’s remembered to this day as the Patron Saint of Oxford University.

8. The Sheldonian Theatre’s history of beards

Image shows the exterior of the Sheldonian theatre in the late 1890s.
The Sheldonian Theatre photographed sometime between 1890 and 1900.

The Sheldonian Theatre – the first major design of the celebrated architect Sir Christopher Wren – isn’t just admired for the beauty of the building itself, for around its perimeter railings are the busts of fourteen bearded men. The originals were completed in 1669, but nobody knows whom they’re meant to represent. Some have suggested apostles, others philosophers; but they’re most commonly referred to as the Emperors. One more amusing suggestion is that they represent a history of beards, as each figure bears a slightly different one. Those you see today are a 1970s modern replacement necessitated when the original faces became too eroded.

9. Oxford as a Royalist capital

In the 1640s, Oxford became what was effectively a temporary capital city of England, as the headquarters of King Charles during the English Civil War. He set up base here following the first battle of the civil war, during which neither side had achieved a decisive victory. Oxford was transformed into a fortified garrison, in addition to which the royal court, mint, printing press, and a rival to Parliament was established in Oxford. The Bodleian Library housed many of these functions, and you can see some of the rooms used on a guided tour.

10. Those aren’t deer – they’re vegetables!

Image shows deer in Madgalen College.
Definitely vegetables.

Magdalen College is famous for its picturesque deer park, which is the scene of another amusing local legend. It’s said that during the Second World War meat shortages, Magdalen College’s deer were reclassified as vegetables to escape requisition by the Ministry of Food. They are herbivores, after all! Unfortunately, there isn’t any concrete evidence to suggest that this story is true, but the truth never did get in the way of a good story.

11. An unusual way of keeping the Plague at bay?

Some intriguing graffiti on a door at the bottom of the staircase leading to the Great Hall of Christ Church is at the centre of our next interesting Oxford story. The words “no peel” are formed on the door by nails hammered into the wood to shape the letters. It’s said that these are related to the Black Death, the terrible plague during which it is said that the college doctor prescribed eating potato peelings as a means of keeping the disease at bay. Having eaten only potato peelings every meal for many meals, it’s said that the students of the college could finally take it no longer; they protested, and the diet was abandoned. However, this story turns out to be merely an Oxford urban myth; the “peel” referred to in the graffiti is, in fact, a protest in reference to Sir Robert Peel, Prime Minister in the 1840s.

12. A place to bathe

Image shows the area of University Parks where Parson's Pleasure used to be.
The swimming area may be gone, but the rollers for the punts remain.

Now part of the University Parks, a part of the River Cherwell was originally designated as a male-only nude bathing area, and it was known as “Parson’s Pleasure”. Women were forbidden from the area, and a path diverted them away from it on punting trips, when they would be told to use the path under the pretext of the men needing to heave the punt out of the water and across a series of rollers to a different part of the river. However, on one occasion a punt occupied by ladies did drift past Parson’s Pleasure, to the great embarrassment of a number of Oxford dons, who were bathing there in their birthday suits. They were quick to protect their modesty using whatever they could, but one don – Sir Cecil Maurice Bowra, Warden of Wadham College and a noted classical scholar – covered not his body but his face, declaring “I don’t know about you, gentlemen, but in Oxford, I, at least, am known by my face!” Parson’s Pleasure continued to be used until 1991. A similar area for women (known as “Dame’s Delight”) had existed since the 1930s, but was forced to close in the 70s because of problems caused by the river flooding.

13. Luminox

We end on a more recent note by way of showing you that interesting stories continue to be created in this fascinating city. In 2007, Oxford celebrated a thousand years of Oxfordshire history by holding a fire festival called “Luminox” on Broad Street. This saw the street undergo a magical transformation with the temporary installation of a thousand little pots of fire arranged in various structures, including a huge swinging pendulum that would swing around a thousand times, each swing representing a year of Oxfordshire history. Broad Street is a popular focus for the city’s events, from French markets to hosting the Coca Cola lorry, but it will be a while before the city sees anything as impressive as Luminox taking place on this historic street again.
As this collection of stories shows, the historical authenticity of some of Oxford’s legends may be dubious. However, that does nothing to lessen their appeal to those who’ve been fortunate enough to enjoy this remarkable city, whether for a brief stay, a three-year degree or by being a permanent resident. What incredible stories will you discover when you next come to Oxford?

Image credits: banner; Alice in Wonderland; the Eagle and Child; the Bridge of Sighs; Roger Bannister; the Sheldonian; deer; Parson’s Pleasure.