Best ways to spend down time in Oxford

The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge are not just wonderful places to study because of their academic prowess and illustrious histories. The locations themselves are also inspiring – places where there’s something to learn and experiences to be had at every turn. Whether you’re looking forward to heading to Oxford next year or want to make the most of this one, remember it’s a chance to expand your horizons in more ways than one, and even have a little fun in your down time. Here are a few ideas.

Bodleian Library

Soak up the history at the Bodleian Library

The main research library at the University of Oxford, and one of the oldest libraries in Europe, Oxford’s Bodleian Library is part of the larger Bodleian Library complex, which has over 13 million printed items. That makes it the second-largest library in Britain after the British Library, with a collection that includes manuscripts and archives, rare books, printed ephemera, maps, music and digitised collections. 

Having first opened in 1602, Oxford’s library includes an earlier building, constructed in the 15th century to house books donated by Humfrey, Duke of Gloucester. While it fell victim to the Dean of Christ Church and his bid to purge the English church of all traces of Catholicism in 1550, it was rescued by Sir Thomas Bodley (1545–1613) – hence the name. He was a Fellow of Merton College and a diplomat in Queen Elizabeth I’s court. Since then it has expanded, and been the hallowed study ground for illustrious students from Oscar Wilde to Benazir Bhutto.

punting in Oxford

Indulge in the punting tradition on the River Cherwell

The odds are that you have seen pictures and heard tales of punting in Oxford. Taking advantage of the beauty of the River Cherwell, this tradition dates back to the Victorian era, but flat-bottomed boats had used the water to carry cargo for many years before that. When the pleasure-seeking Victorians got to grips with them though, punting provided genteel entertainment. Today Lady Margaret Hall, the oldest of the women’s colleges, still keeps its own punts on the river. 

St Mary the Virgin

Take in the views at the Church of St Mary the Virgin

The University church makes for an iconic fixture on the city’s landscape. In the centre of town, the Church of St Mary the Virgin is still a place of worship, but it also offers architectural inspiration and heritage. Its beginnings are something of a mystery, but by the 12th century it was already an important part of the community. 

The oldest remaining part of the church is the tower, dating back to the 1270s. The impressive spire was added in the early 14th century and is one of Oxford’s best-known landmarks. So much has happened at this church, it’s definitely worth a tour, not least up the 127 steps to the top of the tower, past the Clore Old Library and the historic bell ringing chamber, for one of the best views in the city.

Pay your respects to literary legends

There are reminders everywhere of the talented people who have graced these streets. However, for aspiring writers, why not pay your respects to two of the best? J.R.R Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, is buried with his wife at Wolvercote cemetery. The author attended Exeter College in Oxford, studying the Classics, Old English, the Germanic languages (especially Gothic), Welsh and Finnish. C.S. Lewis (author of the Narnia series) is also buried in Oxford, in the cemetery of the Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry, while nearby, an etched glass window bears characters from his most famous fantasy world.

Oxford Botanic Gardens

Natural inspiration at the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens

Originally the Oxford Physic Gardens, used for growing medicinal plants used to teach medical students, the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens is more than 400 years old. It is currently hosting a ‘Roots to Seeds’ exhibition at the Weston Library until October 2021, telling the history of botany in Oxford. A journey through gardens and glasshouses, you have to pre-book a time slot online before visiting the Garden, but it’s a chance to gain inspiration of a different kind.