The Dreaming Spires Of Oxford

When you visit, you need to be prepared for pelotons of bicycles, mostly not of the sporty type that you see in the Tour de France, but the ancient sit-up-and-beg variety with a basket for books on the front, and in the saddle an undergraduate in a hurry, or a don in a flowing black cloak.

Hosted ByPeter & Felice

Oxford Official Walking Tours at Bridge of Sighs © Experience Oxfordshire

Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.

Felice So we want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.

Peter This week we’re in Oxford, the City of Dreaming Spires as it’s called. Except as we’re about to learn, it’s not a city at all. Its university is the oldest in the English-speaking world and, depending whether the league table is compiled in Europe or North America, it features on the podium for the top university on Earth. It’s a pretty unusual place, steeped in tradition and rituals – some of them sound utterly archaic to most of us.

Felice When you visit, you need to be prepared for pelotons of bicycles, mostly not of the sporty type that you see in the Tour de France, but the ancient sit-up-and-beg variety with a basket for books on the front and in the saddle, an undergraduate in a hurry or a don in a flowing black cloak. You’ll meet them – and hopefully miss them – around every corner. And you need to note that on some streets they actually have the right of way over pedestrians.


Photo: © F.Hardy

Peter Historic colleges, 39 of them in all, operate independently of the actual Oxford University in a weird kind of feudal system. To delve into some of the secrets of this fascinating town – which is about 56 miles northwest of London – we met up with official Oxford guide, Rob Walters. Now, Rob told us about some of the past undergraduates here, Everyone from The Lord of the Rings Tolkien to the 28 British prime ministers educated here. And these, of course, include the now disgraced Boris Johnson.

Rob Walters So I come from Central North Oxford up the road here, and that is where all the rich and famous people of Oxford come from. But I’m not…yet. It could happen. But it is really expensive. You’ve heard of Tolkien, I’m sure? He lived up there, but he didn’t buy his own house. It was a leased house, actually. It came up for sale recently, so you missed it if you wanted to buy Tolkien’s house. It was up for sale for £5 million and that is cheap for North Oxford, believe it or not. One house went for £10,400,000. So it is very expensive. Who can afford these prices? One has been bought by a footballer, can you believe that?

So I’m going to tell you quite a lot about the university and the colleges, and I am going to explain the difference between the two…along the way. So if you’re concerned about it, I will cover it. And at the end of the tour, you will definitely know the difference between an Oxford College and the university, or you have to take the whole tour again. Not really, but people who are interested in it – and it is interesting, it’s rather unique…apart from Cambridge, which copies everything that Oxford does of course, but so it is quite interesting in its own way.

I want to say a little bit about the town, which is correct, not city. Oxford began as a town back in the year roughly 700. So it was an Anglo-Saxon town originally. Very little remains of that because it was mostly built of wood. The university is the main star of the show, of course, but it became quite a serious town. By the ninth century. It had not walls, but rammed earth around it, and later in the 13th century that became solid stone walls. So the other thing it was famous for in the ninth century was gloves. It was quite a leather producing town, and particularly for gloves.


Photo: © F.Hardy

But the real star came in, we don’t know when Oxford University began. And you believe that? I think everybody expects a date and some guys will give you a date – don’t believe them. It’s not as if one day there wasn’t a university and the next day there was. It wasn’t like that at all. It sort of gained traction. There was certainly teaching here in Oxford in the 11th century. There was a college here in Oxford in the castle. Anybody who’s seen our castle blink twice and you missed it actually, it’s not very noticeable. So there was a college there: St George’s College, back in the 12th century, that could have been the seed corn.

The other part of the story is in 1167, the king of England and the king of France fell out. Can you believe that? It did happen sometimes. I think it’s still happening a little bit, but between prime ministers. As a consequence, the English students – there was not a university as such here then – the English students were either kicked out or called back home by the king, and that is supposed to be the seed corn of the university. And maybe they were drawn here by that college – St George’s College. Either way, by 1214, the Pope had recognised Oxford University as the third university in the whole of Europe. What’s the first? Bologna. Very good. And the second? It’s the University of Paris, the Sorbonne was a college of it.

Expectations are that old colleges have old buildings. They generally do not. Why? I can tell you why. This college here, Balliol, is from 1263, making it the second oldest college of Oxford. Does it look old? It’s not old at all. It’s 19th century, it’s Victorian. We know exactly how many students there were in this college when it began in 1263 – 16. We now know that it’s got more than 700. Do you see the point? All its original buildings destroyed, rebuilt, destroyed, rebuilt over time. Balliol, 1263, founded by John de Balliol.

The majority of prime ministers from this country have actually come from Oxford. What’s going on? One of the things that’s going on is the Oxford Union. Now very confusing this, because you think of a students’ union. This is not the students union; they are quite separate and they deal with the woke matters and so on. The Oxford Union is a debating chamber . Now to become the president of the union, for a term you’ve got to gather a lot of people to go out campaigning with all the other students to vote for you. Quite a good training ground. Then when you get the job, you choose the speakers for the term card and the debates that are going to be held. And then…this is most important…the whole business in the union is conducted in exactly the same way as Parliament – all the standing orders, Mr Speaker, this, Mr Speaker, that.

So it is a bit like a training ground. I’m not saying that’s the only reason that all these people become prime ministers, but it certainly is one of them. And a lot of those that became prime minister did become president of the Union or took a big part in the debates that were held there.

Peter Boris Johnson, of course, went to Balliol.

Rob His number two for the campaign was Michael Gove. Other famous people from Balliol: Edward Heath and Harold Macmillan as well, and another one from the First World War, whose name I can never remember. So four from here – t

hat’s a lot in its way, by the way, because this college has produced more prime ministers than any other in the period from 1900 on. If you go back in time, you don’t go that far back in time. You know, when we first had a Prime Minister? 1720, that was the very first one. If you go back in time to the century before then, Christ Church is the college that excels in producing prime ministers. Overall, 13 – people like Gladstone. Christ Church is also very famous with a lot of people because that is where the Harry Potter dining hall is copied from. But it’s so interesting and what amazes me is it’s still very popular. People told me, ‘Oh, it’s old stuff now, people don’t read it, people don’t go to the films.’ They do still. So it’s it seems a little bit ageless in its way. Quite nice.

OK, let’s just go down here a bit. Do be careful as you cross the roads, you’re looking across the road there to Trinity College, and that’s from 1555. Although there was a college there before – and what happened to that? Henry the VIII. You know that he had a massive influence on our country and it wasn’t the six wives and killing some of them, it was changing our religion. And this previous college was actually a monastic college and therefore Roman Catholic.


Walking tour guide, Rob. Photo: © F.Hardy

So he closed it down, basically took their money, took their college off them and sold it to another man called Pope – Thomas Pope. So we’ve got a little joke amongst the guides here that seven of our colleges were actually founded by bishops and just one by a pope, Thomas Pope. Einstein‘s blackboard is down here in the basement. He was a visiting speaker to Oxford. He moved, as you probably know, from Germany to avoid Nazism. On his way to America, he stopped here and gave lectures. Somebody had the great idea to varnish the blackboard and preserve it, and it’s down there. But it does not say e = mc2, which everybody wants it to say. It’s the derivation of the expansion of the universe equation.

And there’s something else in here as well of interest, general interest, medical interest. Penicillin was not discovered in Oxford, but it was actually put into use in Oxford. So it was discovered in London. And the person who discovered it wrote a paper whose name you might know if you’re from Australia called Florey. He’s a very important man. He headed the team that started work on penicillin – first of all injecting mice and all that sort of thing. And finally, in 1942…note the date… right in the middle of the Second World War – his team injected a man with penicillin.

The poor chap, he was a policeman, he’d been scratched by a rosebush and it had become septic and the poison had travelled throughout his body. He was in such a state that the swelling on his face was so great they had extracted an eye to relieve the pressure on his face, injected him with penicillin, and he immediately started to get better. And then he died. Why did he die? He didn’t have enough. They didn’t know – you all know this by now: you have to kill off every one of the bacteria or they start growing again. So you have to take it for seven days. I think it varies, doesn’t it? So they thought it might be that.

So they started experimenting on children because they were small. You see, they couldn’t grow very much of it. They didn’t have the facilities. Why not? Right in the middle of the Second World War. Anyway, it was a miracle – you realise that, don’t you? It was the probably the miracle in medicine of the 20th century. So Florey and Chain, his number two, went off to America to persuade them to go into production. And they met up with the little company called Pfizer, which everybody’s heard of now. And they went into big production with it. I think they were using pumpkins to grow it in or something, and there was enough penicillin towards the end of the war for all of the Allied forces. So can you imagine it was like a secret weapon, because many soldiers died off the battlefield, not on it, of their wounds and contamination and so on. With penicillin, they were quickly able to get better and go back to the war. He got the Nobel Prize along with Fleming, who discovered it.

Peter And only go to the Bodleian Library, which houses no less than 12 million books. More about that in a minute. Rob tells us that Tolkien got trench fever during World War One and very nearly died. And then after the war, he returned to Oxford to convalesce,

Rob He came here. His old tutor from Exeter got him a job working on the Oxford English Dictionary, which was then using that room, that building, the middle part of it. So he worked there for a few years on the letter w actually. So if you read The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings very carefully counting how many words begin with w, you will find that the frequency of use of w words in those Tolkien books is greater than any published book. Not really. I made that up, but that now was 1610.

Every book published in this country, one copy is to be given to the Bodleian; that’s why it’s got so many books. We’ve got more copyright libraries now – we’ve got six. But this is the original. I have books in here, books I write about Oxford and so on. And people say to me, ‘Rob, do you go in and see your books in the Bodleian?’ I say, ‘No. I go to the bookshops and move mine to the front.’ Why do people think you would go to see your books, but you don’t always. It’s windy in here. I’m not quite sure you would think a quad like this old school’s quad would be sheltered, but it must be the layout of the entrances and so on. It’s always windy. Nice, isn’t it? This is the picture to bear into your mind. You’ve seen Oxford University of the 17th century.

Peter And onto Hertford College, which is linked. The two halves of it are linked by a sort of aerial bridge, a bit like the Bridge of Sighs in Venice.

Rob Not the Bridge of Sighs. It doesn’t look like the Bridge of Sighs, which is straight. It’s not as old as the Bridge of Sighs. And then people tell me: ‘And Cambridge has got one as well.’ You can’t all have one. Their one is rather differently shaped as well. This is where famous man lived: Edmond Halley of Halley’s Comet. That’s where he observed the comet from this observatory up there and was able to predict when it would come back and where it would come back. We’re walking down now towards New College. That quad is the birth of all quads, in a way.


Halley’s house. Photo: © F.Hardy

New College isn’t new: 1379. New College was the first one to have a quad with all the elements that make up a college in it. And when I get to the college we’re going into, I’ll explain what those elements are. Then you can see going on, it’s going on to its gardens through the other archway. This is where the spoonerism came from and everybody remember spoonerisms? Probably not. It used to be taught – as a kid you were taught spoonerism and malapropism – it’s where you take the first letter of one word and change it with another word. The things like you have tasted two whole worms, I hissed my mystery lectures. you are caught fighting a liar in the quad. The Reverend Spooner was the head of this college up until about 1920, and he had this defect. One of the things that amused me about him, he was in the quad here once and he went up to a young man, punched him on the shoulder and said, ‘Young man. Was it you or your brother that died in the war?’ So his mind didn’t work quite as well as it always did.

Felice We’re now coming up to Queens College.

Rob The Queens College is its proper name. You’re not supposed to say Queens, you’re supposed to say the Queens College. And the Queen was Philippa, back in around about 1340, and she contributed to the college, and then Queen Caroline later on contributed more to the rebuilding. This was all being rebuilt in the 18th century. Beautiful, isn’t it? Really beautiful. What a nice place to spend three or four years of your life as an undergraduate.

So what happens in college? Well, first of all, I’ve already talked to you about application. You apply through the university to a college of your choice with two reserves. Normally, you’ll probably be interviewed by the person who will become your tutor in the college. It’s tutorials that make these colleges really different to what Americans often call a dorm, a dormitory.

What happens in a college? It’s where you eat, sleep, play, pray, read, and have your tutorials. Eating: so if you’ve seen the Harry Potter films, you’ve seen a dining hall anyway. It’s a slightly different design here. Praying: this is the chapel here, right in front of us. Playing: there’s a bar. There’s always a bar, sometimes three – junior, middle and senior common room. But drinking is not the only form of play in Oxford University, and its colleges. Each college has its own sports field where they can play rugby and football and tennis and all that stuff. And they each have either a share in, or they outright own, a boathouse. Competing in rowing against different colleges is still very much part of life here. Sleeping: student accommodation around here – there’s another quad. I’ve already talked about quads, there are four of them in North Oxford and one in the east of Oxford.


Radcliffe Camera © Experience Oxfordshire

Felice We’re now walking along the high street known as the High, past University College from Queens, the Queen’s College, to University College and on.

Rob But one or two things about Radcliffe Square. It is our most beautiful square. And this building, the Radcliffe Camera, now part of the Bodleian Library, although it began as a stand-alone library. Camera means ‘room’ in Latin, so it’s a reading room of the Bodleian Library. But this is the symbol of Oxford in my mind. It’s the building you think of as Oxford – it really symbolises the whole thing, because this is the oldest building of Oxford University. But it’s not Oxford University – it’s a church, it’s St Mary the Virgin Church, but everyone calls it the University Church.

So when they began, they had no buildings. They were here for three or four centuries. They actually built that extension there, which is now a café, actually, and that was the university’s meeting room and library originally. And then, you know the next stage…moving the divinity school out and then all the other things you saw over there in Old School’s quad. And then finally the whole business of matriculation and graduation went to the final building that we talked about over there. You can go up there if you want the best view in Oxford. It really is a great view. You can see why the city is called the City of Dreaming Spires. I can tell you it is a very inspiring view – I thought of that myself. Dreadful, isn’t it?

Peter So, Felice, what do you think of Oxford? You’ve been here before?

Felice Oh, yes. I first came here when I was at school and I had a friend at school in Oxford, so I used to go and visit her – and I thought then it was a really exciting place with lots of good shops and beautiful architecture. I did notice that, even then.

Peter Yes, I think it’s a very interesting place. It’s a very complicated place. So what is it that you particularly like about Oxford?


Photo: © F.Hardy

Felice I love all the bicycles.

Peter Yes, it’s got this sort of real university feel to it, hasn’t that?

Felice It certainly has.

Peter That you has a sort of presence that I find really quite exciting. And then there are places like the Ashmolean Museum, which is really good fun, and it’s free to go in. When we were there, there was an exhibition of Impressionists and they’ve got some truly amazing Old Masters in there.

Felice Yes, that’s worth a visit in itself.

Peter Of course, that’s opposite the Randolph Hotel where we stayed, which is one of the great landmarks marks for the historic hotel.

Felice And we have a separate episode all about the Randolph, which you can listen to as well.

Peter And we went out to dinner. You can eat well, can’t you? If you hunt around…

Felice Don’t have to hunt very far. There are lots of restaurants, not all of them expensive either because it’s a student town.

Peter And then you can go punting on the river.

Felice I think we need to explain what punting is.

Peter Okay, well, you go ahead and explain.

Felice It’s a bit like a gondola in Venice, but more dodgy because you stand up yet you’re not a gondolier – you’re just an average person who might be trying it for the first time.

Peter Yes, it’s a long flat boat punt and you stand there, the person actually in charge stands near the back and with a very long pole which they use to hit the river bottom, hit the bed of the river and then push yourself forward. But it’s quite easy to push a little bit too much and the boat goes from beneath you.

Felice Yes, you end up very wet indeed.

Peter A great place for summer picnics. All in all, a great place for a visit. It takes some time to go around, so I’d recommend staying the night there. But you can of course go for the day and there’s a pretty wide choice of hotels and pubs in the surrounding countryside. Personally I would recommend, strongly recommend, getting an official Oxford guide. Where do you find the guide from?

Felice You can email him at rob@robsbookshop. You can see his YouTube channel, which is Rob’s Oxford, and he’s on Twitter @robsbooks. And also there’s a website,  Also see and hear our episode about Oxford’s Iconic Randolph Hotel. For more information on the area, go to

Peter And I think Rob has also written some books hasn’t he?

Felice Yes, he’s written at least three. There’s Haunted Oxford, Tolkien’s Oxford and Oxford Rogues: their city, their lives.

Peter I guess you can buy this at Blackwell’s, Oxford’s famous bookshop, or at any good bookshop around the country.

Felice That’s all for now. If you’ve enjoyed the show, please share this episode with at least one other person! Do also subscribe on Spotify, i-Tunes or any of the many podcast providers – where you can give us a rating. You can subscribe on Spotify, Apple Podcasts or any of the many podcast platforms. You can also find us on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. We’d love you to sign up for our regular emails to [email protected]. Until next week, stay safe.

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