Wanderlust’s size limits her Thames cruising range to the water between London and Oxford. As it happens, both London and Oxford are very popular tourist destinations; it’s hardly a hardship to be constrained between these two most interesting cities. Indeed, if someone planning a trip to England asked me, which they surely won’t, I’d suggest visiting one of the historic university towns, either Oxford or Cambridge, as the best choice for a second city stop outside of London. So it’s not a surprise that we took Wanderlust to Oxford for one last extended visit before heading to France.
Oxford is a popular destination for Thames cruisers. Mooring in Oxford is not hard. Narrowboats and other craft with low air drafts can find places upstream of the Folly Bridge. Perhaps with careful maneuvering, Wanderlust might just squeeze under the Folly Bridge. But there’s little point. We couldn’t get much further. Besides, the best mooring option, in our opinion, is just below the bridge on the right bank of the river. It is close enough to the tourist sites and convenient to restaurants and shops.
That’s not to saying the mooring just below Folly Bridge is perfect. Though there are numerous moorings across from Christchurch Meadow, the spots are not always available. Contrary to the posted on the signs, semi-permanent residents often monopolize many spots. And it is not the nicest of neighborhoods; some of the Oxford’s darker side spend the day hanging out on the park benches consuming adult beverages. But if you don’t like the neighborhood or can’t find a spot, there are always other options a little further downriver away from the town center. It is an advantage of living on a barge; if you don’t like the neighborhood you can easily move.
Hectic and urban, the city of Oxford is an ever-fascinating place to visit. Though there’s more to see than the synonymous school, Oxford is first and foremost a university town. With teaching in some form going for over 900 years, Oxford lays claim to being the oldest university in the English-speaking world. It is considered to be the second oldest university in continuous operation on the planet.
Oxford is composed of 38 colleges and 6 permanent private halls. The colleges function both as dormitory housing for the students and small teaching colleges. Unlike the large freshman classes inside cavernous lecture halls typical of large universities, most undergraduate teaching at Oxford is organized around tutorials at the self-governing colleges and halls. As undergraduates progress towards graduation, the shared faculties and departments of Oxford University support their advanced studies with lectures and laboratory facilities. Even the application process for Oxford is different; prospective students apply to colleges and not to the university.
College-centric education at Oxford has architectural consequences. The older colleges, some with founding dates in the 13th Century, have impressive street fronts. Historically, these buildings were walled and gated off from the city streets. The walls kept the riff-raff out and separated the students from corrupting influences of the residents of the city.
Inside the colleges’ compounds are self-contained educational facilities. There are rooms for students, a chapel, a dining hall, the kitchen, lounges, etc. Form follows function and the basic layout of the different colleges is typically similar. A visitor to Oxford can usually see the inside of the compounds. Depending on whether classes are in session, the gates of many colleges are open for visits. Tourists can step through colleges’ gate, have a look inside, and visualize how students have lived in Oxford through the centuries.
Beyond the colleges, there’s plenty more to see in Oxford. I recommend climbing the tower of University Church of St Mary the Virgin to get the best view of the iconic Radcliffe Camera. Nearby, the Bodleian Library, All Souls College, and other interesting old university buildings are worthy of a visit. Oxford has historical sites are at every turn.
With tons of things to see in a compact area guided walking tours are a popular way to get the most out of Oxford. The tours are a godsend for visitors with limited time. In Oxford a guided tour is a great way to learn about the history of the city, the university, and its colleges. Tours also give a chance to see things that might otherwise escape notice. Guides show visitors the places in Oxford that inspired Charles Dodgson’s (a.k.a. Lewis Carroll) as he penned Alice in Wonderland, the hangouts where J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis and the Inklings discussed their fantastical stories, and the locations used to film the Harry Potter movies.
Oxford has a lot to interest passing boaters. No cruise on the Thames is complete without a stop at this historical city.