City Of Aquatint

One day, some 1,112 years ago, someone decided they would like to take their oxen across the river somewhere where the Thames and the Cherwell join forces.

The oxen seemed to like their experience and more oxen, and indeed farmers, followed suit. Soon this was a thriving crossing point and most self-respecting farmers used it to get from A to B.

They called it: Oxenaforda.

Where there are lots of farmers, there are people to sell things to lots of farmers. This peaceful rural idyll quickly became a focus for commerce, and a town grew up around the place the oxen liked to cross.

Things got dicey for the wealthy little settlement when it found itself in the centre of a Viking/Saxon split. There it sat, on the border between Mercia and Wessex, being raided by the occasional Viking war expedition.

William trashed the town and then appointed his loyal man Robert D’Oyly to build a castle.

That castle has never seen real action.

It was Henry II who exalted Oxenaforda – now Oxford. He granted its citizens special privileges, equal to those enjoyed by those in the capital city.

Everyone wanted a piece of it. All the important religious orders got houses in, pretty quick. And in the 1200s the academics made their presence known. University College opened in 1249, Balliol in 1263 and Merton in 1264.

And the rest is history.

Not just the usual history, where events and layers are spread out, where there is air and time between the events: but the most concentrated history you can imagine.

Because some of the most important thinkers, movers and shakers of every time since have spent their time shambling happily around the quads, burning the midnight oil to prepare for exams and write theses.

Think: William of Ockham. William Tyndale and John Donne. Walter Raleigh, Christopher Wren, John Wesley, Edmund Halley. Evelyn Waugh, JRR Tolkien, Harold MacMillan, Edwin Hubble, and Robert Graves.

All those feet, and thousands of others, have walked there, and some of their greatest thinking has happened there. Crowded, is what Oxford is: at every corner there are layers of history chattering at you as you stand on the pavement.

My mother’s day treat was extra special this year: a set of car keys and an extended afternoon off.

Camera slung over my back, I headed up the motorway in the direction of the dreaming spires.

I stepped out of the car park and ambled up the hill. At the top, I had a choice: left for the remains of the Norman castle; right for the 17th century prison and the city.

I stood at the bottom of its great castle mound, craning up at the figures on its pudding-basin top, silhouetted against the sky.

The prison beckoned insistently. Used ever since England’s civil war, it closed in the 1990s and has been redeveloped as a very plush hotel. Let us hope those walls to not speak too loud, or too eloquently.

Being in this town quickly became intoxicating. Golden stone, gargoyles old and new, buildings ancient, classical and modern. And everywhere, the feeling that this was a city which still lived in its ancient skin.

Take the tudor door with a security keypad attached; or the timbered wattle-and-daub confections housing cafes and mobile phone shops.

And bicyicles. Cheap, utilitarian bicycles were everywhere. The transport of students all over the globe, there is a special place for them here.

My route: starting at Christ Church College, I would amble to the Ashmolean Museum and return past some of those august old colleges with their fustian rooms and pristine quadrangles.

You’re watched every step of the way, you know.

Not by human eyes: but look up, and the ancient guardians of the city, the gargoyles, crane over their stonework to stare so hard that you can do nothing but return their petrified gaze.

There are not just old mediaeval ones, but gargoyles and faces from every age: what better way to leave your seal on the city you loved than to look down on it for an eternity?

Because that’s what it’s all about. Leaving something behind. A legacy: a personality; a discovery; a name. Oxford’s hall of fame is etched upon its stonework.

Houses, churches, museums and ancient walkways; this was history in puff pastry form. Layers and layers of life grown thin and flaky, but preserved in this strange bubble. Posterity has put the whole thing in on one of those tiered plates and walking round is just like one glorious historical afternoon tea.

And all at once, it was time to consider returning to my family. So much to record: and so little time.

It was time to leave The City Of Aquatint.

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37 thoughts on “City Of Aquatint

  1. Lovely piece of writing, Kate.

    I want to love Oxford. I would have loved Oxford. Unfortunately for me, it’s all tied up with bitterness and sadness over the arguments that put paid to my opportunity to do post graduate studies there. Probably the one big regret in my life.

    But your piece lets me see it one step removed, and that’s easier. And lovelier.

    1. Oh, Fi, it’s hard when a beautiful place is mixed up with tough experiences: I had a very similar thing happen to me when I worked in Cornwall. It took me ten years to go back to what are some of the most beautiful places on the planet. But I did go in the end, and they were waiting for me, lovelier than ever. Hope you get that chance one day.

  2. What a lovely Mother’s Day treat for you Kate. I never tire of Oxford, there is always something new to find and see. My only complaint – it is so crowded with other people, I don’t include myself.

      1. Glad you got through too, Rosemary! And I was lucky on Saturday: while the shops were crowded, the colleges were almost deserted, and the Ashmolean was very sparsely populated. It was a joy!

  3. Was that yesterday, Kate? What a shame it was such a dull day, light wise.
    (Next time you pop up, pop in for tea? We aren’t far from the dreaming spires!)

    Did you go into the Mal Maison? The place is intriguing. I hope you enjoyed your afternoon ‘off’

    (bycicles – I think I shall start spelling them like that…)

    1. 😀 Ah, welcome to my topsy turvy world, Pseu! I The light go better but it’s an excuse to return soon: and stop on the way for a cuppa! I didn’t go in to the Mal Maison – just pottered around outside. Another thing to do the next time I go.

  4. What a wonderful piece of history plucked from your Mother’s Day treat. The photos are just great to look at, loved the modern gargoyle and wonder who that is supposed to represent.

    When the lovely Miss TK and I were in Birmingham for the Rotary International Convention in 2009, we did as much sightseeing in our 12 days that we could. One day did include a brief visit to Oxford, but, not enough time to really see much. Your post definitely inspires a future visit with more time dedicated.
    I love the history of Europe and visiting so many places, but, I especially enjoy the juxtaposition of old and modern, so very interesting to see our ancient places as part and parcel of modern living.

  5. I love puff pastry. I love history. I would love to see Oxford. Your most wonderful post here gives me all three from the vantage point of my home, dear Kate. A grand way to start my day.

    Oh, those gargoyles! What a vantage point, indeed, and I especially enjoyed seeing the more modern one of the man and his dog.

    1. I’m very glad to hear it, Penny 🙂 I am trying to find out who these people are. I think I spotted Heath and Wilson up there somewhere; but it will take a little research to dig up their true identities.

  6. The very surprised looking gargoyle is a cheeky fellow, and oh, more tantalizing photos of places I want to visit!

    When I was at Middlebury, I had a British music professor/choir director who was at Magdalen College before he came to the US. He made Oxford come alive for us, but your photographs are better!

    1. One day you must come and see for yourself, Cameron. The gargoyles are priceless.

      And you were a music student! Me too: I studied at Southampton. I’m guessing voice was your first instrument?

  7. Some of our RFE’ers went to Oxford when we were there in 2010. Sadly, I was not one of them. And, when we were in Peterborough over Thanksgiving, I chose to see Lincoln instead. Your pictures make me wish I put more thought into my choice. I love so many of the faces there. Whimsical. One of them even looks like Macaulay.

  8. Wow, lovely photos. That would be my kind of treat, to wander a town with camera in hand, I love architecture. As a fellow wonderer too though, I am wondering why and how the boar was blue and about those rather incredible fellows! 🙂

  9. Oxenforda? I’m glad they changed the name… Gorgeous photos, Kate, and I almost feel like I’ve been there – or maybe I just feel I must go there before I die… 😉

  10. I work in a university program with many Study Abroad ties to Oxford. The students return with such a newfound reverence for the history associated with Oxford University. I love when they share photos with me and tell me of their discoveries! I wonder if they know of Oxenforda? More history! I always appreciate the lessons, Kate. I really do! Debra

  11. Shame you procrastinated in posting this post, Kate:

    One day, some 1,112 years ago, someone decided they would like to take their oxen across the river somewhere where the Thames and the Cherwell join forces.

    If you’d written it last year, it would have been more “timely” . . . a “1111 years post” post. 😀

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