Drive an hour west of London or an hour to the north and you will come across two of England’s most famous cities, Oxford and Cambridge, renowned for their academic expertise, inspiring examples of ancient architecture and abundant wealth of history. What may not be immediately apparent to visitors is the age old rivalry that has been present between these cities since the birth of their respective universities, although these days the competitive element is decidedly friendlier in nature.
Founded in the early 1100s, neither Cambridge University nor Oxford University can identify the exact date of their inception, but each proffers to be one of the world’s oldest, if not the oldest, seat of education. It is clear that it is the existence of these two houses of learning, and their associated history, that has propelled both cities into the public eye.
As with all good sibling rivalries, the 900 or so years since their ‘birth’ has seen their competitive attempts to out-do each other continue. The most famous example takes the form of the Oxford and Cambridge University Boat Race held every spring on the Thames, with events like these drawing people to the two cities in their droves.
The universities themselves are a focal tourist attraction, bringing plentiful visitors from around the world through the historic doors of their colleges every year. Although there are some restrictions placed on access granted to the general public, in an understandable effort to provide an atmosphere that encourages study, most areas are accessible at set times that vary from college to college.
The most visited Oxford University college is Christ Church which is also home to the city’s Anglican Church and is open to visitors throughout the day unless its choir is in practice. Its impressive bell tower, known as Great Tom, is a dominant feature in the skyline, although its cloisters and staircase to the Great Hall have reached an equally high profile after featuring in the Harry Potter movies. The bell of Great Tom is sounded 101 times every evening in deference to the 100 original scholars of the college, and one late starter who didn’t make class until 1665.
Step outside the college doors and it becomes apparent that there’s more to Oxford than just its architecture and academic presence. The Christ Church Meadow is a fine example of a university maintained park that is given over to public use, and offers a haven of tranquillity in the heart of an otherwise bustling conurbation. And in a complete breakaway from the considerable reach of the university, the Ashmolean Museum offers visitors a unique insight into the history of the whole area, beginning with the Neolithic period.
Cambridge by comparison boasts the King’s College Chapel, a dominant structure that is considered to be one of the world’s finest examples of Gothic architecture. The chapel forms part of Cambridge University’s King’s College and has been used as a place of worship by the students since its completion in the mid-1500s. These days it is much more of a focal point for the entire city and hosts regular services, some of which are broadcast throughout the world.
As with Oxford, the city of Cambridge is also home to more than just an imposing skyline and impressive IQ. Lying east of the Queens Road locale is an area known as the ‘Backs’, aptly named because of its location at the rear of the colleges that line the River Cam. Parts of the land here were reclaimed from the river whilst the original pastures were used as the grazing land for the college’s livestock. In 1772 it was turned into parkland that was awarded the title of a Grade 1 Historic Park in 1995, and is a popular place of interest for visitors to the city.
The River Cam itself offers a pleasant diversion from the confines of the college buildings and a chance to learn a little of the history from the outside. Punters, in their famous straw boaters, can be found in the top and middle sections of the river (the lower stretch is designated rowing area) ready to provide tours of the Backs or picnic trips out to the meadow. Intrepid travellers with an appetite for danger can hire a punt of their own, although punting is widely considered to be an art form that takes more than an hour to pick up successfully, which may explain the free demonstrations offered on dry land first.