A Trip to Oxford Gives You a Real Sense of Old England
Oxford and Oxfordshire has a lot to offer to visitors and there is a reason why people return to the county again and again. From the ancient University of Oxford to the rolling hills of the Cotswolds there is so much rich history and culture for you to explore. Whether you want to discover an ancient civilisation at a world famous museum, wander around some of the most famous landmarks in the UK or relax with an afternoon tea, you will find something to do for all occasions and all members of the family.
Pitt Rivers Museum
Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers was an English general, but, more importantly, he was a founder of modern anthropology. Though he designed firearms for the military, Pitt Rivers unexpectedly inherited his great uncle’s estate and became landed gentry. It was with this fortune, that he spent the rest of his life collecting archaeological and ethnographic objects.
In 1884, Pitt Rivers bequeathed his collection of 18,000 objects (and part of his name) to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Besides the objects he also bequeathed a unique curatorial eye. Under the influence of Charles Darwin, he organized his objects by type, and within type, chronologically. This chronological organization demonstrated the evolution of human artifacts over time, a strategy we see in many contemporary museums but which was revolutionary compared to the haphazard curiosity cabinets of the era.
Since its founding, the museum has acquired more than 300,000 objects, donated from scholars, anthropologists and travelers. Due to its large collection, the display cases are packed and exhibitions change with great frequency. In the museum today the objects are grouped by function, showing the evolution overtime of baskets or “smoking and other stimulants.”
The Pitt Rivers Museum is a museum within a museum, a mysterious cavern attached to the back of the larger Oxford University Museum of Natural History, which offers exhibitions on Geology, Mineralogy, Zoology and Entomology. The Upper Gallery of the Pitt Rivers Museum has recently reopened, with displays of firearms and other weaponry, playing cards, dice, tattoos, and body piercings.
Another Time II
Perched on top of Blackwell’s Art and Poster Shop on Oxford’s Exeter College, this seven-foot-tall statue by Antony Gormley is one of a series of sculptures called “Another Time II,” based on molds taken from his own body. Gormley is most well known for his massive, winged Angel of the North, which takes a similar watchful view over Newcastle. This bronze nude in Oxford weighs half a ton and was the gift of an anonymous benefactor in 2009.
Broad Street is one of the most frequented streets in Oxford, connecting St. Giles to the Sheldonian, Blackwell’s bookstores, and several museums and colleges. However, hundreds of people pass through this area every day without noticing the naked man on the roof. Many students and visitors only notice him after several days, or even weeks, and spotting him at night can be disconcerting.
Several surprised passersby have made phone calls to the local police, fearing that they were witnessing a suicide attempt. Some in the know (students, in particular) have climbed to the roof to dress it in various outfits. If you’re coming from London you might consider travelling by chauffeur service to really get a feel for old, classy England. You can even use such a service for an airport transfer to Oxford from any airport you’ve arrived at.
Exeter’s College rector Frances Cairncross praised the statue upon installation, saying that the “wonderfully stark” sculpture would be a welcome contrast to the “florid figures” standing across the way at Trinity College. Gormley, too, was quite pleased with his bronze’s clever, unexpected location. “The casual passer-by will ask, ‘What is that naked iron bloke doing up there?,'” the artist said, “[a question] for which I hope there will never be a single satisfactory answer.”
Oxford Museum of Natural History
Constructed between 1855-1860 to house the University’s growing collection of natural history specimens, the Oxford Natural History Museum is one of the finest examples of a temple to the natural sciences.
The cathedral like building with soaring stained glass ceilings was designed by Irish architects Thomas Newenham Deane and Benjamin Woodward, inspired by the writings of John Ruskin and funded largely through the sale of Bibles.
In addition to housing extraordinary specimens such as the famous Oxford Dodo (the most such complete remains and said to have inspired Charles Dodgson, aka Lewis Carroll, in creating the character in Alice in Wonderland), the museum has also seen its share of history. In 1860 a great debate over evolution was held by the Society for the Advancement of Sciences, and in 1894 the first public demonstration of telegraphy was held within the lecture theatre.
Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology
In the early 1600s, John Tradescant the Elder and his son, the Younger, opened their house as a cabinet of curiosities with natural and man-made specimens from around the world. (The word “museum” had not migrated to the English language, or perhaps English-speakers could not yet conceive taxonomied collections in hulking display cases with explanatory details.)
The father and son deeded the collection to Elias Ashmole as a gift. After some of his own additions, Ashmole presented the collection to the University of Oxford “as a major scientific resource.” In 1683, this founding gift started what is now the Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology in Oxford. When the Oxford University Museum of Natural History was founded in the early 1800s, the Ashmolean lost some of its collection and faced a crisis of identity. Luckily, the budding field of archaeology enabled the museum to shift focus and begin acquiring a larger body of artifacts, from farther back in time and further reaches.
Again in 2009 the museum underwent major redevelopment. Their new curatorial style unites unexpected artifacts from diverse geographies and cultures together under stylistic similarities. In what they are calling “Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time,” the Ashmolean juxtaposes a Hellenistic figurine of the first century CE to a Buddhist figure from India in the third century CE, tracing the journey of Alexander the Great into India from Greece. The museum understands all cultural history as interrelated rather than isolated. This Portsmouth article provides a look at another part of England.
Aside from their new approach, the museum has jaw-dropping objects, as well, such as a human skull from 7000 BCE. Their Egyptian collection is one of the largest outside of Cairo, and they have some pretty special coins, too.
Along the south side of an idyllic 12th-century Norman parish church, you’ll find a weathered tombstone set against the wall. Look closer, and you’ll see an ancient, filled archway standing behind it.
The tomb marks the final resting place of Annora, a woman who lived in the mid-1200s. Its position against the church wall is no coincidence. This is where her anchorhold (a tiny cell) was most likely constructed.
Annora was an anchoress, meaning she voluntarily removed herself from society and spent her days confined within the cell. Anchorites were considered “dead to the world” after choosing to be reborn into a life of seclusion and prayer. As they were seen as a source of wisdom, they provided spiritual advice to members of the community.
Annora, a wealthy widow and daughter of a once-powerful baron, spent nine years living in the tiny cell. She was one of 92 documented anchoresses to live in England during the 12th and 13th centuries (there were only 20 male anchorites during this period). Annora, like other anchoresses, still had some contact with community members who sought her counsel. She was also sent gifts, including ones from King Henry III himself. The arch near her anchorhold was likely once a window through which she could view the church’s altar and services.
Death was frequently on her mind, thanks to the coffin lid placed on her floor as a constant reminder of mortality. After she did die, Annora was buried in the same place she had served, between the church wall and the yew tree.