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Oxford’s Iconic Architecture

a castle on top of a stone building

It is no secret that Oxford likes to bill itself as the City of Dreaming Spires. Whilst these spires are the most iconic of Oxford’s buildings, the city is teeming with buildings of architectural note. In stark contrast to most of England, Oxford has a bona fide Old Town and walking around it can feel like stepping back in time. Once, whilst giving a tour, someone asked me why Oxford was so well preserved when so many of England’s old buildings had been destroyed by bombing raids in the Second World War. The story I replied with is the oft-touted (though probably apocryphal) story that Hitler intended to make Oxford the capital of his British puppet-state upon winning the war and so avoided dropping bombs on the town. Regardless of the reason, we must remain grateful that Oxford’s architectural beauty has remained intact for so many centuries and we must hope that it remains for many centuries more! Many of the architectural wonders of Oxford have been mentioned in other posts in this series, so I will focus on the other points of interest which Oxford has to offer.


St George’s Tower

Oxford was founded in the year 900CE by Alfred the Great, who chose to place a fort where oxen would cross (or ford) the river Thames, a strategically important location. St. George’s Tower’s construction reflects Oxford’s status as a strategically important location. It was built in 1071 for William the Conqueror. Four stories tall, it is one of the earliest stone towers in England. For a time, it was used as an administrative centre for Oxfordshire as well as small jail for prisoners of Oxfordshire and Berkshire as well as, in 1236, “rebellious scholars”.


Radcliffe Observatory

This observatory, now a part of Green Templeton College, takes inspiration for its design from the Tower of the Winds, a clocktower in the agora of Athens which dates to the first century CE and the observatory is sometimes referred to by this name. It was constructed between 1772 and 1794 on the suggestion of Thomas Hornby, the Savilian Chair of Astronomy, who noted in 1769 that the nearby Radcliffe Infirmary was an ideal location from which to observe the Transit of Venus. The building is now a rather grand student accommodation building belonging to Green Templeton College. The original astronomical instruments of the tower are now housed in the Museum of the History of Science.


Oxford Town Hall

Completed in 1897, Oxford Town Hall looms over St. Aldates and is a Grade II listed building. It was designed by Henry Hare in the Jacobethan style. who entered a competition to design the building. Oxford undergraduates of the day were apparently enraged by the new building and gathered to demonstrate against its opening. Some mounted officers from the London Metropolitan Police were dispatched to reinforce the Oxford City Police force. Unused to the boisterousness of Oxford undergrads, the police assaulted the students with batons, causing several injuries. Despite this inauspicious start, the building is now a glamorous location which hosts regular social events.


Keble College

These days, Keble is considered a rather pretty college, its towering spires supported by brick walls put me in mind of a Lego castle, an idea to which the building holds a similar level of whimsy. However, for much of the 20th century, some students were deeply affronted by Keble’s brick façade, the rest of the city having been constructed with stone. There emerged out of St. John’s College the “Society for the Destruction of Keble College”. The students who participated in this society were not interested in signing petitions and attending meetings, they were far bigger fans of direct action. Each time the students walked past the College, they would simply remove a brick from the wall. Rome wasn’t built (or torn down) in a day!


My grandfather attended Keble College in the late 1950s, and he informed me that these missing bricks were no bad thing. In those days, students didn’t have their own keys to the college and the gates were shut at 11pm. If you had been out late at a party, the pub, or possibly even the library, you were stuck. However, because of the industriousness of St. John’s students in removing bricks from the wall, a ladder was formed which allowed truant students a convenient way to sneak back into the College after hours!


26-27 Cornmarket Street

If you find yourself wandering down Cornmarket Street, you might notice one building which looks rather older than the others. Today, the ground floor has two shops: a hatter’s and a Pret. It was built in the 15th century for a wine merchant who called the building the New Inn. 26-27 are jointly classed as a Grade II listed building and are fairly typical of the kind of house a wealthy European would have lived in at the time.


The Dreaming Spires

It would be remiss of me to write an article about Oxford’s architecture without discussing the buildings which form the famous spires. However, all of these buildings have already been featured in at least one other post in this series. To reconcile this, here are the dreaming spires featured in brief, ready for you to explore on your own journey to Oxford:

  • Tom Tower
    • Named for Thomas Wosley who attempted to found Christchurch College (under the name Cardinal College) before his untimely death, Tom Tower serves as the church tower of Oxford cathedral (which is also the Christchurch College Chapel!)
  • The Radcliffe Camera
    • Usually referred to as the RadCam, the crowning glory of the Bodleian Library has been featured in such films as The Golden Compass (as well as the rather better His Dark Materials), Brideshead Revisited, and served as the inspiration for Sauron’s temple to Morgoth on Numenor.
  • Church of St. Mary the Virgin
    • This church, located opposite the Radcliffe Camera, was the site of all official university business until the construction of the Bodleian Library in 1602. The steeple is the oldest preserved structure in Oxford, dating back to the 13th
  • All Souls College
    • The pale towers of All Souls College loom over other colleges, their prestige apparent. It is often said that these towers are the origin of the term “Ivory Tower” as an academic insult.
  • Magdalen Tower
    • I’ve often thought that Magdalen is the most castle-like of all the colleges, and this is largely due to the square, fortress-esque façade of Magdalen Tower. This tower, from which is city is serenaded on May Morning, stands guard over Magdalen Bridge and marks the end of Oxford’s Old Town.
  • Lincoln College Tower
    • The formal name of Lincoln College is “The College of the Blessed Mary and All Saints, Lincoln”. The All Saints name transfers to the library, which is housed in the converted All Saints Church. The steeple was designed by Nicholas Hawksmoor, one of Britain’s finest Baroque architects.


  • Adam Johnson, Catherine’s College, alumnus