Curiouser and curiouser: 10 quirky things you didn’t know about Oxford

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1. The City of Dreaming Spires

You’ve probably heard Oxford being referred to as “The City of Dreaming Spires”, which befits the town perfectly. Indeed the phrase was referenced in The Faces’ “Itchycoo Park” back in the 1960s. But the phrase was originally coined by Oxford Poet, Matthew Arnold in his 1865 poem “Thyrsis”:

“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,/ She needs not June for beauty’s heightening”

2. The Capital City

As if we needed reminding of Oxford’s prestige,  history tells us that not once, but twice, it has been earmarked as the country’s capital city.

Firstly, Oxford was made the capital during the English Civil War, after King Charles I was expelled from London by Oliver Cromwell. Oxford being a Royalist supporter, it was a no-brainer for the king to make it his base, assembling Parliament in Christ Church Hall between 1642 and 46.

More recently, it has been uncovered that Adolf Hitler had made plans to make Oxford his capital city, were he to be successful in his appropriation of the United Kingdom. Thank goodness he never got that far!

3. Town vs Gown: The birth of Cambridge University

Ever wondered which came first: Oxford or Cambridge? Well Oxford was definitely the first on the map when it was founded in c. 1096. However, the “Town versus Gown” riots of 1209 in which an Oxford townsman was killed by a student, saw a faction of students flee to Cambridge. There they established their own rival university (whose name we scarcely utter in these parts).

4. Who the *bleep* is Alice?

We’re all familiar with the legendary Alice in Wonderland, but who on earth was she? In fact, she was a real girl who lived in St Aldate’s, Oxford. Her father, Henry Liddell, was the Dean of Christ Church and colleague and friend of Charles Dodgson (aka Lewis Carroll).

5. The Oxford Comma

Ever heard of the Oxford Comma? Well for you English Language pedants out there, this is the grammatical device of Oxford University Press which requires a comma to be used before a conjunction (eg and; or) in lists of three or more. A good example would be “the good, the bad, and the ugly”, rather than “the good, the bad and the ugly”.

6. X marks the spot in Broad Street

If you’ve ever walked down the very charming Broad Street, you might have noticed a mysterious cross built into the cobbles in the road outside Balliol College. In fact this cross marks the spot where the famous Oxford Martyrs, Bishop Hugh Latimer, Bishop Nicholas Ridley and Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, were burnt at the stake in 1553. Ouch!

7. The 4-minute mile

Amongst the wealth of literary and academic achievement Oxford boasts, there’s a splattering of sporting success too. In 1954 the Iffley Road running track was the spot where 25 year-old medical  student, Roger Bannister, became the first person to ever run the four-minute mile. However, only a month later, Australian runner John Lundy beat Bannister’s record (although we like to keep schtum about this!).

8. Headington Shark

You simply can’t visit Oxford without making a slight detour to Headington to witness the weird and wonderful “Shark House”. Commissioned by American homeowner Bill Heine in 1986, the 25 foot long headless shark projecting out of the roof was built as a comment on Cold War Politics, apparently. Well said, Heine.

9. Brasenose College: The big knocker

Brasenose wins the prize for the most outlandish college name. But if you want the truth about where it came from, then look no further than the door knocker. The knocker, in its nose-shaped brass appearance (brazen-nose), purportedly gave the college its name and resides happily on the door of Brasenose Hall.

But the knocker’s history is far from peaceful. In a particularly violent patch in 1334, a group of Oxford clerks huffed off to Stamford, Lincolnshire, with the knocker in tow, to establish a rival Brasenose Hall.  The knocker only returned to its Oxford home in 1890 when relative peace between the Halls was restored.

10. Magpie Lane

A sweet name for an Oxford back street, don’t you think? Well not so fast, as this street was once named “Gropecunt Lane” on account of the prostitutes peddling their trade there in the Middle Ages. It wasn’t until the 17th Century that it was renamed “Magpie Lane”, after an alehouse that used a magpie as its sign.

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