Bookish, conservative, closeted and elite, Oxford is a privileged place, highly aware of its international standing as one of the world’s most famous university towns and yet remarkably restrained for a city driven by its student population. It’s the kind of place where the pursuit of excellence, the weight of academic achievement and the whiff of intellectual ideals is palpable as soon as you get off the bus.
Thirty-nine colleges make up the university, their elegant honey-coloured buildings wrapping around winding cobbled streets and attracting hoards of tourists each year. Yet despite the rushing traffic and throngs of people, inside their jealously guarded quadrangles an aura of studious calm descends. The oldest colleges date back almost 750 years and little has changed inside the hallowed walls since then. The archaic traditions, customs and dress codes live on and the architecture remains largely untouched, allowing visitors to experience the colleges as countless prime ministers, poets, writers and scientists have done.
Yet, the university is only part of Oxford’s story; long before Mensa was ever born the Morris motor car was rolling off production lines in Cowley, and today the university’s academic elite are still far outnumbered by the real-world majority. Butting up against all that fine architecture, the celebrated libraries, world-class museums and historic pubs is an increasingly urbane city flush with chic restaurants, trendy bars and exclusive shops.