From its university and architecture, to famous alumni, tortoise races and Harry Potter, these interesting facts about Oxford will amaze you!
Oxford is packed with history, stunning architecture, world class museums, and more than its fair share of bizarre traditions. Just fifty-five miles from London or Birmingham, it’s well connected and incredibly easy to travel to. That’s handy, as with so much to do, you’ll want to visit Oxford again and again!
How much do you know about this famous academic town? Do you know about Oxford’s most famous residents, its literary history or its incredible universities?
Do you know how Oxford got its name or why it’s popular with Harry Potter fans? What about the city’s connection with comedians – do you know how that all began? And have you heard it nicknamed as the city of dreaming spires? Well it’s time to find out who gave it that iconic name.
This list of interesting facts about Oxford covers all of these topics and plenty more. We hope you’ve got your trivia hats at the ready! There’s are so many interesting stories about Oxford, you’re in for a treat!
Plus, if you’re planning a trip to this beautiful city, don’t miss our guide to the best boutique hotels in Oxford.
50 Utterly Amazing Facts About Oxford
How did Oxford get its name?
The first of our Oxford facts, is that the name Oxford comes from ‘Oxanforda’. This meant a ford, or shallow part of a river, where cattle (oxen) could cross.
City of Dreaming Spires
You might also hear Oxford referred to as ‘the city of dreaming spires. This romantic description of Oxford’s architecture originated in a poem by the Victorian poet, Matthew Arnold.
Was Oxford the Capital of England?
One of the most fascinating facts about Oxford, is that for a short time it was the capital of England! Royalist Oxford became the capital in October 1642 during the English Civil War. It remained the capital for 3 ½ years until the city surrendered to the Parliamentarian forces (Roundheads).
The centre of Oxford, is known as ‘Carfax’, from the Latin word for ‘crossroads’. The tower here is all that remains of the 12th century church of St Martin. Now popularly known as Carfax Tower, its 23 metres have been used to set the maximum height for all buildings in Oxford City Centre. It’s possible to climb to the top if you’d like a view of the Oxford skyline!
The Grandfather of all Coffee Shops
Next in our facts about Oxford is that the UK’s first cups of coffee were sold in here! The 1650 coffee at the Grand Cafe is mentioned in the famous diaries of Samuel Pepys. Another writer of the time refers to their coffee as a new ‘noveltie’ drink!
Punting began in Oxford around 1860 and is still popular, especially in summer. The flat-bottomed boats are propelled along the river using a long stick, like the gondolas in Venice. It might look easy, but there is a knack to it, and not everyone has it!
Did you know Morris Motors was established in Oxford in 1910? Car production has remained an important industry for the city. The BMW plant in the suburb of Cowley is now the principal site for making Minis.
The Inspector Morse detective novels are set in Oxford, and the TV series was filmed here too. If you’d like to have a pint in his local, head for the tiny White Horse pub on Broad Street.
Sight seeing can be hard work! If you need to stop for a drink, try the Turf Tavern which has been a drinking house since 1381! Famous people who stopped here include Elizabeth Taylor, Tony Blair and Stephen Hawking.
Oxford facts (or legends) say The Turf is the pub where Bill Clinton famously smoked, ‘but did not inhale’ marijuana whilst he was a student! Just trying to find the Turf is fun. It’s hidden in a narrow winding alley that was once called ‘Hell’s Passage’.
Oxford is known for its traditional May Day celebrations (1st May). The day begins at 6am, when the choristers of Magdalen college perform a Latin hymn from the top of Magdalen Tower to the crowds on the street below. They have been doing this for over 500 years!
Also known as a serial comma, the Oxford comma is placed after the second to last item in a sentence. It’s called the ‘Oxford comma’ as it is in the writing style manual of the Oxford University Press. It can be argued that the Oxford comma is unnecessary, but we’re not going to start that argument here!
The suburb of Cowley is a more diverse and alternative part of Oxford. The music venues here hosted early gigs by local bands like Radiohead, Supergrass, Ride, and Foals.
More of alternative Oxford can be found on New Street, in the Oxford suburb of Headington. In 1986, residents of this terraced street woke up to find a huge model shark had ‘crashed’ into the roof of number 2. At first, they petitioned for the work of art by Bill Heine to be taken away. Now they petition to have it preserved!
Facts about Oxford University
The University of Oxford
Of course, we have to have the famous University included in our facts about Oxford! Founded in 1096, The University of Oxford is the oldest University in the English-speaking world and the second oldest University in Europe (behind the University of Bologna in Italy).
Times Higher Education’s World University Rankings have the University of Oxford as the best university in the world. Harvard University in the USA comes in second place, and the UK’s University of Cambridge in third.
The University of Oxford is made up of thirty-nine separately run colleges. University College, Balliol College and Merton College are the oldest. They were established between 1249 and 1264! Balliol College was founded by John Balliol, who was forced to build it as an apology for insulting the Bishop of Durham!
The Boat Race
Oxford has regular inter-college rowing races, known as ‘cuppers’. The biggest rowing event though is the annual race against the University of Cambridge. Known simply as ‘The Boat Race’, these races on the Thames began in 1829. Women’s races were added in 1927.
Trinity College was founded by King Henry VIII in 1546. He did this so a new protestant institution would exist to produce future leaders in favour of his newly reformed church
An odd fact is that ‘Brasenose College’ is thought to be named after a ‘brazen’, a metal door knocker in the shape of a nose. The college have a twelfth century knocker on display above the high table in the college’s main hall, which they claim is the one responsible!
Some of the University traditions can confuse newcomers! Magdalen College is pronounced ‘maudlin’. Why? Because this is how it would have been spelt and pronounced in the 15th century when the college was founded!
Christ Church Time
Oxford hasn’t fully adapted to modern concepts of time. The old 9pm curfew bell at Christ Church College, rings every evening at 9.05pm. This happens as the college didn’t alter their clocks to match the introduction of national GMT. They have been stubbornly operating five minutes behind the rest of the country since the 1850s!
Next in our facts about Oxford, is that the University had one of the first police forces in the UK. Formed in 1829, the bowler hatted constables (known as Bulldogs or Bullers) could act as police within the University and locally up to a limit of 4 miles. They weren’t abolished until 2003!
Magdalen College Oxford has won the ‘University Challenge’ TV show four times. It’s a record equalled only by Manchester University.
Facts about Oxford University’s Famous Alumni
UK Prime Ministers
A striking fact is that 30 British Prime Ministers have been educated at the University of Oxford. Recent prime ministers include Margaret Thatcher, Tony Blair, David Cameron, Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak.
73 Nobel laureates and more than 50 world leaders have also been educated at Oxford University. These include Aung San Suu Kyi, Indira Gandhi and Bill Clinton. More recently, the youngest Nobel prize laureate, Malala Yousafzai completed a BA in Philosophy, Politics and Economics.
Famous scientists who have studied at Oxford University include, Albert Einstein and Erwin Schrodinger.
Oxford has some impressive religious stats too.12 Saints and 20 Archbishops of Canterbury have come from Oxford.
The University’s ‘Oxford Revue’ is a student comedy group which formed in the early 1950s. It has produced famous comedians, actors and writers, including Rowan Atkinson, Al Murray, Richard Curtis, Alan Bennett, Stewart Lee, Michael Palin and Terry Jones.
4 minute mile
Sir Roger Bannister, ran the first sub-four-minute mile at Iffley Road track in Oxford in 1954.
The first Oxford rowing team wore dark blue shirts. The term ‘Oxford Blues’ has come to mean anyone playing sport for the University first teams. This colour even has its own Pantone number – Pantone 282.
The highlight of the inter college rowing races is ‘Eights Week’ which is held each May. The races take place on the Isis river in the city, which is too narrow for side by side boats. Thirteen boats start each race, lined up behind each other, with a boat and a half’s space between each one. If they manage to ‘bump’ the boat in front, it must pull over and let them pass. The position of the teams is then altered accordingly for the next race – with the aim to be at the start of the pack and stay there!
The strangest of the sporting facts about Oxford involves a tortoise race which is held each May between rival Oxford colleges. It’s taken so seriously; tortoises have even been kidnapped pre-race!
Facts about Oxford Buildings and Museums
The Bodleian Library is part of the University of Oxford. It has the right to request a free copy of every book published in the United Kingdom. It has over 11 million books, and the collection grows each day. It’s a fun Oxford fact that the library has to add over 3 miles of shelving every year! The Bodleian is the second biggest library in the UK, after the British Library in London.
Radcliffe Camera was built in 1737 as a science library for the University of Oxford. The name comes from its funder, John Radcliffe, and the Latin ‘camera’ meaning ‘room’. The round building is one of the most iconic in Oxford, and has featured in TV and movies as diverse as Brideshead Revisited, and Killing Eve.
The Sheldonian Theatre was one of the first buildings designed by the famous architect Christopher Wren, then a Professor of Astronomy at Oxford. Named after the University Chancellor of the time, Gilbert Sheldon, construction on the project began in 1664. It’s used for University ceremonies, lectures and concerts.
University Church of St Mary the Virgin
Before the construction of the Sheldonian Theatre, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin was used for University ceremonies. It’s possible to climb the 13th century tower where you’ll be rewarded with views across Radcliffe Square and some surrounding colleges.
Christ Church Cathedral
Uniquely, Christ Church Cathedral does double duty, as both Oxford’s Cathedral, and as the chapel for Christ Church College. There has been a choir here since 1526!
The Ashmolean Museum was the world’s first University Museum, and is the oldest museum in the UK. It was built in 1677 and today houses major art and archaeology collections from around the world.
The University Museum of Natural History
The University Museum of Natural History is a huge glass roofed Victoria building. It houses great dinosaur, insect and evolutions displays. It’s also famously home to the world’s most complete dodo remains.
Museum of History of Science
The Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street is the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum. It’s 15,000 artefacts show the development of science from antiquity to the 20th century.
Holywell Music Room
Oxford’s Holywell Museum Room is thought to be the oldest purpose-built music room in Europe. That makes it the UK’s first concert venue!
Botanic Gardens and Arboretum
Founded in 1621, Oxford Botanic Garden and Arboretum is the UK’s oldest botanical garden. It’s home to over 5,000 types of plants, with everything from desert cacti to the world’s largest water lilies.
Facts about Oxford in Literature and Film
Oxford claims to have more published authors per square mile than anywhere else in the world! Oscar Wilde, John Betjeman, William Golding, and Philip Larking and were all Oxford University students.
Oxford has also produced some of the biggest names in children’s literature.
Lewis Carrol was the pen name of Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a maths lecturer at Christ Church College. Dodgson became friends with the family of Christchurch’s Dean, often telling stories to entertain the children. Their youngest daughter, Alice, begged him to write them down, and so ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was born!
JRR Tolkien was studying English Literature at the University of Oxford, when WWI began. He joined the Oxford University Officers Training Corp, and was then sent to the trenches in France. The horrors he saw there influenced his ideas of good and evil. He returned to Oxford after the war, and began writing ‘The Hobbit’ for his own children in the 1930s.
Charles Staples Lewis also worked for the faculty of English literature. He became friends with Tolkien in 1926, and worked on his famous ‘Chronicles of Narnia’ series in Oxford between 1949 and 1954.
Phillip Pullman, the author of ‘His Dark Materials’ trilogy, studied at Oxfords Exeter College, before becoming a teacher at a local college. He still lives locally. Oxford features in the trilogy too, with characters Lyra and Will inhabiting parallel universe versions of the city.
You can see more of Narnia, Middle Earth, and Alice’s Wonderland at Oxford’s ‘Story Museum’. Kids can find out more about their favourite books, dress up in costumes, and create their own story titles.
Alice in Wonderland
If you’re paying a visit to Christ Church Cathedral, look around, and you’ll notice not all the stained-glass windows feature saints! Lewis Carroll had a long association with the Cathedral, and eight ‘Alice in Wonderland’ themed windows were added in the 1920s. You’ll find Alice, and many of the other characters including the Cheshire Cat, Mad Hatter, Dormouse and the Red Queen.
Another children’s favourite with links to Oxford are the Harry Potter films.. The architecture of some Oxford colleges was used to depict Hogwarts. You can even go on a tour to see some of the sites.
Fans will recognise Duke Humfrey’s Library as the restricted dark arts section of the Hogwarts library. There are even real books in chains!
The magnificent vaulted ceiling of the Divinity School features in the films as two locations. It’s both the Hogwarts Infirmary, and the room where the students practice for the Triwizard Tournament dance.
At Christ Church College, Harry Potter fans will instantly recognise the Bodley staircase and Great Dining Hall. You’ll expect Harry, Ron and Hermione to walk around the corner!
The last of our facts about Oxford is also a Harry Potter one. Actress Emma Watson was a pupil at the appropriately named Dragon School in Oxford when she auditioned for the role of brainy Hermione Granger!
We hope you’ve enjoyed learning all about the city of Oxford with these fascinating facts. If you’re planning a trip to this beautiful city, don’t miss our guide to the best boutique hotels in Oxford.
Who’s ready for some more fun facts?
If you’re looking for some recommendations, these are a few of our favourite fact books to buy. We use these when planning fun quiz nights with family and friends. They’re also great for entertaining the kids too!