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England’s Oxford University (5:54)

Oxford, England

Oxford University, scattered through historic Oxford town, produced many of the minds that made Britain great — scores of prime ministers, Nobel Prize winners, and even saints. Oxford’s traditions and triumphs are on show in its fine museums and venerable halls.

Complete Video Script

Oxford, founded in the 10th century, is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world.

Its university was born back in the early Middle Ages. And ever since the first homework was assigned, the University of Oxford’s graduates have helped to shape Western civilization. It brags that its teachers and alumni include a couple dozen prime ministers, over 50 Nobel Prize winners, and nearly a dozen saints.

Today it’s a thriving town of 160,000 — part industry, part university, and part bedroom community for Londoners. It’s a lively town filled with fun and energy during both the academic term — when you’ll see students everywhere — or during summer break. We’re here in July, when tourists outnumber the students.

Like in Cambridge, the river is filled with tourists…still working on their punting skills.

Oxford’s main drag, High Street, is lined with both shops and colleges. Again, it’s a mix that illustrates that town/gown division.

There’s been a tension between the privileged university population and the hardscrabble regular people of Oxford for over 800 years. In fact, it was a town/gown spat back in 1209 that drove a group of professors and students out of Oxford, and to the more welcoming town of Cambridge — where they helped to found that rival university.

The historic heart of Oxford University is its Old Schools Quad[rangle]. In the courtyard of its main library, the quad is surrounded by the university’s first set of purpose-built classrooms — each marked with the original curriculum: metaphysics, astronomy, music, moral philosophy, and so on.

Oxford, like Cambridge, is designed on the “collegiate system.” While each of the many colleges nurtures its students in its own way, the university provides the curriculum. And while students live, and study, and are mentored in their respective colleges, it’s here, in the university buildings, that they go to class, are tested, and enjoy the great ceremonial events that came with being a student at Oxford.

To imagine studying here in the 1400s, pop into the Divinity School to see the university’s first formal classroom. Here, under this impressive fan-vaulted ceiling, the mission of higher education was particularly respected.

Upstairs is Duke Humfrey’s Library. In those days, libraries were placed above classrooms for maximum sunlight and minimum moisture. It’s a world of books dating back to the Middle Ages, stacked neatly under a painted wooden ceiling. Books were considered so precious that many were actually chained to the desk.

Of course, there are plenty of modern buildings, too. In a wing of the university’s fabled Bodleian Library, visitors are free to peruse its “Treasures” gallery, a literary treasure chest celebrating the genius of Oxford over the centuries. You’ll see a Shakespeare First Folio (18 plays from 1623), an original score of Handel’s Messiah — written in 1741, [and] a copy of the Magna Carta from 1217, when King John was forced to grant his nobility certain rights…opening the door to democracy. It seems this copy was nibbled on by a mouse — fancy meal.

Across the street is the Museum of the History of Science. It’s filled with scientific equipment that the scholars of Oxford used to change our world. There’s chemistry — the 18th-century boom in the study of oxygen and other gases. Medicine: After 1850 anesthetics and antiseptics made major surgery more survivable. Microscopes helped scholars observe until then unseen worlds. Science enjoyed the support of England’s royalty. King George III had his own ornate microscope — made of silver in 1770. And Einstein’s chalkboard still features his hand-scrawled equations from 1931. Obviously, from [according to] the last four lines…the universe is expanding.

Like at Cambridge, you can visit many of Oxford’s colleges. Magdalen College — where C. S. Lewis taught — is the prettiest. Established in 1458, its cloister is a monastic-feeling square ringed by the dining hall, chapel, and student dorms. The grounds are meticulously kept — as if to inspire Magdalen students to excellence.

Christ Church is Oxford’s grandest college, with the most esteemed list of alumni.

It was founded by King Henry VIII back in the 16th century on the site of an old monastery. While it still has a close connection with the royal family, it’s most popular these days because scenes from the Harry Potter movies were filmed here.

Harry Potter fans love the dining hall. The grand hall, with its splendid hammer-beam ceiling, is ringed with portraits of alumni gazing down, as if wondering “who’s Harry Potter?”

Oxford or Cambridge? That’s the question. I’d just see just one or the other to save time for something entirely different on your itinerary. Both are about an hour from London. Cambridge may be more charming, with its river and gardens. Oxford is more substantial, with more to see and do. One plus for Oxford: It’s on the way to our next stop: Blenheim Palace.