Two almost equidistant day trips from London will steep you in the nation’s ancient collegiate history. Although the city of Oxford predates the university, it is the university that draws visitors today and has given the city its identity and character since it first emerged as a formal center of learning around 1167. Don’t go looking for the “campus.” In fact, Oxford University is collectively formed of thirty-six colleges (all founded before the 16th century) that are inextricably linked with the town. The buildings are like a textbook of English architecture, creating a skyline of tall towers, pinnacles, and spires and making Oxford a visually fascinating city, one excellent for walking. Hook up with a walking tour led by a professor or student—they’re chock-full of info about the twenty-four prime ministers and centuries worth of intellectual luminaries (from Graham Greene to Lewis Carroll and Percy Bysshe Shelley to Bill Clinton) that the university has produced.
Visit the history-steeped students’ drinking halls (the well-known 13th-century Bear Inn on Alfred Street with its collection of thousands of clipped ties, for starters), then take a lovely stroll along the Thames. Later, stop at the Ashmolean Museum on Beaumont Street, a treasure trove of fine arts and antiquities that first opened in 1683, making it the oldest public museum in Britain. Looking as if it could very well be one of the university’s hundreds of buildings scattered about town is the gabled 17th-century Old Parsonage Hotel. Ask for Room 26, where Oscar Wilde once lodged. In the very center of town but with a country inn ambience, the hotel has been extensively and beautifully restored.
The small, charming city of Cambridge hosts England’s other great university, one of Europe’s oldest (only forty years younger than Oxford) and most prestigious. Amid the town’s narrow lanes and cluttered bookstores, the university—with its thirty-one colleges (sixteen of medieval origin)—has produced alumni as varied as John Milton, and Stephen Hawking. Darwin, Newton, and Cromwell lived here at different times.
The King’s College Chapel, called by Henry James “the most beautiful in England,” was begun by an adolescent Henry’ VI in 1441 in the late-Gothic English style known as Perpendicular and remains the country’s finest example. Rubens’s 17th-century Adoration of the Magi, donated to the college in 1961, hangs behind the main altar softly lit by vast 16th-century stained-glass windows beneath an awe inspiring fan-vaulted ceiling.
The classic view of the chapel is enjoyed from the Backs, the strip of gardens and emerald-green lawns along the banks of the lovely River Cam where “punting” is a pastime not to be missed. Relive those carefree college days on a wooden, flat-bottomed boat slowly maneuvered by a pole-wielding university student beneath the weeping willows that line the embankments. Include a visit to the Fitzwilliam Museum, one of Britain’s oldest and finest public museums, and alone worth a visit from London to Cambridge. Its prize collection centers around 17th-century Dutch art, enriched with masterpieces by everyone from Titian and Michelangelo to the French Impressionists.