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Visiting Carfax Tower, Oxford, England: Medieval structure which is now neither academic nor religious

Updated on November 13, 2013
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Carfax Tower, Oxford
Carfax Tower, Oxford | Source
Oxford. Looking approximately south, from Carfax Tower.
Oxford. Looking approximately south, from Carfax Tower. | Source
 Oxford. Looking west over Oxford from the Carfax Tower
Oxford. Looking west over Oxford from the Carfax Tower | Source
Oxford. From Carfax Tower, looking generally east.
Oxford. From Carfax Tower, looking generally east. | Source

You can't miss it

Located at the heart of England's historic University City of Oxford, known as the City of Dreaming Spires, Carfax Tower is actually neither an academic building, nor is it used as a church.

However, it, together with part of a building formerly joined to it, did serve as a church building — St. Martin's — between the 12th century and 1896. Then part of the building was demolished. (Oh well...)

While I have mentioned that the interior of the building is not used for religious purposes any longer, this does exclude the exterior. Because the street outside Carfax Tower is still regularly used by people such as street preachers to proclaim their message.

Other sorts of causes, also, are often promoted here: the spot is popular with all sorts of campaigners and enthusiasts who variously petition, boast or warn passers by regarding a myriad of issues. Thus, at Carfax, comrades may announce the revolution. Campaigners may advocate for the banning of smoking or the legalization of marijuana. (Regarding other activists in the secular Western world, Canadian historian Desmond Morton observed that it is sometimes the same earnest people who can manage simultaneously and without an apparent sense of irony to seek both to ban smoking and to promote marijuana (1).)

Occasionally the expression of people's views here at Carfax has been known to have become rather exuberant. On at least one occasion, there was a riot. (This was in the year 1355, and is known as St Scholastica Day riot.)

Carfax seems thus to be somewhat of a sounding board for people to give free vent to their ideas and aspirations.

But back to the Tower: this conspicuous stone structure is 23 metres tall, and fine views of the city may be accessed by visitors. I have included — right — some photos of the Oxford skyline, which demonstrate why Oxford is sometimes called the City of Dreaming Spires. From here towers and other structures which may be seen include the Radcliffe Camera, the tower of the Bodleian Library, the twin towers of All Souls College, the Church of St Mary the Virgin, the tower of Lincoln College Library, Tom Tower at Christ Church, Nuffield College Tower, and others (2).

A very visible feature of the Tower is the crenelation surrounding the roof area. Other features include a large clock, and Gothic-style windows.

Carfax Tower, or the crossroads next to it, is still used by the University to determine how far away its students may be permitted to reside. (Yes, to matriculated students of Oxford University such quaint-seeming restrictions still apply!) (3)

Carfax Tower is situated at the road junction known as Carfax, in the City of Oxford, where the Cornmarket, St Aldate's, Queen Street and the High Street meet. The Tower itself stands at the north-west corner of the junction.

Here is a piece of trivia: citizens of Oxford often smile if newly arrived foreign visitors ask the question: 'Where's the University?' Because from Carfax, reckoned to be the very centre of the City, the University's many historic buildings are literally in all directions. Its buildings, associated with a mature institution which emerged in the Middle Ages and gradually developed over many hundreds of years, thus do not belong to a campus-style plan, so popular in North America. At Oxford, Town and Gown are very visibly juxtaposed.

November 13, 2013


(1) Desmond Morton, A Short History of Canada, Toronto: Ontario: McClelland & Stewart Inc., 1997, p, 276

(2) Thus, when for example television producers seek expert opinion on a large range of issues, they may typically broadcast an interview with a learned member of the University filmed against a photo backdrop of just such a panorama of the City's skyline as may be seen from Carfax Tower.

(3) However, at Oxford Brooks University, also situated in the city, calculations of distances from Carfax do not seem to play a rôle... .

Map location of Oxford, in Oxfordshire.
Map location of Oxford, in Oxfordshire. | Source

Also worth seeing

A few of Oxford 's many sights include: the Bridge of Sighs at Hertford College; the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera; the Sheldonian Theatre; Oxford Castle; Christ Church Cathedral; the enormous Keble College Chapel, and many others.


How to get there : United Airlines flies from New York Newark to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Distance from Heathrow Airport to Oxford: 77 kilometres. Oxford links by rail with London Paddington station. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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