OXFORD, England - In the early hours of the morning, when the streets are still and the ancient stone walls, the towers, the spires, and domes are bathed in moonlight, Oxford is its most beautiful.
Over the centuries it has developed from a small provincial town to what it is today, one of Britain's most impressive cities.
Its famous university has been a stepping-stone for many world leaders and thinkers. Its architecture is monumental. For history buffs it is a paradise.
Like numerous other towns, Oxford in medieval times was encircled by a stone wall many feet thick and more than 15 feet high. It served as a deterrent to invaders. Today a small portion of that surviving wall provides a backdrop for a herbaceous border in New College garden. Another section borders Dead Man's Walk alongside Merton College.
William of Wykeham, who founded New College in 1379, had to undertake the upkeep of the ancient wall before the city fathers would allow him to build his school. To this day the mayor of Oxford, in full regalia, visits the college each year to ensure that the present warden is keeping the promise.
Along "the High," Oxford's main thoroughfare, the vista is very much as it has been for centuries. Beside the River Cherwell stands the 15th-century Magdalen College, where "Shadowlands," the 1993 movie about the love story of writers C.S. Lewis and his American wife, Helen Joy Davidman, was filmed.
It is at the foot of the college's well-known tower that thousands of students and others gather on May 1 at sunrise to celebrate the arrival of summer, a tradition hundreds of years old. The Magdalen College boys choir assembles at the top of the tower and as the sun tips the college spires with early morning light, a hush falls over the crowd and the clear bell-like voices of the boys drift down. They begin with a traditional Latin hymn and then break into a lively rendition of "Summer Is a Coming In." As the last note fades, the peals of the church bells signal the start of the celebrations.
Morris dancers in their traditional costume of white, with bells around their ankles and flowers decorating their hats, go through their repertoire of English folk dances. Fire eaters and jugglers entertain the crowds. Gypsy bands with fiddle, flute, and tambourine perform on the steps of noble buildings, and students still clad in their gowns and black ties from balls the night before mingle with the crowds. Children with flowers in their hair and twined around their hats and necks, dance around the maypole, laughing as they try to master the intricate maneuvers for weaving the colored ribbons.
Close to Magdalen College is the second oldest botanical garden in Europe. When it was created in 1621, it was called the Physic Garden, its main function being the cultivation of medicinal herbs. Now it has a collection of over 8,000 species of plants growing within its stone walls.
Although there has been little change in this impressive main street, one exception is the building of the Covered Market. In the late 18th century, local farmers, butchers, and fishmongers were banished from trading on the city streets. In those days St. Aldates was the preserve of the fishmonger, Queen Street, then known as Butcher's Row, was for the selling of meat, and Carfax, which is today the center of Oxford, was the butter sellers' patch. The vegetable sellers squeezed in wherever there was space and business was carried on in squalid pandemonium.
More affluent residents found the conditions on the High and other streets revolting. They had to pick their way through offal, fish scales, and rotting vegetables.
In 1771 the market was housed in a new structure that is today a delight for both locals and tourists. Small boutique-type shops selling everything from flowers to English knitwear line narrow sawdust-covered passageways. Fishmongers, butchers, bakers, fruit and vegetable sellers are now established alongside coffee traders and tea shops. There are cheese stalls, Belgian chocolatiers, French croissanteries, and second-hand bookshops all under one roof.
In winter the market's sheltered passages attract buskers, drawn to the warmth and bustle. Over the hum of the busy shoppers one can hear the sounds of the sun-washed Mediterranean as a youth plucks delicately at the strings of a mandolin.
The 12,000 students are accommodated in 36 colleges that make up the University of Oxford. Among them, Christ Church is one of the richest colleges in the country. It has a large medieval quadrangle, an opulent dining hall decorated with portraits of its illustrious members, and a chapel that is also the cathedral for Oxford. An elegant Baroque building from 1772 is the home of the college library. It has a picture gallery in which you will see Russian icons, drawings by van Dyck, paintings by Titian, and a collection of priceless antique glass.
In the Upper Library, a magnificent room lined with leather-bound books and furnished with genuine Chippendale chairs, a cardinal's hat belonging to the college's founder, Cardinal Thomas Wolsey, onetime confidant to Henry VIII, is displayed in a glass case.
For "Alice in Wonderland" enthusiasts, there is a large collection of memorabilia. Alice was a real child and author Lewis Carroll was the Rev. Charles Dodgson, a mathematics don at Christ Church. (Alice's father, Henry George Liddell, was dean of Christ Church.) Dodgson befriended Alice and two of her sisters. They could often be seen walking through the meadow on their way to the River Thames for a picnic. It was during these outings that the famous tale took shape.
Many of the ideas for the story originated in Christ Church. The horse chestnut tree growing in the deanery garden is one of them. It was on the branches of this tree that the Cheshire Cat is said to have appeared and confused Alice with his theories on madness.
Alice opened the little green door between the deanery and cathedral gardens with a small gold key, and "looked along the passage into the loveliest garden you ever saw."
Anne Gordon can be reached at email@example.com.