Home to the world’s oldest English-speaking uni, genteel Oxford is ideal for daytrippers. Words: LYNETTE EYB

Oxford is little over an hour from London and, as long as you set out early, it’s a perfect day trip from the capital. However, there is so much to see and do that it’s worth spending a night – or a weekend – to take in the history and grandeur of the home of the world’s oldest English-language university.

Oxford has been a place of learning since 1096, but it wasn’t until Henry II banned English students from attending Parisian universities in 1167 that Oxford underwent significant growth. The colleges – there are now 39 in total – developed more than 800 years ago after fighting between ‘town and gown’ forced the university to bring students ‘in house’.

Each college is self-governing, and selects its own students who live and receive tuition there in any of the subjects taught at the university proper. The university determines the curriculum, provides laboratories, museums and libraries, sets exams and awards degrees. Most colleges are open to visitors – check college websites or the boards at the entrances for opening hours. The colleges of University, Balliol and Merton are the oldest, established between 1249 and 1264.

The Oxford Story ? Broad St; www.oxfordstory.co.uk) provides an introduction to the history of the university and includes coverage of some of the more famous students to have walked its corridors. While Oxford is now thriving as a modern and prosperous city in its own right, its allure is still very much attached to the university and the leaders of industry, politics and literature it nurtured.

This rich history has bred a bewildering array of second-hand, antiquarian and new bookshops in the city, each providing endless opportunities for browsing. The Blackwell’s bookshop chain was founded here at 53 Broad Street in 1879 – the shop survives today, complete with a Caffè Nero coffee shop. It’s the place to go for a literary walking tour (call 01865-333 606 for details).

If you prefer your coffee with a more historic edge, the elegant old Grand Café at 84 High Street is on the site of England’s first coffee house, and serves up a delicious brew in art deco surroundings.

With some 30,000 students calling Oxford home – a significant percentage of the city’s overall population of 140,000 people – trendy cafés like the Grand are easily spotted. A cool, cosmopolitan vibe permeates the city, and extends into the night as café culture gives way to a lively pub and bar scene. Oxford may have a reputation for being a posh person’s university town, but that doesn’t mean there is any less fun to be had once the sun goes down. •

Walk in their footsteps

Charles Dodgson (Lewis Carroll) arrived in Oxford as an undergraduate in 1851 and stayed for 47 years, teaching mathematics and later becoming a university curator. He created his Alice stories for Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church college, and her sisters Edith and Lorina.

Carroll was among the first of many Oxford success stories. CS Lewis won a scholarship to University College in 1917, and went on to lead a group of literary academics known as The Inklings, whose members included JRR Tolkien. The Inklings would meet at the Eagle & Child pub, which can still be visited today at 49 St Giles. After Oxford, Lewis took up a professorship at Cambridge but kept his home on the outskirts of Oxford. In 1939, a group of children arrived in the area as evacuees. The story goes that one of the children asked Lewis what was behind the door of a wardrobe in his house. In answer to the question, Lewis wove a story about the land beyond the door – the inspiration for the first of The Chronicles of Narnia.

More recently, Philip Pullman, who read English at Exeter College, used Oxford as the background for his trilogy, His Dark Materials. He later published Lyra’s Oxford, a guide to the settings in the books.

Other writers educated at Oxford include Samuel Johnson, TS Eliot, WH Auden, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Iris Murdoch, Kingsley Amis and John Le Carré.