Why are Oxford’s dreaming spires and architecture so fascinating

Oxford at the crack of dawn

Possibly the most obvious thing that has endured in Oxford is the architecture. That’s partly down to Oxford being lucky to face very little damage during the Second World War, unlike so many other of Britain’s medieval cities. Where, for instance, the medieval centre of Coventry was almost completely destroyed, Oxford survived.

Verbalists students in Oxford (Radcliffe Camera)
Verbalists students in Oxford (Radcliffe Camera)

The other reason is that the style of architecture that we now see as being so characteristic of Oxford – those delicate spires reaching into the pale blue sky – has been popular at key points in history. Oxford’s spires reflect the Gothic style of architecture, which was popular in England from the late 12th to the early 16th century – a period in which no fewer than 14 of Oxford’s 38 colleges were founded.

The Gothic became unfashionable for a couple of centuries, but from the 1740s up to the early 20th century, it underwent a revival. Neoclassical styles (think Queen’s College, with its columns and precise symmetry) fell out of fashion in favour of lancet windows, tracery, buttresses and, crucially, spires. This meant that when the city and the university expanded in Victorian times, the architectural style that was preferred was in line with the existing medieval buildings. When those buildings fell into disrepair, the mood was not to replace them with something brand new and different, but to honour the medieval style.

Magdalen College demonstrates this tendency towards preservation perfectly – there’s the tower, which is 600 years old, and then the buildings alongside it leading towards the gate, which are only a little over 100 years old, but look perfectly harmonious. The Victorians believed in building new Gothic Revival buildings, but also in restoring existing Gothic buildings. This restoration has been criticised at times for going too far, and eroding other architectural styles, but in Oxford it has resulted in a city that despite its considerable growth, is still recognisable from its medieval past. The fact that many of Oxford’s buildings are constructed from the same Headington limestone adds to this impressive of harmony and continuity.

Source: Oxford Royale Academy

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