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September 2004 issue

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Oxford's aura

Oxford is a city steeped in history, with an academic reputation that is well known around the world. Gillian Evans finds out what Oxford can offer language travellers.

Without a doubt, Oxford's reputation as one of the world's historic seats of learning draws language travellers from around the globe,' says Angela Radford, Marketing Manager at OISE. 'Oxford is probably the most famous city in England for being a centre of learning,' she continues. 'Students wanting to improve their English in England are able to be part of that history by studying at an Oxford language school.'

Oxford's scholastic history goes back to the 12th century, and it retains a distinct academic reverence today. Walking through its cobbled streets, flanked by the impressive college buildings with their towers and gateways decorated with gargoyles and grotesques, it can feel as if time has stood still. Churches and college quadrangles, old English pubs and tranquil parks all combine to give Oxford its traditional character. With its cache of historic buildings and places of interest, it is no wonder that, as Tom Swan of Swan School of English points out, 'Oxford is one of the UK's most visited cities.' As well as its wonderful architecture, Oxford is home to the Ashmolean Museum, one of the oldest museums in the world. The museum houses some interesting and unusual artefacts such as the lantern used by Guy Fawkes during his plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament in the early 17th century. Oxford also has the UK's second largest library, the Bodleian Library. The main part of the library dates back to the 17th century and is built in the same elaborate Jacobean-Gothic style as many of the city's other historic buildings.

The university colleges themselves are said to be examples of the finest architecture in Britain and most school representatives say that they are one of the many highlights of their students' study trips. According to Radford, the top attractions in Oxford for most visitors include Christ Church College and Christchurch Meadow, which leads down to the river; the aerial view of the city from the top of St Mary's Tower; the Bodleian Library; the Ashmolean Museum; and the beautiful Botantic Gardens, which stretch along the banks of the River Cherwell. And during the spring and summer, a stay in Oxford would not be complete without punting on the Rivers Thames and Cherwell. A punt is a flat-bottomed boat, which is manoeuvred by the use of a long pole. 'Outdoor activities such as punting, walks around the university colleges and picnics by the river are really popular,' confirms Kate Mishcon of Aspect.

Oxford offers language travellers yet another old English experience in the shape of its many historic pubs. 'Most of the students like to spend their nights out at one of Oxford's many traditional English pubs,' says Mishcon. 'As the weather gets warmer, they tend to choose pubs with outdoor terraces such as The Goose, Heart of the River and The Turf Tavern.' Many of the pubs have their place in history too. For example, the Eagle and Child was once frequented by CS Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Nania, and JRR Tolkien, Lord of the Rings author, who used to meet here during the 1930s and 1940s and read extracts of their books to each other. Oxford also inspired Charles Dodgson to write Alice in Wonderland under the pen name Lewis Carroll, and more recently, the city was used in some of the scenes for the Harry Potter films.

Despite its long academic history and the grandeur of its buildings, Oxford is nonetheless a modern fun-loving place and an ideal city for students. 'Today [Oxford] has a cosmopolitan, European atmosphere, where the streets are full of life,' confirms Momoyo Fujita-Clarkson at the International Centre for English Language Studies (ICELS) at Oxford Brookes University. 'The city has a lively student population. There are many restaurants, coffee bars, pubs and clubs, with a truly international choice of food, drink and music.'

Swan highlights Cowley Road as a 'thriving and culturally diverse area of Oxford that is filled with a wide variety of restaurants, bars, and venues', and adds that Shotover Park is ' an area of outstanding natural beauty on the edge of Oxford'.

Although Oxford is a young university city, Mishcon maintains that it is a place for language travellers of all ages. 'Oxford has something to offer everyone,' she says. 'It has beautiful architecture, museums, great shopping, a wide range of cafés and restaurants, and a thriving nightlife.'

Nicky Seth, Director of the British Study Centre in Oxford, says they mainly attract students aged between 20 and 30 years old, but that the city is also good for older students because 'there are lots of cultural events going on year round'. These include open-air concerts and performances of Shakespeare plays, the Oxford Balloon Festival and the St Giles Fair. One of Oxford's most characteristic events, which is particularly enjoyed by local and international students, is the May Morning celebrations, held on May 1, to welcome the spring. This is when, according to Seth, 'choristers sing from Magdalen College Tower, students jump off bridges into the Cherwell River and cafés open for champagne breakfast'. It is an event that Ed Peters at St Clares, Oxford dubs 'very English and quintessentially wacky'.

It is safe to say that Oxford leaves a lasting impression on their students. 'Our students consistently say how magical it is to study in such an historic and famous city of learning,' says Mischcon. 'Nothing beats riding your bike past Magdalen College, wandering through the magnificent gardens of Merton College or watching university colleges jostle for first place in the summer boat races.'

Agent viewpoint

'Oxford has something for everyone. It has one of the most prestigious universities in the world and the language tuition our students receive is of a very high standard. The historic town is very interesting and there are many places of interest our students can easily visit. They can also enjoy the wonderful Oxfordshire countryside around the city. Oxford is a very compact city and you don't have to venture far to find a lot of the attractions. It has managed to retain a certain 'old English' charm and there certainly is a very special atmosphere about the place.'
Thomas Bolle, Carl Duisberg Centren, Germany

'Most students are attracted to Oxford because it is very well known and famous, plus it is very near and well connected to London. The students are generally impressed by the city's large population of students, making it a very lively and young place. Having London so near and with a 24-hour bus service [with] such cheap fares is a bonus for students who want to do a bit of sightseeing at the weekend or during term breaks. Many students [are] very impressed with the old architectural buildings in Oxford.'
Alice Wong, Oxford Brookes University, Hong Kong Office, Hong Kong, China

'Most of our students find Oxford attractive because it has the most reputable academic institutions and the most attractive old buildings, which add to the city's original flavour. It is also close to the capital London, and has mild weather compared to [other study destinations] located in the north of the UK. Students love to go sightseeing, visiting Oxford University's colleges, and also they like to enjoy the nightlife of Oxford, like going to pubs, cinemas, parties and nightclubs in the city.'
Rana Milhem, Bridge International for Academic Services, Jordan

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