Located within striking distance of London, Oxfordshire offers visitors an appealing mix of metropolitan culture and dreamy Cotswold countryside.
Oxford is home to the oldest university in the English-speaking world and centuries of academic prestige have ensured that the city is rich with historic treasures, world-class museums and stunning architecture.
Venture beyond Oxford’s dreaming spires and you’ll discover a county that’s steeped in history. From grand palaces to atmospheric castles and mysterious ancient monuments, Oxfordshire has something to offer everyone with an interest in history. Here are 10 of the best historic sites in Oxfordshire.
1. Blenheim Palace
Blenheim Palace is a magnificent stately home in Woodstock, an attractive market town eight miles north of Oxford. It was built in the early 18th century for John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, after he defeated the French at the Battle of Blenheim. The palace is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the largest houses in the country.
Blenheim is notable for its huge grounds, which include over 2,000 acres of parkland, including formal gardens designed by ‘Capability’ Brown, a lake, and miles of walking paths. There are also plenty of areas for picnicking and relaxing. The palace itself is an excellent example of Baroque architecture, with lavish interior decoration. Visitors can tour the State Rooms, which are filled with furniture and paintings from the Churchill collection.
2. Oxford Botanic Garden
Situated beneath Oxford’s dreaming spires on the banks of the River Cherwell, the city’s Botanic Garden offers a peaceful retreat from the bustling High Street. Originally founded in 1621 to grow plants for medicinal research, it now boasts one the most diverse collections of plants on the planet.
The garden is spread across a variety of well-maintained spaces. A walled garden is home to a fine collection of hardy plants, still ordered in oblong beds according to 19th-century botanical classifications while a series of glasshouses transport visitors to vibrant tropical realms, resplendent with a riot of exotic flora. Highlights include a tropical water lily pond and the quietly menacing Carnivorous Plant House.
3. The Rollright Stones
A complex of megalithic monuments near the village of Long Compton in northwest Oxfordshire, the Rollright Stones site comprises three distinct monuments, all constructed from local oolite limestone. You might assume that these neighbouring monuments are contemporaneous constructions but they actually span thousands of years.
The earliest of the monuments is known as the Whispering Knights, a dolmen (a type of megalithic tomb) that dates back to the early Neolithic era while the main ‘King’s Men’ stone circle was built in the late Neolithic era, 1,000 years later. The third monument is the King Stone, a single 2.4-metre-tall monolith that stands 76 metres north of the circle. The Rollright Stones site has a distinct atmosphere that’s usually enhanced by a relative lack of crowds.
4. Bodleian Library
The Bodleian Library is the main research library of the University of Oxford and one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It was founded in 1602 by Sir Thomas Bodley, and today houses over 11 million items. As one of only six legal deposit libraries in the UK, the Bodleian has a right to receive a copy of every book published in the United Kingdom, which gives you some impression of the vast scale of its collection.
While a large part of the library is only accessible to those with a valid library card – the Bodleian is, first and foremost, a facility for students and academics – visitors are free to explore some of its most attractive and atmospheric rooms, including the Tower of the Five Orders, so named because it features five columns – one for each of the five orders of classical architecture: Tuscan, Doric, Ionic, Corinthian and Composite.
5. Pitt Rivers Museum
Also known as Oxford’s museum of anthropology and archaeology, the Pitt Rivers Museum takes the name of its founder, Augustus Pitt Rivers, a 19th-century British ethnologist and archaeologist. It was his 22,000-strong private collection of objects, gathered from across the globe, that formed the initial Pitt Rivers collection at the time of its foundation in 1884.
The labyrinthine Pitt Rivers Museum has long been one of Oxford’s best-loved attractions and it’s easy to see why this beguiling collection, and the atmospheric Victorian building that houses it, remains so enduringly popular. The museum, hushed and dimly lit, presents an extraordinary array of densely packed artifacts, arranged by type into a ‘democracy of things’, rather than by time or region.
6. The Ridgeway
The Ridgeway has been an 87-mile National Trail since 1972 but its history can be traced back far further than the early 70s. In fact, the Ridgeway trail has been walked since the Bronze Age – at least 5,000 years – and is thought to be Britain’s oldest road. The route, which trails from Wiltshire along a chalk ridge of the Berkshire Downs to the River Thames, and then along the Icknield Way running from Salisbury Plain to East Anglia on the east coast, was formed by prehistoric society, filling grooves cut into the ground with crushed chalk.
The key to the Ridgeway’s enduring popularity is its diversity: there are sections that offer spectacular views, gentle valleys and even sheltered woodlands. The views from it are frequently stunning, particularly on a clear day when you can see for miles, and the trail takes in some of England’s most iconic landmarks, including Avebury Stone Circle and White Horse Hill. Whether you’re looking for a challenging hike or a leisurely stroll, the Ridgeway is well worth a visit.
7. Ashmolean Museum
Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum is one of the world’s leading museums of art and archaeology, housing an extraordinary collection of objects from across the globe. Founded in 1683 – making it the oldest public museum in the UK – the Ashmolean’s original collection was largely made up of artefacts donated by the collector Elias Ashmole.
Over the centuries, it has acquired many more remarkable objects, ranging from Egyptian mummies to paintings by major European masters. The striking neo-Classical building, located on Beaumont Street, is worth the visit in itself. Having undergone a major renovation in 2009 – which transformed its galleries and expanded its exhibition space – this vast museum has never looked better.
8. Broughton Castle
Located in north Oxfordshire, Broughton Castle is a Grade I listed building and has been occupied by the Fiennes family since 1447. The castle, despite its name, is more accurately described as a fortified house, and was built at the beginning of the 14th century by Sir John de Broughton and is considered to be one of the finest examples of medieval architecture in the country. Indeed, much of the original building remains today, although some of its most impressive architectural features were added between 1550 and 1600 when it underwent a significant expansion.
Surrounded by a three-acre moat, extensive parkland and attractive gardens, the approach to Broughton is certainly impressive. The interiors are also well worth a look: visitors can explore many of the castle’s rooms, including the Great Hall, which features an impressive display of arms and armour from the English Civil War, and the ornately panelled Oak Room.
9. Oxford Castle and Prison
Oxford Castle is a large, partially ruined medieval castle located in the heart of Oxford. It dates back to the reign of William the Conqueror in the 11th century, when it was originally built by Robert D’Oyly as a moated motte and bailey castle, but offers an interesting mix of architectural styles, from its Norman keep to its 18th-century prison.
Visitors are treated to an immersive experience thanks to an engaging tour that explores the castle’s long and fascinating history, including a wander through the cells of the old prison. Climb to the top of St George’s Tower and enjoy stunning panoramic views across Oxford then descend below ground into the atmospheric candle lit crypt of St Georges Chapel, rumoured to be the birthplace of King Arthur.
10. Chastleton House
Chastleton is a handsome country house with a fascinating history. Built as a statement of wealth and power by Walter Jones, a prosperous wool merchant, between 1607 and 1612, it’s one of the finest examples of Jacobean architecture in Britain.
Over the centuries Chastleton was passed down through branches of the Jones family until, in 1991, the National Trust took control of the building and embarked on a 6-year preservation project. While the work was extensive, including a new roof and much-needed structural stabilising, great efforts were made to retain Chastleton’s character, and it remains a quirky and wonderfully authentic house that still feels lived in.