Oxford and Cambridge, with the serene superiority attendant on age, wealth, and tradition, refer each to the other as “the Other Place.” Given the number of universities that have sprouted up in the United Kingdom, not to mention medieval Scots universities and Trinity College, Dublin, this may seem snobbish. I rather imagine the LSE, say, has as much clout as the ancient English universities, at least in economics (not that I espouse “the dismal science”). Still, in some ways Oxford and Cambridge really are each other’s “Other Place.” Other universities have constituent colleges and halls; one or more European universities are even older, though most Americans are surprised to find that Oxford’s New College founded in 1386. It was the “new college” dedicated to Our Lady, the earlier Marian dedication being Oriel.
Aside from the understandable partisanship of members of both Universities, I think a tourist is more likely to prefer the Ancient University he sees first. Cambridge, founded by students from the older University of Oxford, is a delightful small city in comparison with Oxford. Its Colleges open along the river Cam in “The Backs” rather than the more rural punting on Oxford’s Isis. Like Oxford, Cambridge is full of great architecture. King’s College Chapel may be called an “upturned pig trough” outside, but the glorious fan vaulting inside make it seem like the first part of Isaiah Chapter 6 (KJV) inside. A royal foundation along with Eton, King’s also boasts one of the great choral foundations, whose Lessons and Carols service on Christmas Eve Day have made it an annual tradition in many countries.
Trinity College, Cambridge, another royal foundation, is also grand. It has one of Christopher Wren’s great masterpieces, though Oxford also has Wren buildings. That masterpiece is the Wren Library at Trinity College, which is an excellent architectural example of trompe l’oeil: a string course midway above the arches that go under the library appears to suggest that the library is only in the upper half, but Wren lowered the library floor to just above the arches, given the books both space and light from the windows. It is superb!
Cambridge has two choral foundations of men and boys, as well as a good choir at Clare, though it is mixed. The other men-and-boys’ choral foundation, at St. John’s College, is sometimes held to have a more English sound, while King’s, a more continental sound, which may be why King’s was used occasionally in the great Harnoncourt and Leonhardt recordings of the Bach cantatas in the 20th century. Oxford has three men-and-boys choral foundations, also brilliant: Christ Church, Magdalen, and New College. (Magdalene College, Cambridge, and Magdalen College, Oxford, both are pronounced “maudlin,” and in fact the word derives from the teary pictures of that saint as she was often painted.)
Oxford also has Wren buildings, the gate called Tom Tower at Christ Church, an early precursor of the Gothic Revival, and the Sheldonian Theatre, based on a Roman theatre with what was once the largest unencumbered ceiling space in the world, cleverly made by joining beams and trusses. (Wren was a clever architect; forced to add columns to the interior of Windsor Guild Hall, he saw to it that they did not reach the top, making the load bear on the 18 outside columns he had said was necessary. Somebody later added shims, but the last laugh was Sir Christopher’s.)
Cambridge has the Fitzwilliam Museum; Oxford, the Ashmolean, the world’s first university museum. Both are worth a visit.
Perhaps each being “the Other Place” still can be justified. Both still use the tutorial method for undergraduates, which is hard to beat if the students are motivated. Both have Colleges or Halls comprising the University rather like the individual States make up the United States. My own view is that if you can get into either Ancient University, you should go! Particularly for the undergraduate degree – though that may seem a waste of time to the ambitious, it is not. In fact, you are unlikely to get a hearing for admittance even for an undergraduate degree without at least a Bachelor’s Degree from the States, such is the Oxbridge opinion of American education. (I would concur, but the old Public School Latinate tradition seems to be on the wane. I knew one of the first men to graduate from Arnold’s Rugby without Latin!)
I had planned to visit both Ancient Universities, but only got to one, thanks to a stomach bug. At least I got to a College Garden party, with copious Pimm’s Cup, though I will point out that, just as with American journalists, the names were not all right. I realize that this is a small matter, but just as one wants to get the names right when reporting, so one wants to get them right generally. The problem is the intricacy of British titles. “Lady” as in “Lady Diana Spencer” indicates the daughter of a Duke, Marquess, or Earl, while “Lady Spencer” will be either the wife of a peer or the wife of a knight, “Sir John Spencer” (never “Sir Spencer”). For reasons I have not yet discerned, the younger sons of Earls are “The Hon.” while their sisters are “Ladies.” “Lord Peter Wimsey,” the younger son of a Duke (thought it could have been a Marquess) would be merely “The Hon. Peter Wimsey” had Daddy only been an Earl. Lord Peter’s wife would be “Lady Peter,” which sounds odd until you remember “Mrs Peter Wimsey.” The Duchess of Cambridge was saved from “HRH The Princess William” by her mother-in-law’s gift of a Dukedom. One should cultivate such mothers-in-law.
I will say that Oxford, “that sweet city with her dreaming spires” now has at least one secular spire, which traditionalists may find a pity. You should visit both of these glorious achievements in Western art, architecture, and education. Remember, though, that the one you see first will probably be your favorite.