10 secret sites in Oxford

10 secret sites in Oxford

Open doors of rediscovery with Oxford Preservation Trust.

It’s nearly time for Oxford Open Doors. Brought to you by Oxford Preservation Trust (OPT), the annual event is a celebration of the city across all walks of life. Like Rediscover Oxford’s recent sightseeing bus offer, it gives you the chance to be a tourist in your own city.

While OPT can’t open physical doors this year, Oxford Open Doors Goes Outside will still be showing you some of the city’s hidden treasures. Over the weekend of 12/13 September, you will be able to enjoy a range of virtual talks, tours and videos, wherever you happen to be.

Debbie Dance, Director, Oxford Preservation Trust, has been generous enough to provide Rediscover Oxford with an exclusive list of her top 10, often overlooked, favourite places in the city. Not all of these special spots are open currently. Nor are they all part of the Open Doors event. But they are all worth remembering and, when it’s possible, revisiting.


Welcome to Oxford Open Doors 2020

Here are OPT’s pick of Oxford’s best secret sites and special places.

Enjoy Rediscovering oxford

1. The well chamber on the castle mound

Oxford castle at dusk
Oxford Castle by dusk

Oxford castle was initially an earthwork mound, or motte, which would have been surmounted by a wooden palisade. The motte rises over 60 feet (roughly 20 metres). A few years after its construction, constable Robert d’Oilly built the first stone fortifications, including a stone keep atop the mound. The keep is gone, but set into the earth beneath the top of the motte is a later 13th century well chamber. See if you can find it.


2. The Painted Room, 3 Cornmarket

Explore the painted room

It is easy to miss, or dismiss 3 Cornmarket Street, the home of the Painted Room. To find it you must look beyond a later 18th century façade, and the contemporary shops, all doing their best to disguise this treasure. Climb the stairs and be transported back into the 14th century timber-framed Crown Tavern. Shakespeare stayed here on his trips between London and Stratford-upon-Avon. Its oak-panelled walls, ancient brickwork fireplace and stunning Elizabethan wall paintings give it such a magical feel today


3. The Gargoyles on the north face of the Bodleian

As part of Oxford Open Doors in 2009, award-winning children’s author Philip Pullman unveiled the newest gargoyles of the Bodleian Library in a special ceremony. The stone carvings are based on the drawings of nine schoolchildren from Oxfordshire following a competition launched by the University. The winning designs were selected from hundreds of competition entries. Can you guess which literary works for children inspired each design?


4. The Views of the Dreaming Spires from Boars Hill

Dreaming spires from above

The view from above down onto Oxford is iconic. A favourite with writers such as Matthew Arnold (“that sweet city with her dreaming spires”) and modern-day romantics alike.

In 2016, a new two-and-a-half mile circular route in Boars Hill was opened, complete new signage and a new footpath. The walk was made possible by the Trust for Oxfordshire’s Environment (TOE2) and landowners Oxford Preservation Trust. It provides the perfect opportunity to take in the spectacular city from a different perspective.


5. 8 – 10 Turn Again Lane

Home to the OPT. Open garden for Open Doors (Picture: OPT)

Buried deep behind Oxford’s shopping streets and the Westgate is the area of St. Ebbe’s. You have to search the area for any sign of history. But the eagle-eyed will spot a pretty row of 17th century cottages in Turn Again Lane. Saved from demolition by OPT after a public inquiry in 1972, these quirky former dwellings are steeped in the city’s history. The buildings now house the PTO’s offices. In 1975, the garden was transformed by well-known landscape designer Brenda Colvin of Colvin & Moggridge. It will be open to the public during Open Doors Oxford.


6. LMS Railway Swingbridge

OPT is dedicated to preserving the Rewley Road swing bridge (picture: OPT)

The Swingbridge is a crucial part of Oxford’s history. A monument to the changing transport history of Oxford and its surroundings and of 18th transport developments including the 1790 Oxford Canal before the coming of the railway. There are also all the people’s stories which are woven into the fabric of the structure. Great stories of the people involved, not just in its construction, but those whose livelihoods relied on the railways, those who turned the bridge to allow the trains to pass, of the boats to pass, and the stories of their families, living in railway owned properties, and those who used the lines for their industry and leisure.


7. The Victoria Arms

Affectionately known as the Vicky Arms, this historic inn which reopened last weekend. It was originally built in the 17th century and rebuilt in 1840 (though its original bread oven can still be seen from the terrace) and called the Ferry Inn. There was once a ford here which has been in use since the 12th century and a line-ferry remained in operation until 1971. The inn closed in 1958 and had lain empty until 1961 when it was purchased by OPT. It can be reached by punt from Cherwell Boathouse.


8. Lindsey unit at the Covered Market

Restoring the John Lindsey units in the Covered Market (picture: OPT)

The John Lindsey Butcher & Son unit is situated in the earliest surviving part of the Victorian market, designed by architect Thomas Wyatt the Younger, and built as part of the ‘New Market’ extension around 1839-40. With the help of The William Delafield Trust, OPT is working in partnership with Oxford City Council to restore the Lindsey Butcher’s units to their former glory. A must see in this special, historic spot.


9. Conduit House at Harcourt Hill

History: it’s in the water (picture: OPT)

This conduit house is a remarkable survival of Oxford’s first piped water supply. Built during the early 17th century, it was part of a system designed to take clean drinking water from the springs at North Hinksey to the Carfax Conduit, an extravagantly decorated fountain in the centre of Oxford. Resembling a miniature fortress, the conduit house covered and protected a 20,000-gallon lead cistern which continued to supply water to the city until 1868. On the walls are some beautifully chiselled graffiti dating from the 17th to 19th centuries.


10. Wolvercote Lakes Nature reserve

OPT was bequeathed Wolvercote lakes by Mr Viv Kirk. They had been in his family for two generations. For many years safety concerns mean the lakes were locked, gated and barred behind high fencing which made them invisible from the road. In 2012 OPT began work to improve and open up the site and views of it, and to encourage biodiversity. In 2015 the lakes received a national award for the work from the Canal and River Trust. Today the area is a nature reserve, open every day for everyone to enjoy.


All Oxford Open Doors’ virtual events go live at 10am Saturday 12 September until 6pm Sunday 13 September. Explore our city. Explore the programme:

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