Oxford has a population of 27,560, the finest high street in England, a university unrivalled in Europe and has long been famous for sausages and brawn.

They were some of the observations of our city by intrepid rail traveller George Bradshaw in 1863.

As many readers will know, he is the inspiration behind the popular TV series, Great British Railway Journeys, presented by Michael Portillo.

His views on the sights he saw on his journeys throughout Britain and Ireland have been incorporated in Bradshaw’s Handbook, a copy of which has been kindly given to me by Margaret and Peter Cule, of Pencader, West Wales.

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Bradshaw tells his readers: “Oxford is the capital of the rich midland county of the same name and one of the most ancient cities of England.

“It has for ages been celebrated for its university which, for the number of its colleges, wealth of endowments and architectural beauty, stands unrivalled by any similar institution in Europe.


A painting of Oxford High Street

“It is situated on a gentle eminence of a rich valley between the rivers Cherwell and Isis and is surrounded by highly cultivated scenery - the prospect being bounced by an amphitheatre of hills.

“From the neighbouring heights, the city presents a very imposing appearance, from the number and variety of its spires, domes and public edifices.

“These structures, from their magnitude and splendid architecture, give it an air of great magnificence.”

Bradshaw is particularly impressed with High Street, which “from its length and breadth, the number and elegance of its public buildings, and its remarkable curvature, presenting new combinations of magnificent objects, produces an uncommonly striking effect.

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“The size, grandeur and variety of the buildings, as you turn through it, offer a most striking display.

“Another fine prospect may be had of the broad part of St Giles, and there are also several other handsome streets of recent creation.”

He says Oxford has an advantage over Cambridge, “being placed among more attractive scenery and combining a greater variety of splendid architecture”.

Bradshaw gives a detailed account of Oxford University’s 19 colleges and five halls, and lists all the city centre churches.


Portrait of George Bradshaw

The best city buildings, he says, are the town hall, built in 1752 (the present building dates from 1897), the (Holywell) music room dating from 1748, the Radcliffe Infirmary and the county jail.

Despite having a population of only 27,850, a fifth of what is today, Oxford had four MPs - two for the city and two for the university.

He doesn’t elaborate on his claim that Oxford was famous for its sausages and brawn, but presumably this was the main fare on offer at the Covered Market which, opened in 1774, was approaching its centenary.

Bradshaw is also full of praise for Henley, “delightfully situated on a sloping bank of the Thames, over which there is a handsome stone bridge of five arches”.

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Other places on the rail network mentioned include Abingdon, on a branch from the Didcot-Oxford line, Wantage and Steventon on the Didcot-Swindon line, and Yarnton, Eynsham, South Leigh and Witney, “celebrated for its manufacture of blankets”, and Handborough, Charlbury, Shipton and Chipping Norton on lines in West Oxfordshire.

Bradshaw makes one critical comment - he considered Appleford, near Didcot, a “small and uninteresting village”.