The Bells of Oxford

Oxford is a very old city that has many traditions. Many of these traditions come from the histories of the universities in Oxford. I have experienced a few of these traditions during my time here and they have all been very memorable.


Oxford has a very long and interesting history. There are many old traditions that are still carried out today. Because Oxford is a college town, many of these traditions have to do with the colleges and Oxford specifically. Other traditions here in Oxford happen also across the country.

When thinking about my time here, I have realized that I have participated in many English and Oxford traditions. Some of my favorites include food. In fact, just last Sunday, I participated in a very delicious tradition, Sunday roast. English families across the country typically have a family dinner in the late afternoon. It is a large meal with roasted beef, carrots, broccoli, and potatoes all covered with brown gravy. It is not only very yummy, but it is a time for the family to catch up on what is happening in each other’s lives. In my home stay on these afternoons, there is a lot of laughing and joking going on. This meal is like a mini Thanksgiving every Sunday!


Sunday Roast is a weekly tradition with English families.

Afternoon tea is another tradition that many people participate in. While this tradition does not usually happen everyday in households, it is saved for special occasions. I have had afternoon tea several times while I have been here and it is a treat every time that I go. Afternoon tea is meant to be a social experience and will usually last a couple hours. Afternoon tea is a time to relax and spend time with friends and family. My friends and I can spend hours sipping our tea and eating the many delicious treats that accompany this tradition. My favorite treat of afternoon tea is scones, but I also enjoy finger sandwiches, and mini desserts like chocolate cake.

I think the most interesting tradition that I have heard about while I am here is the ringing of the bells at Christ Church College. While I have not done anything special besides hearing the bells, the bells remind me of all the history that Oxford has seen. This is the story behind the bells.

In the early 16th century, Archbishop Wolsey opened Christ Church College in Oxford. This college originally had 101 students. Do you have a bedtime? Well if so, even these college students had a bedtime and it was at nine o’clock at night. At 9:00 pm the bells would ring 101 times to warn the students that the gates were going to be shut and locked for the night. If the students did not get inside the gates before the bells stopped ringing, then they would be shut out of the college for the night and they would have to face consequences in the morning. The bells still ring 101 times everyday, but instead of them ringing at 9:00 pm, they ring at 9:05 pm.

This is the story of the second tradition that is connected to the tradition above. First I need to explain a little about the way the world is divided into time zones. Have you heard about Greenwich time? Well, when the railroads became to dominate the way people traveled, the timetables for the train schedule needed to be more specific. Greenwich is a city on the outskirts of London. 0° Longitude is measured straight through this city and this is the location that they measured from to determine local time. Look at a globe. Longitude is measured from the North Pole to the South Pole. Greenwich will have a line going through it and the line will be labeled 0°. Without getting too complicated, Oxford is a little over 1° west, or left, of Greenwich. This means that Oxford is exactly five minutes and two seconds behind Greenwich time. So when it is 9pm in Greenwich, it is actually 9:05pm in Oxford. This is why the bells are now rung at 9:05pm instead of 9pm.


Tom Tower where the bells of Christ Church College ring.

Nowadays there are many more students than 101 going to Christ Church College, and they do not have a curfew anymore. Because of tradition though, the college still rings the bells, and shuts and locks the gates at 9:05pm. But today every student has a key to the gate, and can come and go as he or she pleases.

I really like this tradition because it reminds everyone about the origins of the college. I think that it is a good thing to remember the past because a people can always learn from those that have come before them.

There is another great tradition coming up called May Day. May Day is a spring tradition is many countries. In Oxford, the tradition has been happening for around 500 years. May Day celebrations happen on the first of May every year. People will throw parties the night before, there are formal balls, and many of the pubs stay open all night. People will celebrate all night long and then gather on the High Street or on Magdalen Bridge around 5:00 am. At that time the boys’ choir of Magdalen College will go up to Magdalen tower that overlooks High Street, and sing the medieval Eucharist hymns. The large crowds that have partied all night, or have gotten up early to hear the choir, will again celebrate all day. May Day is a day of celebration and the welcoming of spring. UVb71AwlbMW1oBx33yCLeYMXPG35up3w_hcPUE2mt8Y

I am very excited to experience this tradition, especially because it is such an old tradition. I can only imagine that it will be very peaceful and almost magical to hear the choir sing at dawn.



One of the past May Day celebrations. 

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