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Oxford: Gnomonic heritage

Oxford is an old English university city located in Oxfordshire County. According to the 2011 census, its population is approximately 150,200 inhabitants. Its geographical location is 51°44'29'' N latitude and 1°16'38'' W longitude (which corresponds to the location of the Carfax Tower, which is considered the downtown area).

He is known as "the city of dream pins," an expression coined by Matthew Arnold to describe harmony in the architecture of university buildings. It has always been a matter of great interest the occasionally tense relationship between "the people and the academy", which in 1355 resulted in a revolt with several university students killed. Unlike his great rival, Cambridge, Oxford is an industrial city, mainly associated with the automotive industry in the Cowley suburb.

The city was occupied for the first time at the time of the Saxons and is mentioned for the first time in a British letter from the English chronicles of 912. The University of Oxford, the oldest in England, is mentioned by first time in the 12th century. The first colleges of Oxford were University College (1249), Balliol (1263) and Merton (1264). It is located about 50 miles (80 kilometers) north-west of London.

Oxford has a magnificent collection of sundials. Most of them are in the colleges, which usually limit the hours to visitors during a short period of time in the afternoons, usually from 2 a.m. to 4 p.m. They allow the visit on other occasions when explaining to the doorman that he is especially interested in the sundial. These limitations condition both the content and the order of the route that we propose that adapts to the days and hours of access to the colleges.

We will start our route to Broad Street just before the Sheldonian Theater where there is the Museum of the History of Science, with a large collection of scientific instruments including sundials. This museum is open until late. At the end, continue straight ahead for Holywell Street, until you reach the entrance to the New College on the right.

Here, on the side of the tower in the building that separates the two great courtyards, there is one of the most interesting modern sundials of the city made in the summer of 1999 by gnomonist Harriet James. Measure 4.50 x 5.20 mts. and is engraved directly on the stone of the tower. It must be seen from the courtyard and side as the access to the tower is not possible.

Return to Holywell Street and continue along Longwall. In the middle of the street, on the left side, there is the back door of Magdalen College. If it is open, the octagonal tower can be found at the end of the passage in front of us. At the end above the tower there is a large vertical sundial made by David Harb in 2000. We emphasize the lines of solstices and equinoxes and an analemesis at 12.

Continue along Longwall to High Street, cross the street and continue on Merton Street. Further on, to the left there is the entrance to Merton College. Merton College has two interesting sundials. The first one is on a buttress of the chapel, just on the front door and on the right. It is oriented to the east, and only shows the hour from 6 hours until 9 hours. Date of the end of 1629. It has three groups of lines, the golden lines inclined upwards to the right with 7.8, and 9, the black lines, with figures that indicate the number of hours from the sunrise , and the vertical lines that indicate the azimuth (direction of the sun), of the 10 degrees S of E, by increments of 10 degrees to 20 degrees. N of E. In addition there are 9 black lines inclined down to the right which are the lines of solar decline, which have no interest for the observer, but are used for the construction of the time lines.

The second is located in a courtyard on the left of the main entrance and is a sundial facing the west, and indicates the time from 2 pm to 7 pm. You also have lines that cross it, with the signs of the zodiac that indicate the month of the year.

We turn to the left of the Merton College gate and continue along Merton Street. The next college on the left is Corpus Christi, which has the famous Pelican sundial on the column just in front of the main entrance.

This sundial by Charles Turnbull was built in 1581, and has had a series of restorations since then. It is a multiple sundial, with a larger southern sundial, on the surface of the column, and four small sundials on each side of the pillar, declining, respectively, to the south, west, north and east There are four more sundials, and the set is crowned with a magnificent pelican. It is a masterpiece in the construction of sundials, and has been the undisputed king of all the sundials in Oxford for the last 400 years.

We will continue our route turning to the left of the Corpus Christi gate (towards Merton Street), and again to the left at Merton Grove. This will take us to a gravel road with playground on the left and the church Christ Church on the right. When you reach the gravel road (Broad Walk) through Christ Church Meadow, turn right and continue until you reach the entrance to Christ Church visitors. Oxford Cathedral is inside the College, and visitors to the cathedral (you have to pay for entrance) can access it with the same visit. We follow the directions of the cathedral, and when we arrive, we will continue straight for 15 m. more or less. The sundial will be in front of us, on the side of the Kilcanon building.

We leave the church of Christ Church by the same entrance, we turn right through a garden to St. Aldates, the main street from the south. Turn right into the center of the city, until you reach the crossroads called Carfax. Here we turn to the right, High Street, walking to the gates of All Soul's College on the left.

This magnificent sundial is on the opposite side of the second courtyard, dating from 1659, and I have the motto in latin, "Perevnt et impvtantvr." Show hours from 6 am to 5 pm in minutes.

From the door of All Souls, turn right a short way back to High Street, and take the first right again to Radcliffe Square. Brasenose Lane is on the other side of the square on the left, and walking fifty meters or so, we reach the door of Brasenose College on the right. This wonderful sundial is on the first courtyard.

It was built in 1719, and is oriented 6 degrees to the southeast. The half-hour lines have a smooth flower at its ends, and mark the quarters and halves rooms.

With the visit to Brasenose College, we end our visit to the main sundials in Oxford.

If time and time is available, it is worth the guided tour of the Bodleian Library, which has its entrance to Radcliffe Square. The tour includes a visit to the Convocation House, which has two sundial sets of sundials in the south and west of the windows in a superior room. They are very difficult to see from the street. The clocks no longer have gnomons, but they are very interesting examples of its kind.

As already mentioned, these writings do not intend to serve as an inventory of the sundials of the treated city and the objective is to give the reader an approximation of what can be seen if you are looking forward to discovering your heritage gnomonic.

After the visit, you can extend the trip with a visit to the interesting Museum of History of Science, which is just behind the Bodleian Library (open from Tuesday to Friday from 12:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Saturday from 10:00 a.m. 17:00 and Sunday from 2:00 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.) where we can visit an interesting section of horizontal sundials, portables, etc.

Route map

Data and documents relating to the route
Author of text:
Bartomeu Torres i Ruiz
Author photos:
Bartomeu Torres i Ruiz


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