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katie st marys tower oxford england

I don’t consider myself a tourist in Oxford.

It is home, and has been home now for over a decade: almost since I first stepped off the bus after an overnight flight, back in 2004. I carry its map in my heart; the streets are full of memories, and I spend a lot of my time there revisiting favorite haunts and catching up with my people.

Every time I go back to visit, though, I can’t resist a few of its tourist attractions. The cobblestoned beauty of Radcliffe Square; the green vistas of University Parks; the shops on the Broad stuffed with T-shirts and postcards (because I always need a souvenir for someone). I roll my eyes at the tour groups as much as the next person, and then I, too, pull out my camera to snap photo after photo of the dreaming spires I love.

My favorite tourist spot, though, is a little higher up: 127 steps, to be exact. It’s the tower at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin: the highest point from which to view the city, and easily my favorite.

radcliffe camera oxford tower sky all souls

Looking north, you can see Radcliffe Square with the iconic Camera (in the foreground), with the bulk of the Bodleian just behind and All Souls College off to the right. If I squint, I can see past the Broad and the Science Center to the towers of St Anne’s and St Antony’s Colleges, up the Woodstock Road. You can’t quite see the North Oxford street where I used to live (and where I stayed this time), but I know exactly where it is: true north indeed.

all souls college view towers oxford

From the eastern side of the tower, All Souls is on full display. The colleges further along the High – Queen’s, University, Magdalen – are a little more coy, hiding themselves behind gates and battlements. Past Magdalen’s tower is the roundabout of St Clements, which leads to East Oxford and Headington Hill, down which the green sweep of South Park rolls like a velvet carpet. The middle road off St Clements leads to Cowley, which was my neighborhood as a graduate student: I lived there in a little chocolate-box house with three British girls who are still dear to me.

magdalen college tower oxford buildings

To the south lies a tangle of college buildings, old even by Oxford standards: Merton, Oriel, Corpus Christi, Christ Church with its famous Tom Tower. Right across from Christ Church is a less famous spire, but one that holds pride of place in my heart: St Aldates, the church where I have found grace and community since my first Sunday in Oxford.

christ church oxford towers south view

The western view, bounded by hills that glow yellow with rapeseed in spring, includes yet more colleges: Exeter, Jesus, Lincoln. I always feel I could step onto the rooftops and dance across them from here, like Bert and his chimney-sweep friends in Mary Poppins. This view of the city feels at once lofty and completely, utterly mine: I can pick out individual buildings I know while appreciating the whole sweep of it at once.

exeter college oxford view towers

I lingered as I always do, snapping photos from every angle, taking deep breaths and letting other visitors squeeze past me, talking in their various languages. Many of them are seeing Oxford from above for the first time, and I smile at their wonder, but it’s different from mine. They are seeing a place that is new and foreign. I am looking down, with love, at my home.

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