The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In Britain, these Oxford walking tours focus on often-glossed-over parts of the city’s history

A statue of Cecil Rhodes adorns the facade of Oriel College; his munificence is proclaimed in Latin underneath. (Tiffany Cassidy/For The Washington Post)

There is no dearth of Oxford city tours. Among them are outings that focus on the city’s architecture, ghosts, pubs and literary history — there is even one dedicated to “Inspector Morse.” But I was drawn to a different one. On a recent overcast Sunday afternoon, I joined a handful of strangers for an Uncomfortable Oxford tour — a 90-minute guided walk that promised a lively discussion of “imperialism, gender and inequality” against the city’s beautiful backdrop.

The tour started in front of Oriel College’s Rhodes Building, a stunning Edwardian edifice, where the student guide posed a question: What do we really know about Cecil Rhodes, whose High Street statue looks down on all of us? You may know the name from the Rhodes scholarships created from his bequest. But did you also know that much of his money came from his South African diamond mining company, De Beers, which at one time racially segregated its migrant laborers and locked them in compounds for the duration of their contracts?

Rhodes’s money paid for both the building and the statue we were standing under, which bears a Latin inscription acknowledging his generosity. As the tour’s name suggests, starting with one of Oxford’s most controversial historical figures is very much the point. Our walk was designed to make participants feel uneasy. Over the course of the tour, our guide pointed out buildings funded by slavery, cited polarizing figures who have spoken at Oxford University’s debate hall and invited us to share our views.

Oxford: Where time is fluid, Latin is far from dead and every stone tells a story

Tours that explore the troubling aspects of a destination’s history are a growing travel trend. The Exhibitionist’s Uncomfortable Art tours in London demonstrate how colonialism shaped many major art collections. In Berlin, Refugee Voices Tours spotlight the refugee rights movement and explore the challenges faced by local asylum seekers. Sydney’s Barani website includes a map that allows visitors to take self-guided tours to historical Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander sites.

The founders of Uncomfortable Oxford say the emphasis on discussion sets their tours apart — participants are asked to voice their opinions and listen to the opinions of strangers from around the world. They want visitors to leave thinking about more than the beautiful architecture they’ve just seen. “They should be walking away with more questions than when they came, and then they should apply those questions to every space they walk into next,” said Paula Larsson, who co-founded the company with Olivia Durand last year. “Analysis of your built environment as you walk through it.”

In front of the Rhodes statue, opinions flew. In 2015, our guide told the group, the protest movement Rhodes Must Fall asked for its removal. Someone pointed out that taking down the statue might erase history — perhaps the best option is to add a sign or physical symbol next to the statue that provides context. Others discussed how, in light of Rhodes’s opinions on race — he famously observed that the British were “the finest race in the world” and should inhabit as much of it as possible — the sheer presence of the statue might make students of the college uncomfortable.

It’s these kinds of topics that Uncomfortable Oxford wants to tackle with local examples. “Controversial statues exist everywhere,” Durand said.

Our next stop was in front of All Souls College. It’s a large building that you can barely see through an ornate black-and-gold gate. As we stood outside its walls, the guide explained the prestigious college’s connection to the slave trade.

In 1710, Christopher Codrington donated a large sum for the college’s library. Most of Codrington’s wealth came from sugar plantations worked by slaves in the Caribbean. To address the legacy, the college recently created an annual scholarship for students from Caribbean nations. Responding to pressure from students, it also mounted a plaque outside the library that reads “In memory of those who worked in slavery on the Codrington Plantations in the West Indies.” The plaque wasn’t visible during the tour, however, as it sits behind a door often closed to the public.

In Cambridge, Britain, a Parents’ Weekend abroad

The group discussed whether the plaque is a sufficient acknowledgment of the past and whether there’s good in the fact that students are getting academic opportunities because of money made from their ancestors’ suffering.

We stopped in front of the Oxford Union, the storied home of the university’s debating society. It’s widely seen as a place for Britain’s future politicians to practice their debating and campaigning chops. The group also invites people from around the world to speak — they range from actors Ian McKellen and Morgan Freeman to controversial political figures, such as President Trump’s erstwhile adviser Stephen K. Bannon and Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right party. Again the guide posed a question to the group: Is it right to give people a platform to discuss hurtful ideas? Down the road, next to the Tirah war memorial in Bonn Square, we were asked to think about how we as a society remember fallen soldiers.

Next we came to the Bodleian Library, where only men would have studied for many years. Women weren’t admitted to the university until 1878, and even then couldn’t receive degrees until 1920. The guide asked why women would choose to come to the university if they couldn’t receive degrees. One person suggested it could be to make a statement, while another countered that it could be to find a husband. Exchanges of opinion are welcome on the tour — it’s part of the “anti-shame and anti-blame” space the directors hoped to create, making room for as many people to share their experiences and thoughts as possible.

“It’s uncomfortable for maybe an hour,” Larsson said. “Then you’re forever more productive in these conversations because you’ve had them before.”

In addition to the “Original Uncomfortable Tour,” the company offers walks including “Oxford and Empire,” which focuses on how the University of Oxford and the British Empire shaped each other, and “Uncomfortable Literature,” which examines authors overshadowed by Oxford literary celebrities such as J.R.R. Tolkien and Lewis Carroll. Both Larsson and Durand plan to graduate from the university this year, and they’re looking to expand the tours to other locations in Britain and possibly France. Durand, who is French, is considering an “Uncomfortable Bordeaux.”

In the meantime, the group’s first planned expansion will be to Blenheim Palace, a UNESCO World Heritage Site a short drive from Oxford and the birthplace of Winston Churchill.

“There’s lots of uncomfortable things to talk about,” Larsson said.

Cassidy is a writer based in Oxford. Her website is Find her on Twitter: @tiffcassidy.

More from Travel:

It’s hard not to be charmed in unspoiled south-central England

A London day trip to Winchester, England’s former royal capital

A guide to local favorites in Stratford, England

Uncomfortable Oxford


The “Original Uncomfortable Tour” covers a range of topics about the city of Oxford and the university, from the controversial figure Cecil Rhodes to the way the city memorializes local soldiers. Saturday at 11 a.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m. Tours last about 90 minutes and stop in front of buildings and monuments for discussion. Adults about $17; students/seniors about $12; children about $8.