Founded in 1264, peaceful and elegant Merton is one of Oxford’s three original colleges. Like the other two, Balliol and University, it considers itself the oldest, arguing that it was the first to adopt collegiate planning, bringing scholars and tutors together into a formal community and providing them with a planned residence. Its distinguishing architectural features include large gargoyles, whose expressions suggest that they’re about to throw up, and the charming, diminutive 14th-century Mob Quad – the first college quad.
Just off the quad, you’ll find a 13th-century chapel, with a wonderful ceiling and gleaming modern organ, which hosts occasional candlelit concerts in summer. Nearby, the Old Library is the oldest medieval library still in use, complete with chained books; visitors can only enter it on the summer-only guided tours (50 minutes, 2pm and 3pm daily July to September, £5). Merton English professor JRR Tolkien spent many hours in the library writing The Lord of the Rings; it’s said that the trees in the Fellows’ Garden inspired the ents of Middle Earth. Other literary giants associated with Merton include TS Eliot and Louis MacNeice, while Thomas Bodley, founder of the Bodleian Library, was a fellow here.
The ominous sounding Dead Man’s Walk, along the south side of Merton College and separated by Merton Field from Christ Church Meadow, got its name because the medieval Jewish community, forbidden to bury their dead within the city walls, carried bodies along this route to the Jewish cemetery (now the Botanic Garden).