Folly Bridge – Oxford, England - Atlas Obscura

Folly Bridge

The spot where Oxford garnered its name was also home to a medieval philosopher and includes a house covered in statues.  

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Folly Bridge crosses the Thames in the center of Oxford. It’s believed to be the site of a ford that allowed oxen to safely cross the river. It’s also how the city got its name. 

The first known stone bridge was built in 1085 by Robert d’Oilly, and until the late 17th century it was known as South Bridge. Since the land south of the river was prone to flooding, the bridge marked the start of a long causeway known as Grandpont, which stretched along most of modern-day Abingdon Road.

Franciscan philosopher Roger Bacon lived and worked inside a hexagonal defensive building that stood at the north end of the bridge until the 18th century. The tower was known as “Friar Bacon’s Study.” Samuel Pepys visited Bacon’s study in 1669 and recorded the visit in his diary. There were several artists renditions of Bacon’s home, including one painted by J. M. W. Turner, who was just 12 years old at the time. 

As part of the Abingdon-Banbury turnpike, there was also a toll booth that operated along the bridge for many years. It was rebuilt in 1844 and can still be seen on the north side, although tolls were abolished in 1850.

The structure was already known as Folly Bridge even before Joseph Caudwell had an unusual house constructed on Folly Bridge Island in 1849. “Caudwell’s Castle” is covered in white sculptures, and topped with battlements and a statue of Atlas.

The unusual building attracted much attention and was the scene of a serious incident in 1851. A few students tried to drag one of the cannons Caudwell had in front of the building into the river. He shot and seriously injured one, although he was later found not guilty for the shooting.

This is also where one of the most important stories in literary history was created. On July 4, 1862, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson set off on a boat trip with the three daughters of Henry Liddell, Lorina, Alice and Edith, starting from Folly Bridge and heading for the village of Godstow. On their way, requested by Alice, Dodgson made up a fantasy story that eventually became the basis for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

The bridge and its surroundings mark the origins of Oxford and its colorful history.