A number of years ago I found myself in London over a long weekend during a business trip. So, I decided to wake up early, head down to Paddington Station and catch a train out to Oxford to see the sites. I had never been and had always wanted to visit the university that had produced (at the time) 24 British prime ministers, including Gladstone and Margaret Thatcher, numerous poet laureates and so many Nobel Prize winners that it’s incredible to fathom (47!), T.E. Lawrence (a/k/a Lawrence of Arabia), J.R.R. Tolkien, and most importantly, Hugh Grant.
The weather was superb (for England), the people were incredibly nice, and the university was everything you would expect. If you ever visit, be sure to stop by the Bodleian Library; one of the most beautiful in the world. Before entering the library, you are still required to pledge an oral oath that you will follow the library’s rules.
In the center of town, located at the intersection of St. Aldate’s, Cornmarket Street, Queen Street, and High Street is Carfax Tower. This nondescript tower is all that remains of St. Martin’s Church, formerly the City Church of Oxford where all the town’s important denizens worshiped. There’s not really much of historical importance to this tower, and with the 38 colleges of Oxford being the prime reason most people visit here, it’s easily overlooked. The tower is like so many others that are found throughout England, with one exception. The tower’s name lent itself to a distinctly new British word (well, it was new in the late Middle Ages.) The tower’s name is an anglisized corruption of the French word carrefour, meaning crossroads. Having been build only about 60 years after William the Conqueror’s conquest, many placenames throughout England were being given French names. This tower, however, took on a name that was French in origin but English in execution. Given the tower’s location at the center of one of the most important cities in Europe, it’s understandable that it adopted a name having the meaning of crossroads. After all, great university towns were crossroads of not just important streets but where important ideas and knowledge intersected.
The term carfax eventually came into common usage as any intersection of four roads, especially the main intersection of a town. Sort of the British version of our American town square, without the square. Today, the term is largely out of use, having been replaced with GPS’s and Baedekers. But next time you’re in the U.K. visiting some quaint British town (or Scottish or Welsh town, for that matter), and you find yourself in a taxi wanting to visit the town’s center, just say, “show me the carfax!”