Oxford is the ultimate college town.
It’s where Lewis Carroll found Alice, and C.S. Lewis created Narnia.
In the nostalgic Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh recalled his Oxford days in “a city of aquatint.” Founded in the 13th century, this ancient university, comprised of 38 independent colleges, is unique. Twenty-six British prime ministers have been educated here, including Cameron, Blair and Thatcher.
But for literary fans, it is something more: Oxford inspires. Its grads read like a roll call of popular writers, including Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, Dorothy Sayers and John le Carré.
Several, including J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, also taught here. Part of The Inklings, they met in The Eagle and Child pub in St. Giles Street. Discussions in the Rabbit Room, which bears mementos of their patronage, contributed to Lewis' Narnia books and Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series.
So it’s no surprise that Oxford, with its distinct architecture, is the backdrop for beloved books.
The magnificent Christ Church dining hall doubles as the Great Hall at Hogwarts for the Harry Potter films, while The New College cloisters are seen in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. The Pitts River Museum, which has a renowned archeology and anthropology collection, is said to have inspired Diagon Alley. Plus, the Bodleian Library serves as Hogwarts infirmary.
Magic aside, the Bodleian is a renowned repository for scholars. It houses Shakespeare folios, the original manuscript of Frankenstein and a Gutenberg Bible.
To celebrate the 150th anniversary of Lewis Carroll telling the original story of Alice in Wonderland to Alice Liddell, the Bodleian is displaying illustrated editions of the book through Aug. 12. Carroll shows up as the Dodo. It is also honoring the bicentenary of Charles Dickens with the exhibit “Dickens and His World” until Oct. 28.
The Radcliffe Camera, an exquisite 18th-century circular library, is the Bodlein’s main reading room. Sayers’ aristocratic sleuth Lord Peter Whimsey and Harriet Vane have a key exchange on its rooftop in Gaudy Nights. It’s also a visual standout in numerous productions, including Inspector Morse, The Golden Compass and Brideshead Revisited.
Brideshead is Waugh's homage to pre-war Britain. He attended Hertford, as does his protagonist Charles Ryder, who longs to find that "low door in the wall ... which opened on an enclosed and enchanted garden.” Like Ryder, visitors can punt on the Cherwell. It is a languid way to see Oxford, though the city is walkable. Just remember the same street can change its name several times.
Though a Cambridge man, Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse series is set and shot in Oxford -- and many fictionalized colleges are implicated in criminal investigations. The opera-loving Morse suffers his heart attack in the Exeter College courtyard. One of its graduates, Philip Pullman, used Oxford as the locale for his fantasy trilogy The Dark Materials.
The best way to get the inside story on that “sweet city with her dreaming spires” is to take a tour. The Oxford Visitor Information Centre has an array; several are focused on film and literary topics. By all means stroll through the colleges. Most have open hours for visitors and entry fees. Entrance is considered a privilege, not a right.
The city is also an ideal place to enjoy English cuisine. The White Horse on Broad Street, said to be its oldest pub, offers Oxfordshire brews.
Although Browns is known for traditional British fare, it is equally good at vegetarian dishes. It offers a Vegetarian Special of the day, as well as some startling starters. Its cocktails, like Pimm’s Royale and hazelnut martini, are crazy good. Treat yourself to the sticky toffee pudding, a triumph, for dessert. From starters to after-dinner drinks, Browns gets it right. In Oxford terms, the food and service are firsts.
Or indulge in that most English of traditions: high tea. It is beautifully served at The Old Parsonage. The venue sports a fireplace and cozy four-stool bar. Cranberry walls showcase a stellar art collection. It has an atmosphere of pre-war, understated elegance, with its finger sandwiches, homemade scones, cakes and jams. The tea selection is extensive. It’s like spending an afternoon in Brideshead Revisited.
Of course, Oxford is just an hour's train ride away from London, where Peter Pan found Wendy, Oliver Twist met the Artful Dodger and Sherlock Holmes has an actual residence: 221b Baker St. The Hampstead Theater is staging Shakespeare’s Henry V and The Winter Tale, through July 21. Its innovative Chariots of Fire is now at the Gielgud Theater, a perfect production to welcome the Olympics. Across the Thames, the National Theater is mounting the Bard’s Timon of Athens.
If You Go
When hotels boast about personalized, top-notch attention, this is what they mean. A former bank transformed into a boutique hotel, this sleekly designed establishment is unique. The staff is courtly and helpful. The location is superb – on the High Street with views of the famed Radcliffe Camera, close to the colleges. There is a quiet library where guests can enjoy tea, rooms with gorgeous bathrooms and an extraordinary collection of 20th-century British art. The Quod, the hotel restaurant, offers an amazing breakfast.
92-94 High Street, Oxford OX1 4BJ; Click here.
5-11 Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6HA; Click here.
1 Banbury Road, Oxford OX2 6NN; Click here.
Open daily, extended hours in July and August. The Visit Oxfordshire site makes it easy to book walking tours, events and attractions online. 15-16 Broad St. Oxford OX1 3AS; Click here
Pop down to London to visit the Sherlock Holmes Museum or Keats House and take advantage of the Novotel's great location: accessible only via Paddington Station, which services Oxford, as well as four tube lines in London. The rooms are comfortable, all have Internet access and there are free computers in the lobby. 3 Kingdom St., Sheldon Square, London, W2; Click here
Richard Branson’s airline is classy, whatever class you fly. Even
economy gets a flight kit. For a small charge, you can book extra
leg-room seats. There is a TV screen behind every seat, where passengers
can enjoy 50 films and 62 TV shows in comfort. Four flights from JFK to
London daily. Click here
Photos by Fern Siegel
For more on London, click here