As Tom Sawyer once said (thanks to his creator Mark Twain): “There ain’t nothing that is so interesting to look at as a place a book talked about.” And the city of Oxford in the United Kingdom surely offers one of the richest seams of literary travel experiences anywhere.
Connections with great literature are rife here, and make for a wonderful way to explore this beautiful city with its golden stone facades and historic ‘dreaming spires’.
Here are my top 10 literary experiences in Oxford:
Have tea with Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland is probably Oxford’s most famous literary character, created by maths professor Charles Dogson (pen name Lewis Carroll) at Christ Church College. He created the tale while on a boating trip with the family of his boss, including young Alice Liddell.
I recommend joining the eccentric ‘Mad Hatter’, who is quite a personality in Oxford, for an Alice-themed walking tour and boat cruise run by I Love Oxford. It is fascinating to see places and hear about events that inspired the Alice books, and the boat cruise up the Thames to Iffley was simply idyllic and very reminiscent of that original boat ride.
You can also enjoy a Mad Hatter Tea Party at Christ Church College, an Alice in Oxford Bicycle Tour and there is an Alice-themed souvenir shop on St Aldate’s.
Say hi to a faun with C.S. Lewis’s Narnia stories
C.S. Lewis is most widely known for his much-loved Chronicles of Narnia series of children’s books but he was also a respected author and scholar who was a teacher at Magdalen College in Oxford for the best part of thirty years.
While on my walking tour with iloveoxford I discovered that there are many sights in Oxford where the inspiration for Lewis’s work can be found. For example, we stopped to say hello to this little fellow, who just happens to be near an ornate lamppost…
Hobbitses and professors with J.R.R. Tolkien
J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor at Oxford’s Merton College for many years, and wrote his books about Middle Earth here. He was part of a writing group called the ‘Inklings’ who met at the cosy Eagle and Child pub on St Giles (C.S. Lewis was also a member) and shared his work on The Hobbit and the subsequent Lord of the Rings trilogy with them.
Enjoy a drink or have lunch at the diminutive Eagle and Child pub (nicknamed The Bird and Baby or even the Fowl and Foetus), which has a history dating back to the 17th century.
Off to Arabia with Lawrence
T.E. Lawrence is better known as ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ after his exploits in the Middle East during the First World War. Lawrence’s family moved to Oxford when he was 12 years old and you can see their old house at 2 Polstead Road, north Oxford.
He studied at Jesus College in Oxford and later wrote his famous The Seven Pillars of Wisdom while a fellow at All Souls College after the war. He must have been a bright spark as All Souls only accepts fellows who pass what is known as ‘the hardest exam in the world’!
Another place to visit with a TE Lawrence connection is the pretty village of Wareham where he lived in Clouds Cottage before his death.
Down the pub with Graham Greene
Another Oxford pub with a strong literary connection is the Lamb and Flag, which was frequented by novelist Graham Greene. Apart from being a dedicated drinker, apparently he had a crush on one of the barmaids who, he wrote: “we all agreed resembled in her strange beauty the Egyptian queen Nefertiti. What quantities of beer we drank in order to speak a few words with her”.
Greene attended Balliol College but only managed a second class degree, which did not stop him from going on to write some of the best novels in the English language!
Lamb and Flag Passage Oxford, Photo by Kris Krug via the Creative Commons License
Get to know Shakespeare in Oxford
Oxford is well known for its theatrical scene and especially for outdoor performances of Shakespeare’s plays in the summer. You can book tickets to see Shakespeare throughout the year at theatres such as the Oxford Playhouse and the Criterion Theatre Company.
The Oxford Shakespeare Festival takes place each summer at Oxford Castle, using the historic castleyard as setting and backdrop for a series of performances in July and August.
For a more intimate experience go on a Shakespeare Street Theatre Oxford Tour, with a troupe of comic actors performing sketches in various famous locations around Oxford. This is a fun way to learn about the great man’s connections with Oxford and the life of an actor in Shakespeare’s day.
The capital of romance with Oscar Wilde
The flamboyant Irish writer once called Oxford ‘the capital of romance’ and certainly enjoyed a high old time during the five or so years he spent studying at Magdalen College in the 1870s. It was a character-forming time for Wilde and he was particularly influenced by the prominent social thinker and art critic John Ruskin.
While at Oxford he became known for his dramatic style of dress and behaviour and he achieved a top class degree, as well as the Newdigate Prize for one of his poems.
Lyra’s tale with Philip Pullman
Philip Pullman still lives in Oxford and has done since reading English at Exeter College in the 1960s. His Dark Materials trilogy of novels features the fictitious Jordan College, which is essentially based upon Exeter.
He has also written a short follow up novel called Lyra’s Oxford, set two years after the original books and featuring a fold-out map of fictional map of the city that is found in the books. The map is entitled ‘Oxford by Train, River and Zeppelin’.
Harry Potter in Oxford
J.K. Rowling may not have ever lived in Oxford or even written about it but for fans of the Harry Potter books who loved seeing them brought to life on the big screen there will be a number of familiar scenes here!
Christ Church College has a rather famous dining hall and the Tudor architecture was perfect to help recreate the Great Hall of Hogwarts. Various other parts of the college were also used as filming locations, as were New College (particularly the Cloisters) and the Bodleian Library.
Go on a Harry Potter in Oxford walking tour covering all the filming sites so you can compare student life at Hogwarts to Oxford!
Other places to find Harry Potter associations are nearby Blenheim Palace and of course the Warner Bros Studio Tour: The Making of Harry Potter is not far away in Leavesden.
By Natasha von Geldern
Do you love a good literary tour? What would you recommend?
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