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UK: Wandering with the Mad Hatter Oxford

This Spring or Summer spend a golden afternoon with in Oxford, discovering the magical world of Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll with the Mad Hatter Oxford.

Where else to discover the real inspiration behind the Alice in Wonderland books than in the English university town of Oxford? And who better to explore it with than the real Oxford Mad Hatter, Alasdair de Voil.

Mad Hatter tours of Oxford

Writers are frequently inspired by sights and events around them and Alasdair cleverly takes visitors into the world behind Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s books, showing us the many quirky things about Oxford that where he drew his inspiration to create the Alice in Wonderland books that you would never find on your own. 

Along the way he made sure we also saw (and learned about) the most iconic sights of Oxford, such as the Bodleian Library and some of the most beautiful colleges. We learned about the lives of early students and those today.

So if you’re looking for things to do in Oxford or ideas for day trips from London, sign up for a Mad Hatter Oxford tour!

Lewis Carroll and Oxford

Charles Lutwidge Dodgson – Lewis Carroll was a pen name to protect his university career – is inextricably linked with Oxford. He spent over fifty years of his life here, arriving first as a student in 1851 and then remaining as a lecturer.

This gentle maths teacher became a publishing sensation, whose fantasy novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There have influenced literature right down to the present day. His characters and imagery have become embedded in English-speaking popular culture.

Alice’s childhood at Christ church Oxford

The Alice in Wonderland book began life on a boat ride with the Liddell children, including 10-year-old Alice. Alice Liddell’s father was the Dean of Christ Church Oxford and Vice-Chancellor of the university from 1856, and the family lived in the college. Dodgson met them when he was out photographing the cathedral and subsequently became a close friend of the family.

It is not difficult to imagine an idyllic Victorian childhood here at the college as you wander through Oxford, peeking into the ‘Alice in Wonderland garden’ and enjoying the views across Christ Church Meadows.

They would have played croquet on the lawn in the Dean’s Garden and Alice Liddell had a cat caught Dina who used to climb trees. Apparently Charles Dodgson used to let Alice and her sisters get dressed up and play on the parapets of the Bell Tower, which is a lovely thought.

“Alice had got so much into the way of expecting nothing but out-of-the-way things to happen, that it seemed quite dull and stupid for life to go on in the common way.”

Full leisurely we glide – Oxford boat tours

When the Liddell sisters and their friends Charles Dodgson and the Reverend Robinson Duckworth rowed from Folly Bridge on the afternoon when Alice in Wonderland was born, they were on a picnic outing very similar to ours. And so the Alice in Wonderland plot evolved…

All in the golden afternoon
Full leisurely we glide;
For both our oars, with little skill,
By little arms are plied,
While little hands make vain pretence
Our wanderings to guide.

Fortunately we didn’t have to do any rowing on our boat trip down the Thames on a warm spring day. And we didn’t have to go so far – stopping to picnic and walk about at Iffley Village, whereas they continued on to Godstow.

Oxford boat tour to Iffley Lock - Alice in Wonderland tour of Oxford

The boats still leave from Folly Bridge but remember that the river is not called the Thames here – locals call it the Isis. There are various theories about why the river is given this name but the fact remains that the Thames is the Isis where it flows past Christ Church Meadow and all the way through Oxford as far as Iffley Lock.

This is where the traditionally-popular rowing culture of Oxford is centred and the banks are lined with the rowing clubs of the various colleges.

The riverbanks are also lined with weeping willow trees and gliding down to Iffley is a true pleasure. I can well imagine why this was such a popular pastime for the Liddell girls and their friend.

Oxford boat tours on the Isis - Alice and Wonderland Mad Hatter tour

As they rowed, Dodgson spun a tale of a girl named Alice who went looking for adventure and fell down a rabbit hole.  The girls begged Dodgson to write down the magical story, which had clearly captured their imagination. A year-or-so later he presented her with the manuscript of Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.

The sequel, which follows Alice through the looking glass followed a few years later. This was a spontaneously evolving story from a shy man who enjoyed the creative freedom afforded by company of children.

Oxford inspiration for Alice in Wonderland characters

On July 4th Oxford celebrates that fateful boat trip along the river in 1862 with ‘Alice Day’, when venues across town put on fun Alice-themed events and activities to encourage people of all ages to connect with Wonderland.

All the rest of the year you go about finding Alice with the Mad Hatter. As he noted, Alice in Wonderland is perhaps more a story about childhood than a story for children.

“But then, shall I never get any older than I am now? That’ll be a comfort, one way – never to be an old woman – but then – always to have lessons to learn!”

That idyllic childhood was spent in Oxford, a town full of beauty, history and quirky features, many of which seem related to things that happened to Alice in the books

As we walked past the Sheldonian (where graduation ceremonies are held), he pointed up to a series of gargoyles that included Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum.A

Alice in Wonderland shop in Oxford

If you are looking for Alice in Wonderland gifts, head straight for Alice’s Shop. This was built in the 1830s and is just across the road from Christ Church College Oxford. It was once a grocery shop where Alice Lidell would go to buy sweets and actually features on the cover illustration of Through the Looking Glass.

“Alice rubbed her eyes, and looked again. She couldn’t make out what had happened at all. Was she in a shop? And was that really-was it really a SHEEP that was sitting on the other side of the counter? Rub as she could, she could make nothing more of it: she was in a little dark shop, leaning with her elbows on the counter, and opposite to her was an old Sheep, sitting in an arm-chair knitting, and every now and then leaving off to look at her through a great pair of spectacles.”

Remember when the sheep asks Alice if she can row a boat? She replies that you can’t row with knitting needles and then the shop turns into a boat. The year before he wrote the Alice sequel this part of Oxford had flooded.  And apparently the real shopkeeper at the time had a bleating voice. So you see there are Alice inspiration to be found everywhere in Oxford!

Alice's Shop in Oxford Photo by Natasha von Geldern

Nowadays Alice’s Shop sells all manner of ornaments, stationery, toys and games, and other carefully-chosen, quality Carroll-themed curiosities.

Experiencing the Alice in Wonderland books in Oxford

Over lunch Alasdair showed me a photograph of Alice Liddell and I was struck by what a puckish, interesting little girl she looked. Apparently she got quite annoyed as a grown up by people who associated her with the fictional Alice. Dodgson claimed that Alice was entirely imaginary and not based upon any real child at all but I would have loved to have met her.

I had a truly golden afternoon with the Mad Hatter Oxford, enjoying the gentle pace of the tour and the mix of fascinating information with friendly chat. This is a perfect way to spend a day in Oxford, especially if you love literature and history.

By Natasha von Geldern:

Where to stay in Oxford

There are a wide range of Oxford hotels and B&Bs and there is also the interesting option of Oxford accommodation in the colleges themselves. Outside term time it is possible to stay in one of the historic university colleges, offering a unique opportunity to access areas that usually only students and porters can see. Rooms range from single occupancy with communal self-catering facilities to double ensuite or even family rooms with grand dining facilities.

How to get to Oxford from London

If you are planning day trips from London, there are several Oxford to London coach routes that are very convenient. The Oxford Tube runs up to five coaches from Victoria, stopping at Shepherd’s Bush, Hillingdon and Lewknor. There is also the X90, operated by the Oxford Bus Company, with runs two coaches per hour from Victoria via Bahker Street in London. Trains to Oxford leave every half an hour from London Marylebone station.

Where to eat in Oxford

Thanks to the population of students, university staff and tourists, Oxford has a thriving restaurant scene and prices are much more reasonable than in London. Choose from casual modern eateries to some of the oldest pubs and cafes in England. Try the Bear Inn, one of the oldest pubs in Oxford, which is just north of Christ Church College. I love the café in St Mary’s Church with its garden and views of the Radcliffe Camera – the food is excellent too. For a real coffee stop I recommend The Missing Bean on Turl Street.

Oxford Tours

Alasdair de Voil has been running Oxford tours since 2011 and the Mad Hatter tours are only a part of his repertoire. His cycling and Oxford Harry Potter tours are very popular and he also offers activities in London, Bath (Jane Austen theme) and Stratford-upon-Avon (Shakespeare theme).  Take a look at the IloveOxford website for details of all the fun. He also gives guests an IloveOxford card that offers many discounts to attractions, restaurants and shops in Oxford.

Other Places to Meet Alice in Oxford

If you have time, take a tour of Christ Church Oxford to see where Alice spent her childhood and met Charles Dodgson. In the Great Hall look up to see the ‘Alice Window’, exquisite stained glass art dedicated to Carroll and including a portrait of Alice Liddell.

There are also two interesting brass firedogs beside the great fireplace in the hall and these faces set atop stretched-out necks may have inspired Dodgson. Down in the kitchens there are two turtle shells hanging on the wall. Turtle soup would have been on the menu at Christ Church in medieval times and these are thought to be the inspiration for the Mock Turtle.

Christ Church Oxford tours

Christ Church is generally open from Mondays to Saturdays 10.00 – 17.00 and on Sundays from 14.00 – 17.00. However, Christ Church is a working academic and religious institution and it is often closed for private events or services so check the website before you visit. Entry costs £9 for adults, 5 for children over 5 years and £8 for concessions. A family ticket is £22.

The Oxford Town Hall has a small exhibition about the many notable people who have shaped Oxford and this includes a cabinet full of Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell memorabilia. Free entry.  

The Story Museum in Oxford is an innovative museum created to celebrate stories and storytelling. It is suitable for all ages and of course has a great programme of events related to the Alice books. Entry costs £7.50 for adults and £5 for children (children under two free and a family ticket is £20).

Alice in Wonderland walking tour with the Mad Hatter Oxford on a London day trip

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