Literary Cities: Ode to Oxford

Cobbled streets, dreaming spires, the intelligencia roaming the streets – everyone seems to know what Oxford looks like, has an image of it in their head. The literature that comes from the city is similarly renowned. There’s also a lot of it – San Francisco may have the highest concentration of writers in America, but Oxford has more published writers per square mile than any other city in the world. From Alice in Wonderland to Brideshead Revisited, His Dark Materials to Inspector Morse; chances are you’ll have heard of many of the books set here, even if you haven’t actually read them (I’ll be the first to admit that out of that list I’ve only read Carroll’s title and one of the Pullman trilogy). While growing up in the city has made me particularly fond of the city, Oxford – with the exception of the main shopping streets – does much to live up to its romantic, historic and literary reputation.

(Photo: Andrea Harner)

Unfortunately as far as I know there aren’t any specifically literary themed hotels in the city. However if you want to feel like you’ve stepped into the setting for a book then the Malmaison hotel – formerly the city’s prison – is just what you’re looking for. Not all rooms are located in the old cells (and you’ll pay a premium to sleep there – or not sleep, depending on how creepy you find it!), but the main building of the hotel, including the dining room, still has remnants of prison walls and open brick that are unique, fascinating  and a little bit spine-chilling as you remember that convicts once roamed the very place you’re now enjoying your full English.

(Photo: Mara Ziegler)

But now for the actual literary venues. And there are plenty of them. But perhaps first up should be one of the world’s most famous libraries – the Bodleian. The building first opened to scholars in 1602, it now houses over 11 million items over 117 miles of shelving, with 400 members of staff keeping it up to scratch. I once heard that books are sometimes stacked in size order to ensure they can all fit in. I’m not sure how true this is, but what is certain is that this is a collosal amount of literature in one place – and the second largest library in the UK (after the British Library). It is still steeped in tradition – those wishing to use the library must make an oath: I hereby undertake not to remove from the Library, nor to mark, deface, or injure in any way, any volume, document or other object belonging to it or in its custody; not to bring into the Library, or kindle therein, any fire or flame, and not to smoke in the Library; and I promise to obey all rules of the Library. (I actually found myself saying this a couple of years ago when I needed books for my undergraduate dissertation. Not what you expect when you ‘join’ a library – but still quite fun to feel as though you’re taking part in a long-honoured tradition. I have to admit that I had to copy the oath from Wikipedia though. My memory’s not quite that good!). Although studying in the library is not accessible to all, their tours offer a look behind the scenes, and they often host exhibitions and events that are open to the public. Even if you just go to gawp at the stunning Radcliffe Camera, the Bodleian Library is a must for anyone with even a slight interest in books.


There are a number of sites in Oxford offer those aerial views you’ll undoubtedly have seen in photograph after photograph. However one of the best ways to get a view of those spires from above while continuing the literary theme of your holiday is in the Sheldonian Theatre, conveniently located near one of the Bodleian’s entrances on Broad Street. Admittedly this isn’t for those with mobility (or fitness…) issues, with 124 steps between you and the cupola crowning the building but if you’re up for the walk then it’s certainly worth the £2.50 entrance charge (£1.50 concessions). Even if you choose to live the high life somewhere else, you can still visit the lower floors of “one of the architectural jewels of Oxford” [European Commission, 1994]. Alternatively you could attend on the many events (often classical music recitals) that take place here.

(Photo: Beth Hoffman)

Although London is one of the World’s biggest centres of publishing, Oxford has its own bubbling scene of (primarily academic) houses. One of the most famous of these is Oxford University Press, the largest university press in the world. It’s also one of the oldest – although legally founded and recognised by Robert Dudley in 1584, their website claims a history dating back to 1478. Either way, that’s a long time to have been dealing with books. Based in stunning Jericho, their museum – hosting historic artefacts including Alice in Wonderland and Oxford English Dictionary word slips (pictured above) – is open to the public, though visitors are asked to book a tour in advance.

(Photo: Virtual Tourist)

There’s also plenty of activities for those interested in visiting favourites spots of literary figures – whether real or fictional. One of the most vivid recreations of the city is in Pullman’s Northern Lights series. It is said that Jordan’s College is an exaggerated version of his own Exeter College, and other locations include Jericho and the Oxford Canal. Both are worth walking to and through, offering stunning respites to the tourist-filled hustle of the city centre. I’d also highly recommend resting your feet at one of the many pubs that line the canal.

(Photo: Oxford Prison)

Those who love water should also consider participating in the Oxford tradition of punting. OK, so it may not be specifically literary, but it’s mentioned in enough books to warrant a mention here. Plus it’s good fun! If you’re on a romantic break, pack and picnic and champagne, and stop off by one of the reeds to enjoy it. It’s like being in a storybook.

(Photo: Judo Jules)

You can also take a stroll through the grounds of Christ Church College and its Meadow, said to be where Lewis Carroll, a student of the college, wrote Alice Through The Looking Glass (the character of Alice was inspired by the Dean’s daughter). WH Auden is also a college alumni. Hertford College – sometimes open to tourists, and affiliated with the famous Bridge of Sighs, – was home to Brideshead Revisited‘s Sebastian Flyte, and his creator Evelyn Waugh. Former literary students also include John Donne and Jonathan Swift. Fans of children’s books might be keen to know that Dr Suess studied at Lincoln College (as did John Le Carré). The list of Oxford graduates with literary connections is – as you might expect – far too long to reproduce in this Blog, but this list of famous alumni is worth a scan to see which famous names you recognise!


If you haven’t fallen in love with Oxford yet (more fool you), here’s something that might clinch the deal – its many famous pubs means a pint is almost an essential part of any visit to the city. Start with The Eagle and Child, on St. Giles Street. This was the favoured haunt of ‘The Inklings’, a group of Oxford writers and thinkers including CS Lewis and JRR Tolkein, who would meet in the pub’s private ‘Rabbit Room’. More recently, Colin Dexter (creator of Inspector Morse) is said to be maintaining the pub’s literary connection. Luckily too, this still feels like a ‘real’ pub, dark oak and all, with the owners refusing to make it into a shrine. There is however a plaque to the authors and some of their books behind the bar.

(Photo: The New York Times)

However, following the destruction of the privacy of the Rabbit Room, The Inklings (allegedly reluctantly) changed allegianges to The Lamb and Flag on the other side of St. Giles. My Internet sources debate as to whether it was here, or The Turf Tavern that inspired Hardy’s pub in Jude the Obscure. Either way, the latter a must visit for anyone who can find it – and if you want a more concrete literary link, it’s one of Inspector Morse’s many haunts, it’s referred to in Brideshead Revisited, and CS Lewis is said to have been a fan.

(Photo: Alexandra Yarrow)

Although I don’t recommend shopping after a few pints (especially if they were the Old Rosie cider the Turf serves (or at least used to)), there are plenty of places worth looking at for literary gifts. I know Blackwells is a chain often associated with university stores, but the first flagship store on Broad Street is a must-see for any bookworm. Originally only 12 square feet, the Norrington Room is now the largest room selling books in the world, with its 10,000 square feet and three miles of shelving stretching underneath neighbouring Trinity College’s Gardens. They also have an excellent and varied speakers programme, and offer a few literary-themed walking tours of Oxford if you fancy a more structured wonder about the city (and more informtion that I’ve probably put in here)! Broad Street is also home to a specialist Blackwells shops for Art and Posters, and Music. Other bookshops of note are OUP’s only store on the High Street, and the Oxfam Bookshop near the Eagle and Child on St. Giles – if you see a book in the window and they aren’t open, you can stick a letter through the door and they’ll reserve it for you. Customer service at its best. Alternatively if  you want something a bit more Oxford orientated, Alice’s Shop (guess the theme) on St. Aldates is an excellent place for souvenir shopping.

(Photo: LISA! Travel)

But really, the most literary aspect of Oxford is the way the cobbled streets feel like you’ve jumped inside the pages of a novel (Mary Poppins style), the intricate buildings that belong in books and films, the excitement you feel as you follow in the footsteps of so many famous writers and thinkers. Oxford is somewhere to be experienced; get out there and do it. (Photo: Jack Gibbons)

NB. The annual Sunday Times Oxford Literary Festival is an incredible annual event. Usually taking place in Spring, it plays host to a huge range of events from traditional authors (both children’s and adult’s; past speakers have included Sebastian Faulks, Anthony Horowitz, Ian McEwan, and Louise Rennishaw) to political debates and hosted dinners. There’s also an excellent creative writing programme. The 2011 festival is set to take place from 2nd – 11th April – dates well worth noting in your diary!


About Amy

22-year-old aspiring publisher/bestselling writer/wooden bookshop owner (like the one in Notting Hill). Beyond books, I like travelling, kickboxing, Sex and the City, the theatre (plays and musicals), chocolate and wine (often together), taking photographs (they're not good enough to classify this as 'photography' - though I also like looking at other people's), Flight of the Conchords, owning pretty dresses, and posters of vintage book covers.
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2 Responses to Literary Cities: Ode to Oxford

  1. cupcakejunky says:

    Great virtual tour! The Northern Lights series is wonderful.

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