Think of Oxford and you might have an image of students in gowns punting down the river, professors strolling across manicured green college quads, the spires and towers of University buildings rising up above the streets to give the city it’s nickname the ‘City of Dreaming Spires’. It’s not a surprise that the city that inspires thousands of visitors now also inspired some of the brilliant writers of the past.
If you love reading or if you fancy an alternative set of sites to visit in Oxford then check out these spots that have either inspired or been frequented by some of the greatest authors from CS Lewis to Philip Pullman.
1. St Mary’s Passage
There’s a teeny little passage that leads from the High Street to Radcliffe Square and if you blink you might miss it! But if you’re a fan of the Narnia book series (or the films) by CS Lewis then you’ll want to make sure you keep your eyes peeled to spot it.
The little alleyway is called St Mary’s Passage and if you glance down then the lamp post may seem oddly familiar. A lot like THAT lamp post that the children spot as they enter Narnia through the wardrobe. This unassuming lamp post is supposed to be the inspiration for that snowy forest scene.
Just a few steps after the lamp post (towards the High Street) there’s a small but embellished doorway leading into Brasenose College. Look carefully at the door and the decoration resembles the lion Aslan’s face. Look to the sides and the adornments are fauns that bare a striking similarity to Mr Tumnus. It’s not certain whether the lamp post and the ‘Narnia door’ of St Mary’s Passage are the true inspiration for Lewis but it would be very fitting if they did.
2. The Eagle & Child
The Eagle & Child pub on St Giles has been in existence since the mid 17th century and this pub was where members of ‘The Inklings’ would gather as a literary discussion group. The infamous group counts JRR Tolkien & CS Lewis amongst its old members. Come here for a pint and imagine what it might have been like to hear their conversations huddled round another table.
3. The Covered Market
The Covered Market is in the centre of town and is full of wonderful independent shops, cafes and snack counters. Philip Pullman’s trilogy His Dark Materials has plenty of scenes in Oxford and one such location is The Covered Market which is one of Lyra’s favourite places to hang out.
4. Christ Church College
Christ Church College is a key place in the life of Lewis Carroll and in particular his novel Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Carroll was a mathematics teacher at the College and became friends with the dean who had a daughter called Alice.
Numerous places through the College link to Alice and her adventures including a small wooden door that mysteriously leads out of the Cathedral Gardens and an ornately decorated stained glass window in the Great Hall called the ‘Alice Window’.
5. The River Thames
Another spot to visit in this area is the River Thames (walk down from Christ Church through the meadow and stroll back up along the River Cherwell). It was whilst boating down the Thames to Godstow along (also known as the Isis) that Carroll’s tale of Alice began as he entertained his friend’s daughter during the journey which he of course later put down on paper.
6. Merton College
Tolkien spent many years in Oxford, first as a student at Exeter College and then as an academic at both Pembroke College & Merton College. Whilst he wrote The Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings series over his time at both colleges it is in Merton that you can see a round stone table that he wrote at. It’s alleged to have inspired Elrond’s table!
Merton College is on Merton Street (you can see it as the second college in the photo above – Corpus Christi is the first on the right).
7. Alice’s Shop
On St Aldate’s look our for Alice’s Shop opposite the entrance to Christchurch Meadows. 150 years ago this is where the real Alice Liddell used to come to buy her sweets but now you can visit to buy Alice inspired themes gifts and souvenirs.
8. Radcliffe Camera & Bodleian Library
The Radcliffe Camera and The Bodleian are two of Oxford’s libraries (they give me the fear from revising for finals!) but are absolutely beautiful and it’s no surprise that their distinct features and many artefacts have inspired some incredible literary works.
The Radcliffe Camera has been written into literature as Temple of Armenelos in The Silmarillion by Tolkien which is a compilation of mythopeic stories he wrote.
The Bodleian houses many different texts and old legends which are said to have inspired Tolkien for storylines and scenes! Various rooms in the Bodleian library have featured in the Harry Potter films as different fantastical locations.
9. Exeter College
Exeter College on Turl Street has a number of literary connections. This is where Tolkien began his time at Oxford and studied Classics initially before swapping to English Language & Literature and graduated in 1915 (with a first of course!). This is also the college that Philip Pullman studied English at in the 1960s and very much inspired his trilogy His Dark Materials.
The series heroine Lyra called Jordan College her home and it has many similarities to Exeter College!
10. Oxford Botanic Garden
If you’re a fan of His Dark Materials you’ll want to make sure you visit the University Botanic Gardens. The bench that is known as ‘Will and Lyra’s Bench’ has marked significance in the books and is somewhere you can’t miss!
11. Magdalen College
Last up is Magdalen College locates just before Magdalen Bridge. This is where CS Lewis was a fellow and English Tutor for nearly thirty years and during which time he wrote The Chronicles of Narnia series. As you explore the college (and Deer Park – yes this college really does have its own deer park!) look out for the animal carvings on the pillars round the cloisters which are supposed to have inspired a scene in the first novel where Aslan brings the animals back to life. Peek inside the college chapel where Lewis attended church service during his time at Magdalen.
How many of these Oxford literary connections did you know?