Oxford has a rich literary history and counts numerous influential writers amongst it’s alumni. What a lot of people might not know though is just how many Oxford landmarks have inspired fictional places in our favourite stories. Come with me a walking tour of Oxford’s literary history featuring authors all the way from Phillip Pullman to J R R Tolkien. You’ll find a map with walking directions at the bottom!
9 am – Magdalen College
We’ll start the day a little way out of the centre at Magdalen College where C S Lewis was a tutor of English. It was during this time that he wrote many of his most famous works, including his fictional series The Chronicles of Narnia. Magdalen is one of the most impressive and most beautiful colleges at Oxford University so take your time exploring the grounds and imagine what it must’ve been like to study under C S Lewis back in the 20s, 30s and 40s!
10 am – University of Oxford Botanic Gardens
From Magdalen you should make your way across the road to the University of Oxford Botanic Gardens. It was only in my final year at Oxford that I really discovered these gardens and began to appreciate their beauty. It was only after I left that I discovered it’s literary significance for many of my favourite authors. Here you’ll find:
The bench where Will and Lyra from Phillip Pullman’s Northern Lights series agree to meet each year. Lots of fans come to visit the bench each year and it is covered in scratchings of “Will and Lyra”, “W + L” and more. During the summer months, this is a really lovely place to sit and you can see why Pullman chose this spot for the reunion of his two protagonists.
Next there’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Caroll. Alice spends a great deal of time trying to find her way into “the loveliest garden you ever saw” and it’s easy to see the connection between this description and the real life Botanic Gardens. During the summer months there are rows and rows of colourful flowers, a common feature in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and the Queen of Hearts’ gardens and croquet lawn can be imagined here.
Lastly, the tree that inspired Tolkien’s ents used to reside in the Botanic Gardens until 2014 when it had to be cut down (wonder what Treebeard would have to say about that…). It was a large Austrian black pine tree with branches that looked like long, thick arms.
11 am – Merton College
Now we’re off down the back streets of Oxford heading towards Merton College. These cobbled streets and coloured houses are rather quaint and it’s easy to forget that the main road is just a couple of steps away. Quite a way down Merton Street, you’ll find the entrance to the college. This is where J R R Tolkien became an English Literature Professor in 1945. This college is a lot less grand than Magdalen but each college has it’s own character. Tolkien did a lot of his writing at a round stone table in the college grounds, which is rumoured to have inspired Elrond’s table in The Fellowship of the Ring where the fellowship is first formed. It’s also worth noting that TS Eliot was a philosophy student at this college too.
11:45 am – Christ Church
A couple of metres down the road from Merton, you’ll find Christ Church, another grand college. To get to the entrance, however, you’ll have to go down the passage Grove Walk and walk around the outside of the college until you get to Christ Church Meadow. At this entrance you can queue and buy your ticket (find ticket price info here) to enter the college.
Christ Church is where Alice in Wonderland was born. The fictional Alice was inspired by Alice Liddell, the daughter of the Dean of Christ Church in the 19th century. Charles Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, studied and taught at Christ Church, which is how he met this little girl. The college hosts many large, beautiful gardens which inspired the setting for Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, particularly the Deanery Garden, which is private.
On your tour, you’ll also visit the hall that inspired the Great Hall in Harry Potter. Although this room was never used in the films (they built a replica at Leavesen Studios), when you walk through the large wooden doors, you’ll feel like you’ve stepped into Hogwarts. Indeed, the steps leading up the hall are actually the steps used in the Harry Potter films. If you’re interested in more Harry Potter film locations at Oxford, check out this post.
12:30 pm – St Mary’s Passage
When you leave Christ Church, you’ll find yourself in Oriel Square. From here you can walk towards the High Street and then up to St Mary’s Passage. Here, you’ll find none other than the door to Narnia. One look at this passage and it’s easy to see where C S Lewis got his inspiration. If you stand facing the door to “Narnia”, you’ll see a familiar looking lamp to your left. This can only have been the inspiration for the lamppost where Lucy and Mr Tumnus first met. Now speaking of Mr Tumnus, check out these two figures guarding said door. The similarities are uncanny, right? Apparently C S Lewis spent much time running between the two doors that stand opposite each other in this passage, which is how he came upon these details.
1 pm – Lunch Break
At this point, you’re probably feeling a little peckish, so I’d recommend heading into Radcliffe Square and finding a table at the Vaults and Gardens. If it’s a sunny day you can sit outside with a glorious view of the Radcliffe Camera, but if not, you’ll still have the pleasure of their food.
2 pm – Radcliffe Camera
Now that your bellies are full, you can properly explore Radcliffe Square, which is home to Oxford University’s iconic round library. This distinctive shape can be seen from the very corners of Oxford so it’s not surprising that it inspired Tolkien and Sauron’s temple to Morgoth. If you’re lucky enough to get a tour inside the library, you’ll also be able to see where many of the Oxford alumni I’ve already mentioned would’ve studied.
2:30 pm – Bodleian Library
The Bodleian library features in a more modern piece of work that I have a sneaking suspicion is about to make waves. The All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness begins in Oxford University and a new televised version is going to hit screens in 2018. In this series, a historian opens a bewitched manuscript in Oxford University’s Bodleian library which unleashes magic into her life. The TV series was also filmed inside the Bodleian so look out for it later this year for a look inside this library. If you want a sneak peak inside some other beautiful Oxford libraries, check out this post.
Other points of literary significance here are the manuscripts that inspired Tolkien’s work and now the collections where you can now view the original manuscripts of his work. The Duke Humphrey library was also used in the Harry Potter films as the “restricted” section of the library.
3 pm – Oxford University Museum of Natural History
From the library there’s a longer walk than usual up to Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Parks Road. Inside here there’s lots of fascinating stuff to see and a great collection of dinosaur bones and world history. For the purposes of this literary tour though, you’ll be looking out for The Oxford Dodo. The remains of this bird are one of the most treasured pieces in this museum and of course relate to the Dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
4:30 pm – The Eagle and Child Pub
Your brain (and your legs) must be feeling pretty tired by this point, right? The final stop on our tour is The Eagle and Child Pub, where you can enjoy a well-deserved pint. This pub was the meeting place of “The Inklings”, a literary discussion group that counted Tolkien and C S Lewis amongst it’s members. It was actually at one of these meetings that C S Lewis first handed out the proofs for The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe!
So that concludes my literary tour of Oxford which includes some of the most famous landmarks of literary significance in this small city. There are, of course, so many more that could not be mentioned but I would highly recommend having a nose around on google for more snippets of information! I’ll also be writing some more about this in the future so stay tuned.
How to get to Oxford from London
The Oxford Tube is a super convenient and cheap bus service that’ll take you from the centre of London straight into the heart of Oxford. If you’re taking this route, I’d recommend getting off at the High Street so that you can begin your tour at Magdalen college.
Oxford is only an hour / hour and a half drive from the centre of London. It’s a very easy drive down via the M4, M25, M40 and A roads.
There are regular trains from London Paddington to Oxford. The station is a little way out of the city centre but you can then take a bus or walk into town.
For more posts about my time at Oxford University, check out the following: