Oxford has a rich literary history and counts numerous influential writers among its 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 self-guided walking tour of literary Oxford featuring authors all the way from Phillip Pullman to J R R Tolkien. This is the perfect day out in Oxford for book lovers.
You’ll also find a free map with walking directions at the bottom too!
9 am – Magdalen College
We’ll start this tour of literary Oxford a little way out of the city 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!
Address: Magdalen College, Oxford, OX1 4AU
Opening Hours: Vary by season.
Jan – June: 1pm to dusk or 6pm, whichever is earlier
June – Oct: 10am to dusk or 7pm, whichever is earlier
Oct – Dec: 1pm to dusk or 6pm, whichever is earlier
Price: £7 adults, £6 concessions
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.
Price: £5.45 (concessions available)
Address: Rose Lane, Oxford, OX1 4AZ
Opening Hours: 9am – 6pm every day
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 its 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.
Address: Merton College, London Road, Morden SM4 5QX
Opening Hours: 9am-8pm Monday to Thursday; 9am-3pm Friday; 9am-11am Saturday
Price: £3 adults, concessions available
11:45 am – Christ Church
A couple of metres down the road from Merton, you’ll find Christ Church, another grand college. This is one of the most popular Oxford colleges and should be on any book lover’s guide to literary Oxford.
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.
Address: Christ Church, St Aldate’s, Oxford, OX1 1DP
Opening Hours: 10am – 5pm (Monday to Saturday), 2pm – 5pm (Sunday)
Price: £15 adults, £14 concessions, children under 5 free
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.
If you’d like to keep with the literary theme and don’t mind walking a little off course, head to George Street Social. It’s a seven-minute walk from the Radcliffe Camera and there you’ll find delicious dishes such as shakshuka and the most amazing chicken sandwich you will ever have in your life!
The stairs there are literary-themed with each step named after a famous classic read – with a twist. Ever heard of Gin Eyre, A Cocktail of Two Cities or Lord of the Mai-Tais? It’s the perfect place for book lovers in Oxford to have lunch.
Check out this post for more brunch in Oxford.
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 book onto 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.
Check out this post for tips on where to get the best view of the Radcliffe Camera.
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 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 if you want a look inside this library.
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.
Address: Radcliffe Camera, Radcliffe Square, Oxford OX1 3BG
3 pm – Oxford University Museum of Natural History
From the library, there’s a longer walk than usual up to the Oxford University Museum of Natural History on Parks Road. The Museum is completely free, making it one of the best free things to do in Oxford.
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.
Address: Oxford University Museum of Natural History, Parks Road, Oxford, OX1 3PW
Opening Hours: 10am – 5pm
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 its 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!
Address: 49 St Giles’, Oxford OX1 3LU
So that concludes my walking tour of literary Oxford, which includes some of the most famous landmarks of literary significance in this small city.
There are, of course, so many more places to visit in literary Oxford but there’s more than enough here for a book lovers’ day trip to Oxford!
How to get to Oxford from London
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. Book via the Trainline for the cheapest tickets.
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.
Where to Stay in Oxford
For more posts about my time at Oxford, check out these Oxford University blog posts:
Inside 8 of Oxford University’s Most Beautiful Libraries
10 Most Beautiful Oxford Colleges
11 Best Places for Brunch in Oxford
8 Do’s and Dont’s When Choosing an Oxford College
What is it like to study French at Oxford University?
The Harry Potter Tour of Oxford University
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[First published in 2018, updated in 2020]