Exploring Oxford’s literary past and present - Hindustan Times
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Exploring Oxford’s literary past and present

ByTeja Lele
Apr 25, 2024 09:18 PM IST

Discover the medieval metropolis of Oxford, known for its prestigious university, stunning architecture, and rich literary heritage.

“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires, She needs not June for beauty’s heightening, Lovely all time she lies, lovely tonight.”

The city of dreaming spires: A view of Oxford (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)
The city of dreaming spires: A view of Oxford (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)

In Thyrsis, inspired by the stunning golden architecture of Oxford, Victorian poet Matthew Arnold coined the phrase that best describes the medieval metropolis: “the city of dreaming spires”.

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Situated between the upper River Thames (known as the Isis here) and the Cherwell, the riverside location gave Oxford its name in Saxon times, “Oxenaforda” or “Ford of the Oxen”.

Life in the county town of Oxfordshire has always revolved around its prestigious university, established in the 12th century and the oldest in the English-speaking world. The university expanded rapidly after 1167 when Henry II banned English students from attending the University of Paris, which brought many returning students to Oxford.

“The university has as many as 43 colleges, with University College (1249), Balliol (1263), and Merton (1264) the earliest to be constructed. Every college has the same kind of plan – it’s built around two or three quadrangles, with a chapel, hall, library, and walled gardens,” says Richard G, a guide with Oxford Official Walking Tours.

Christ Church, founded by Henry VIII with Cardinal Wolsey, is the largest Oxford college and the Cathedral seat of Oxford. It forms part of the beautiful skyline of Gothic towers and steeples of the university buildings, most of which were built in the 15th, 16th, and 17th centuries.

Situated between the upper River Thames (known as the Isis here) and the Cherwell, the riverside location gave Oxford its name in Saxon times, “Oxenaforda” or “Ford of the Oxen”. (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)
Situated between the upper River Thames (known as the Isis here) and the Cherwell, the riverside location gave Oxford its name in Saxon times, “Oxenaforda” or “Ford of the Oxen”. (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)

However, the university town has had its share of trouble due to the relationship between “town and gown” (townspeople and students). A student fled the city after reportedly murdering his mistress in 1209, which led to swift retaliation from the townsfolk : the hanging of two students. The ensuing riots led some academics to flee to nearby Cambridge and establish the University of Cambridge.

“The relationship between ‘town and gown’ remained uneasy. In 1355, it culminated in a bloody event, the massacre of St Scholastica’s Day. A pub brawl went on for three days, and left 30 townspeople and 63 students dead,” Richard tells us.

The university forced the town to make amends – the mayor had to march barefoot to St Mary’s every year on St Scholastica’s day, February 10, to pay a fine. “The riots also led to the creation of the first halls of residence,” Richard says.

Centuries later, the townsfolk and scholars have made peace in this university town. The university’s alumni include more than 27 British Prime Ministers, 50 Nobel Prize winners, 120 Olympic medallists, and dozens of international heads of state.

Oxford is associated with many prominent names in British history, including prime ministers like William Pitt the Elder, George Canning, Sir Robert Peel, William Gladstone, Lord Salisbury, HH Asquith, Clement Atlee, Anthony Eden, Harold Macmillan, Edward Heath, Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher, and Rishi Sunak. Astronomer Edmond Halley studied at Oxford while physicist Robert Boyle performed his most important research while at the university.

Along with world leaders, Oxford is also famous for literary heritage and its vast retinue of writers spanning multiple eras and genres.

The literary lineup includes Philip Sidney (1554-1586), Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), Percy Shelley (1792-1822), Lewis Carroll (1832-1898), William Morris (1834-1896), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Katharine Lee Bates (1859-1929), JRR Tolkien (1892-1973), Vera Brittain (1893-1970), Dorothy Sayers (1893-1957), Robert Graves (1895-1985), CS Lewis (1898-1963), Dr Seuss (1904-1991), and Harper Lee (1926-2016), Seamus Heaney (1939-2013), and Philip Pullman (1946-present). Interestingly, Lewis and Tolkien were members of the Inklings, an informal Oxford literary group in the mid-20th century.

Small enough to explore on foot, the town has interesting museums and galleries, labyrinthine bookstores and historic pubs. (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)
Small enough to explore on foot, the town has interesting museums and galleries, labyrinthine bookstores and historic pubs. (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)

The university and its colleges may be Oxford’s defining feature, but there’s much more to this beautiful city. The golden-hued town brings together stunning architecture, history and culture. Small enough to explore on foot, it is replete with interesting museums and galleries, labyrinthine bookstores and historic pubs. But there are other ways to discover it too: open bus tours, river cruises and hired punts or rowing boats.

The centuries-old city is full of inspiration: the Ashmolean, the UK’s first public museum; the Story Museum, where children and adults can explore their favourite tales; the Oxford Museum of Natural History, which houses seven million fascinating objects and specimens; and the Bodleian Library, where at least five kings, dozens of prime ministers and Nobel laureates, and writers such as Wilde, Lewis, and Tolkien studied.

Lewis was a tutor of English at Magdalen College, and it was during his time there that he worked on many of his famous works, including The Chronicles of Narnia. Animals carved into the cloisters are said to have inspired The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In Oriel Square and on the way up to St Mary’s Passage is an ornate, familiar-looking door that inspired the entry to Narnia. It’s framed by wooden fauns that resemble Mr Tumnus. A lamp post to the left also seems familiar – until you realise that it recalls the spot where Lucy and Mr Tumnus met for the first time!

Not too far away, Christ Church College was where Lewis Carroll, author of Alice in Wonderland, taught mathematics. The little door in the Cathedral Garden is said to have inspired the entrance to Wonderland. The nearby Isis is where the writer, then an ordained deacon, spun a magical tale to entertain the college dean’s 10-year-old daughter, Alice Liddell, on whom the fictional Alice was modelled.

Tolkien was both a student and professor at the University of Oxford, and the city had a huge influence on The Lord of the Rings trilogy and The Hobbit. The gold Posie rings at the Ashmolean, more specifically the inscriptions on the inside, are said to have inspired the all-powerful One Ring. Tolkien did a lot of writing at a round stone table in the grounds of Merton College; the table is believed to be the inspiration for Elrond’s table in The Fellowship of the Ring. Tolkien and Lewis met members of the Inklings twice a week for decades at The Eagle and Child pub, where a document signed by the authors – praising the pub’s ham – takes pride of place.

Oxford plays a leading role in Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, especially Exeter College where he studied. The author co-narrates City of Stories, an audio-visual time-travelling journey through Oxford’s literary history at the Story Museum. The bench at the university’s botanic gardens, where Will and Lyra from Northern Lights agree to meet each year, is a visitor hotspot.

For committed readers, a day out in Oxford means taking in Carfax Tower and standing in Pembroke Square outside the college where JRR Tolkien wrote The Hobbit, looking for the eight stained-glass windows featuring characters from Wonderland at Christ Church College, and taking a closer look at locations where Harry Potter was filmed.

Christ Church’s dining hall may be Oxford’s most iconic Harry Potter film location (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)
Christ Church’s dining hall may be Oxford’s most iconic Harry Potter film location (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)

New College’s cloisters and Christ Church’s dining hall may be Oxford’s most iconic Harry Potter film locations, but the gothic Divinity School is also worth a visit. It played the role of Harry’s hospital ward in the first film. Not to be missed is the Bodleian, one of the oldest libraries in Europe. It actually includes 26 libraries that have more than 13 million printed items. One of the wood-panelled reading rooms here doubled as the Hogwarts library. The Radcliffe Camera, an iconic Oxford landmark and a working library, is part of the Bodleian complex, and is said to be have inspired Tolkien and Sauron’s temple to Morgoth.

“The Gladstone Link, an underground library, connects the Radcliffe Camera with the Bodleian Library. The tunnels where the library is now located were previously known as the Underground Bookstore. They were used to transport books between the Old Bodleian and New Bodleian libraries and to the Radcliffe Camera,” Richard says.

Oxford continues to focus on its literary heritage by organising special events, walks, and festivals. The Oxford Literary Festival, a nine-day literary event, brings together leading authors and public figures each year. Held from March 16 to 24, this year, the venues included Blackwell’s Bookshop, the Bodleian and Weston Libraries, the Sheldonian Theatre, and Worcester College.

The Radcliffe Camera, an iconic Oxford landmark and a working library, is part of the Bodleian complex, and is said to be have inspired Tolkien and Sauron’s temple to Morgoth. (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)
The Radcliffe Camera, an iconic Oxford landmark and a working library, is part of the Bodleian complex, and is said to be have inspired Tolkien and Sauron’s temple to Morgoth. (Photo courtesy Experience Oxfordshire)

I step into Turf Tavern, which calls itself Oxford’s best kept secret. Serving ales, appetisers, and more to “England’s literary elite, politicians, presidents and movie stars since 1381”, it is located in the very heart of town, between New College and Hertford College. The Grade II listed tavern is a maze of small rooms, tiny passages, and small staircases, but my agenda’s clear: a table near a charging point.

The server tells me about the one person who’s said to have never left Turf Tavern – the resident ghost, Rosie, who continues to wait for her lover’s return – as I bite into the piping hot Steak and Ruddles Ale pie. Served with sides of charred cabbage wedges and triple-cooked chips, it looks – and tastes – like a dream.

In the city of dreaming spires, almost everything is a theme for a dream. No wonder WB Yeats famously said: “I wonder anybody does anything at Oxford but dream and remember, the place is so beautiful. One almost expects the people to sing instead of speaking. It is all like an opera.”

Teja Lele is an independent editor and writes on books, travel and lifestyle.

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