Top 5 Literary Spots in Oxford

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The list of Oxford literary alumni is a tome as lengthy as the Complete Works of Shakespeare, so it’s no wonder that some of the best-loved English stories have been based on or inspired by the city. Here are some of the hidden gems you can explore, including Harry Potter film locations, Alice in Wonderland mementos and a tribute to Percy Shelley.

Hunt for Harry Potter

People often make comparisons between Oxford and Hogwarts—the bat-like gowns, funny names (subfusc anyone?) and arcane rituals—and it’s not totally unfounded. J.K. Rowling apparently had an Oxford dining hall in mind when she wrote about the Great Hall’s 'thousands and thousands of candles' and ‘glittering golden plates and goblets’ in the first book. Some of the series was partially filmed at Christ Church, which like every Oxford college has a ‘High Table’ that the staff sit on, similar to the one that the Hogwarts staff use, and portraits of eminent figures adorning the walls. The first two films also used Christ Church’s grand staircase for the scenes in which the new Hogwarts arrivals wait to be sorted. It costs £8 to look around Christ Church and seek out the Potter spots, this price also includes exploring the rest of the college, including the lofty cathedral and the expansive Tom Quad.

Elsewhere in Oxford, the New College cloisters are the location for the memorable scene in the fourth film in which Mad-Eye Moody transforms Draco into a ferret; entry to New is £4. The Bodleian Libraries boast several spots from the series. The vast and forbidding Duke Humfrey’s Library was the Restricted Section of Hogwarts Library, and the light and airy Divinity School was the location for the medical wing. Both of these rooms are accessible on a tour of the Bodleian: a mini tour is 30 minutes and costs £6. You can also visit the Divinity School alone for £1.

Wander like Alice in Wonderland

Christ Church doesn’t just have tonnes of Harry Potter spots on offer: the writer Lewis Carroll studied Maths there in the nineteenth century, and it was where he met Alice Liddell, the daughter of the then-Dean at Christ Church. Alice Liddell was his inspiration for the fictional Alice, and the story came about when they rowed with friends from Christ Church up the River Isis to the town of Godstow. In order to entertain Alice and her sisters, Carroll invented a story about a curious young girl called Alice searching for adventures, and the girls begged him to write it down. The story was published in 1865. Christ Church has several souvenirs of Carroll’s links with the college, including a window in its Great Hall dedicated to the author, with a small stained-glass portrait of Alice Liddell visible, nicknamed the ‘Alice Window’; two giant turtle shells hanging in the kitchens, which were the inspiration for the Mock Turtle character in the books; and the door into the private Cathedral Gardens, which Carroll would see the Liddells vanish into. After exploring Christ Church and the river path, why not continue the theme of Alice in Wonderland by heading to the Mad Hatter on Iffley Road? This quirky cocktail bar serves teapots of literary-themed drinks: we recommend the Tweedledee Teapot. For families, the Story Museum hosts an Alice’s Day every year in July and has a host of fun activities related to the series.

Spot some Shelley

Many of England’s best poets were educated at Oxford, including W.H. Auden, T.S. Eliot, Philip Larkin, Matthew Arnold, Gerard Manley Hopkins, John Donne and Philip Sidney. Poetry-lovers can visit Oxford’s Shelley Memorial, a tribute to the Romantic poet who died in a sea accident at a tragically young age. Percy Shelley was infamously expelled from University College, Oxford, but that hasn't stopped them from erecting a memorial to him. Shelley lasted a year, as it is known to students, before being kicked out in March 1811 for writing a pamphlet entitled The Necessity of Atheism. The Shelley Memorial is a white marble sculpture depicting the poet’s lifeless body washed up on the shore of Italy after his drowning. The idealised, neoclassical figure was commissioned by Shelley’s daughter-in-law after his premature death, and it was donated to the college in 1893. Entry costs £2 which includes the rest of the grounds and the college also owns some of Shelley’s personal letters.

Discover His Dark Materials

Philip Pullman fans will already know that the His Dark Materials books are set in an Oxford analogous to the real one. Pullman attended Exeter College before taking up various teaching positions at schools in Oxford, and his writing has been strongly influenced by this setting.

The spin-off short novel Lyra’s Oxford contains many real locations, such as Little Clarendon Street and the North Parade, as well as fictional locations resembling the real Oxford, including ‘St Sophia’s School’ and ‘Jordan College’. You can look at an early draft of the book owned by the Bodleian Library here.

In the final novel The Amber Spyglass, before the window to their separate worlds closes and they must part forever, Lyra and Will promise to sit on a bench and think of each other on Midsummer’s Day at noon each year in their divergent Oxfords. The bench is one of the most significant sites in the fantasy series, and it can be found in the Botanic Garden near Magdalen Bridge. Pullman used to sit in this spot, following in the steps of J.R.R. Tolkien, who was also fond of the soaring black pine tree near the bench. Sadly, the ‘many-trunked pine’ mentioned in Pullman’s books was cut down in 2014, but the bench remains, marked with ‘Lyra and Will’, as well as the gate, the fountain and the little bridge that lead up to it. It’s £5 to enter the Botanic Garden and explore the poignant setting of the end of the trilogy, but it is well worth it as the lush gardens are the perfect place to spend a sunny afternoon.

Go Nuts for Narnia

C.S. Lewis was yet another author inspired by Oxford’s surroundings, remaining attached to the city throughout his life; he is buried in north Oxford at the Holy Trinity Church. Eagle-eyed fans of the Narnia series might spot an unobtrusive door into Brasenose College, which is said to have inspired the wardrobe door into Narnia. The door has intricate wooden carvings of animals and faces the University Church of St Mary the Virgin, whilst the nearby lanes around the Radcliffe Camera have old-fashioned lone lampposts resembling those in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Lewis’ favourite drinking hole the Eagle and Child is still in existence: a pub which he regularly frequented with other authors, including his close friend J.R.R. Tolkien, as part of their ‘Inklings’ club. It’s a five-minute walk from the city centre and a great place to escape for a pint after drinking in so much literary culture.