The Stones in Literary Oxford

Literary Tourist in Oxford

The first thing you notice about Oxford is the stones. They’re everywhere: under

foot,

in the surrounding walls,

covering the sides of churches and towers, on the roofs. It’s all rather beautiful. Oxford University has one of the best preserved groups of medieval buildings in the world. Back then, stones were obviously big. It brings to mind Shakespeare (what doesn’t?), and his use of stones to describe heartlessness: ‘flint-bosom,’ ‘harden’d hearts, harder than stone;’ ‘You blocks, you stones, you worse than senseless things;’ ‘thy stony heart;’ ‘No, my heart is turned to stone; I strike it, and it hurts my hand.’ Just one thing. It’s clear that Oxford has heart.

Since it was right around Christmas when we visited, the libraries and theatres were closed, so we had to settle for admiring their exteriors. Not all bad. The Radcliffe Camera (built between 1737-48) was the first round library in England.

Sheldonian Theatre (1664-7) is modelled on a U-shaped open-air theatre in ancient Rome, it’s Oxford’s first Classical building and the first large building designed by Christopher Wren.

It’s located across the street from Blackwell’s Bookstore, which it turns out, was open.

Here you’ll find an enormous selection of titles, an amazing basement containing the world’s largest single display of books, and a good second-hand/antiquarian department up on the Third floor. Plus the shop puts surprisingly recent stuff on sale

The tourist information office was open too. I knew literature was in the air when I saw these for sale

Next door to Blackwell’s you’ll find the Bodleian Weston Library, also in stone, new and sleek, Canada’s contribution to British education. The library was named in honour of the £25 million donation given in 2008 by the Garfield Weston Foundation.

The pubs too thankfully were open, so I strolled over to The Eagle and Child, ‘the bird and baby,’ as members of The Inklings literary discussion group who met here regularly during most of the 1930s and 1940s, called it. They included J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Owen Barfield. The group was ‘informal, no rules, officers, agendas, or formal elections,’ and generally ‘praised
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Alice’s Adventures in Oxford


Christ Church. Credit Bduke at en.wikipedia

By Angela Youngman

A city of dreaming spires and black robed undergraduates with bikes hurrying to lectures, Oxford is also home to one of the most celebrated characters in literature. It was here that one blazing hot day in the summer of 1862, that an Oxford don named named Charles Dodgson took a little girl named Alice Liddell and her sisters rowing on the river Isis. Leaving Folly meadow, they rowed down to Godstow for a picnic during which Dodgson told a story about Alice encountering a white rabbit with a pocket watch and muttering he would be late. The rest is history.

Better known by his pen name of Lewis Carroll, Charles Dodgson wrote down the story and it has delighted readers ever since. Iconic scenes such as the Mad Hatter’s tea party with a Dormouse being stuffed into a teapot, playing card soldiers and gardeners painting roses red are instantly recognizable. Many of these scenes are based around places that Alice knew in Oxford – and visitors can still see many of these locations today. Both Alice and Lewis Carroll lived at Christ Church College, part of Oxford University. Alice’s father was Dean of the College, while Carroll was one of the lecturers. The College was Carroll’s home from 1851 to his death in 1898 . He started writing his famous story while living in The Cloister of Christ Church College.

A picture of Lewis Carroll can be seen in the dining room near the door, while Dean Liddell’s portrait is close to the High Table. Just behind the High Table is an intriguing winding stair, which is known as the Rabbit Hole! Nearby is Christ Church Cathedral where Carroll worshipped daily, sitting in the Canons and Students stalls. Alice Liddell also came here with her family to attend services, most frequently on Sundays. Leaving the College via a path through the Meadows, it is possible to walk directly in Alice’s footsteps. The poplar trees were planted on the orders of her father, and Carroll’s photograph of the site shows this identical view. Punting and rowing on the river is still a feature of Oxford life. There are many boats for hire, just as Carroll hired one for his party. Godstow Lock and the meadow where Alice and her sisters heard the story still remain, with lots of space for picnics.

Across the road from the Deanery on St Aldates is another reminder of Alice. A little shop now bears her name. It was here that Alice went to buy sweets. The old lady in charge of the shop had a bleating voice, and the shop frequently flooded. Carroll referred to this in his book Through the Looking Glass when he wrote that Alice was ‘in a little dark shop, leaning with her elbows on the counter, and opposite her was an old Sheep, sitting in an arm-chair knitting, and every now and then leaving off to look at her through a great pair of spectacles’ and that goods floated away in the water.

Not far away is the Museum of Natural History where Lewis Carroll and Alice saw the remains of a Dodo, while the Museum of Oxford has an fascinating display of Alice memorabilia such as Alice’s Crest Book, her Red Cross medal for fund raising efforts during the First World War and a wonderful biscuit tin specifically commissioned by Lewis Carroll to celebrate his 60th birthday.

Angela Youngman is a writer and journalist with numerous books linking travel and literary/film sites. She is the author of Discover Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland: The writer, the stories, the places