Literary Tourist in Oxford
The first thing you notice about Oxford is the stones. They’re everywhere: under
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 the value of narrative in fiction and encouraged the writing of fantasy.’ I know this because I read a good biography of Lewis not that long ago by A. N. Wilson.
Further along the road and down to the left a few blocks you’ll find two lovely little used book shops. Only one, The Last Bookshop’ at 25 Walton Street, was open. Every book is on sale here for only £3. The other one, a block away
has a cafe.
If literary walking tours are your thing, and they certainly are mine, Experience Oxfordshire is currently offering a new tour called Philip Pullman’s Oxford Official Tour, to celebrate the publication of La Belle Sauvage, the first in a new trilogy which features Lyra, the heroine of His Dark Materials trilogy. Pullman has endorsed this new tour, which is produced in conjunction with Penguin UK Books. The tour runs once a month and is led by a qualified literary Green Badge Guide with a special interest in the author’s work. It lasts for two hours. The tour includes key locations mentioned in the novels — such as Jordan’s College (Exeter College), Bodley’s Library (the Bodleian Library) the Pitt Rivers Museum and Oxford’s Covered Market.
Experience Oxfordshire also has C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien fans covered with a tour. It’s especially popular now because of an exhibition of Tolkien’s work that’s on at the Bodleian. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-Earth runs until October 28, 2018. More than 200 items from the library’s extensive Tolkien collection are on display, including draft manuscripts of The Hobbit, watercolour paintings, dust jacket designs, drawings and maps.
In addition to indulging Inklings fans, Harry Potter and Inspector Morse fanatics are also catered to with their own walking tours.
Less than an hour’s drive away from Oxford you’ll find Reading University and its Special Collections Library. Three collections caught my attention: British publishers’ histories, Samuel Beckett, and Ladybird Books which is housed in the Museum of English Rural Life. It contains ‘the world’s first and only permanent exhibition space dedicated to the art of the iconic Ladybird Books. The gallery showcases an archive of over 20,000 illustrations – 700 boxes of original Ladybird artwork, proofs and documentation from the 1940s to the 1990s, including examples of the work of notable artists such as C.F. Tunnicliffe, Rowland Hilder and Allen Seaby.’
I collect publishers histories so was very keen to learn more. Reading University Archivist Guy Baxter filled me in. Here’s our conversation:
For more information on visiting Oxford and environs here’s the place to go.