We were in Wonderland and, like Alice, we were lost. Not down a rabbit hole, but on the teeming streets of Oxford’s city center searching for our hotel. We were overwhelmed by the traffic – cars, bikes and busses and the sidewalks crowded with the pedestrians.
Beyond the traffic and the tourists, I saw no Mad Hatters or Dodo birds, but glimpsed instead, gargoyles and uglies hanging over the edges of stone buildings of the 39 colleges that form Oxford University. At street level, I saw painted facades of blue and red with canopies advertising restaurants and shops. This was Oxford at rush hour on a weekday afternoon not that many years ago.
I had come looking for the Oxford, described more than a century ago, in Alice’s Adventure Underground, later known as Alice in Wonderland, or the Oxford described in the mysteries I read and see on television. We did find Alice’s Oxford as well as Inspector Morse’s Oxford and the Oxford of other literary giants, prime ministers and presidents. We just had to follow the clues hidden in the stories, in the buildings and gardens, and on those teeming streets.
We joined the “Women in Oxford” walking tour and, as soon as we began, I felt a sense of recognition. I tuned out the noise and the traffic and focused on the history of the place. While standing in the Bodleian library I could imagine Antonia Fraser, historian, mystery writer and Oxford alum, studying and later writing about this place. I could picture author Dorothy Sayers examining some of its 80 miles of shelves and over 5 million books and manuscripts.
We visited Baliol College and I recognized it as the college where the movie Shadowlands, about writer C.S. Lewis, was filmed. When I stood in the tower of St. Mary’s church, panting after climbing the 120 steps, I realized it was probably where they filmed the scene from that movie of the boys singing to the rising sun on Easter morning.
I walked in and out of buildings I had seen while watching the Inspector Morse mystery series based on books by Colin Dexter. I stared up staircases and thought about Laurie King’s fictional character Mary Russell, an Oxford graduate, wife and crime solving partner of Sherlock Holmes.
We stopped in a garden next to Christ Church, which was home to Alice, her sisters, and the Cheshire cat. On July 4th, 1862, Charles Dodgson and Robinson Duckworth, two faculty members of Christchurch and friends of the Liddell family, rowed Alice, Lorina and Edith Liddell, the daughters of the Dean of the College, down that quiet river. The little girls asked for a story and Charles Dodgson obliged by inventing “Wonderland” and all its characters. We visited what is now called Alice’s Shop, which is the same 15th century building that Alice would visit to buy barley sugar sweets. Lewis Carroll, the pen name for Dodgson, called it the Old Sheep Shop in his stories. I played the Alice game by noticing the sizes of doors, trees and entryways and imagined that I had shrunk or grown huge like she did.
The next day, we toured the women’s colleges. We visited Somerville, which was established as a place for women to stay while taking classes at other colleges. They were allowed to take classes but not allowed to receive Oxford degrees. Somerville was named after Mary Somerville. She was a self-taught Scottish scientist, twice married, mother of two children and very involved in the women’s suffrage movement and the education of women. This college went co-ed in 1990.
The only remaining women’s college is St. Hilda’s, founded in 1893, one of my favorites. It is a small school that lies tucked away near Magdalen Bridge with a view of the river. Its gardens are a little wilder compared to the other colleges. Entry is through a gate rather than an imposing brick archway. The buildings are beautiful and seem welcoming rather than imposing. It is also the home of the Jacqueline du Pré Music building, designed by Joanna van Heiningen as a memorial to that great musician. It is said that St. Hilda’s is the model for Shrewsbury College of Dorothy Sayers’ mysteries.
No literary tour would be complete without a visit to the Bodleian library. Through most of its history, books were chained to pews; readers had to swear not to remove books, or enter in wet clothes, or kindle a fire. No one may check out a book, not even King Charles who made that request in 1645.
Blackwell’s Book Shops has the largest single room, 10,000 square feet devoted to book sales in Europe. It was a little overwhelming but I managed to find books to buy! I am sure it sells many Harry Potter books to people who take the walking tour “Pottering with Harry”.
I left Oxford much happier than when I arrived. If you can get past the hustle and bustle and know where and what to look for, you can find the Oxford of the poets, writers and historians and of a little girl named Alice!
Written by Guest contributor Ann Lonstein for EuropeUpClose.com
Ann Lonstein is a freelance writer living in Minnesota. She took her first plane ride when she emigrated from South Africa with her husband and infant son. She has not stopped flying since, and has visited many countries around the globe. Ann can be reached at her blog, www.everyjourneytraveled.wordpress.com