Oxford is full of literary history. Even if you only have a day, you can pack in several literary sights if you know where to look.
Breakfast Harry Potter Style
Breakfast in a dining hall of any of Oxford’s colleges. Although the Great Hall of the Harry Potter films is based on the Christ Church College Great Hall, several of the Oxford colleges have similar looking halls. During the Open Palace Program trip we overnighted at Oxford’s Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) College where we breakfasted in the morning in true Harry Potter style. Though it really sounds more exciting than it was. The Oxford dining halls are much, much smaller than depicted in the Harry Potter film. There wasn’t really that din of clattering cutlery I expected, although it was breakfast and everyone seemed to be trying to keep quiet out of respect for those who hadn’t had caffeine yet. Also, the food was underwhelming. I think this was the most disappointing part. When you’re imagining how famous Oxford is, plus the sumptuousness of the Hogwarts dishes, you’re in the wrong mind-set. Once I remembered this was really just a dorm cafeteria on Summer rations I felt better about the whole situation…but not about my breakfast. Luckily there are plenty of cafes in town to remedy this.
Window Shop for Books
If you’re for wandering around the University town looking for your morning coffee or just out before the museums open for the day, take some time to window shop. Among the cute Oxford shops you’ll find several inviting bookshops, both new and used, and I even found a book themed shoulder bag I fell in love with at a leather bag shop.
While the other girls ran off to the museums, I had my heart set on seeing the inside of the Bodleian Library. Unfortunately, the tickets for the morning tours were already sold out and the only way to get in the library was with a tour. Not wanting to only see the inside of a museum with such short time in this town steeped with literary history I began to wander, until I found a sign advertising Oxford Walking Tours. It promised to take you inside Harry Potter filming locations and the Bodleian Library. Perfect! Just in the nick of time I found the tour at Trinity College Gates.
As we walked towards New College, our tour guide provided history and lore of some of the more striking architectural elements of Oxford. Apparently New College was built like a fortress after a fight between “Towns” vs. “Gowns” over tasteless ale in a local pub left 63 students dead. After that students stayed in the confines of their school for safety. Looking around, I couldn’t imagine separating the town from the insides of the various Oxford college quads. And besides, tradition mandates that only professors and the gardeners are allowed to cross any of the grassy spaces within the quads! What use is having beautiful lawns just perfect for putting a blanket down to do homework on if you can’t set foot on them?
New College, the first to be built in the quad design, has the oldest working dining hall, which looked exactly like the one I had eaten in at Magdalen College. However, if you opt for breakfast in town instead of a dining hall, which I encourage, at least this tour will get you into the Harry Potter-esque hall. We learned that the students have an optional “White Shirt” dinner three times a week here where there is to be no talk of politics, religion, or the portraits on the wall (former members of the college).
Speaking of Harry Potter, we were led into the cloisters of New College where a gigantic tree stood in a corner shading a bench. Although I’d never been there before in my life, it was suddenly very familiar. I glanced around expecting Mad Eye Moody to stomp out any second, but no wizards, young or old, joined us. This was the filming location of the fourth Harry Potter movie where Malfoy was turned into a ferret.
While I would have been happy to spend the rest of my day in this cloisters, our walk continued. As we traced the path former professor C. S. Lewis took each Tuesday to meet friends for lunch at The Eagle and The Child, a local pub, our guide pointed out various Oxford features that lore maintains inspired names, creatures, and even the famous lamppost of the Narnia books. St. Peter’s Church (now a library) gave its name to Peter, the eldest of the Pevensie siblings, while St. Edmund’s College, lent its name to Peter’s younger brother Edmund. As we walked a skinny cobblestone ally we walked by a wooden door with the face of a lion carved in the middle and nearby, a carved form of a faun. Just beyond this stands a lonely black lamppost. These might just be Aslan the lion, Mr. Tumnus the faun, and of course the lamppost marking the boundary of the Narnia forest.
The tour left us outside the Bodleian Library, so I unfortunately never did get to see inside. It was a certain part of the outside that our guide wanted us to see. In the stonework of the outside are two small carved grotesques that commemorate one more author. These are Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the twins from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Carroll too left his mark on Oxford. Besides this, I had noticed a pizza place in town called The White Rabbit.
The Eagle and the Child Pub is famous for being the meeting place for the Inklings, a group of writers that included J. R. R. Tolkien and C. S. Lewis. We arrived at peak dinner time and the place was packed. The dimly lit, small rooms of the pub and the back room which I assume must have once been a backyard beer garden and now is enclosed with a glass ceiling were shoulder to shoulder.
Seeing no available tables we gave up and ran across the street to the Lamb and Flag, a pub famous for being the watering hole of Charles Dickens. He used to get into bare-knuckle fights here. We walked into the nearly empty establishment where we learned they don’t serve food.
Disappointed we trudged back across the street for one last try at the Eagle and the Child and amazingly a couple tables had opened up! It took a while for our food to come, but that gave us time to explore the literary quotes and drawings on the walls, and the mac and cheese was well worth the wait.