Oxford literary tour, UK: The birthplace of some of the world's most famous novels

Take any of the many walking tours of Oxford's 38 university colleges and you'll be told Europe's third oldest university (after Bologna and Paris) has educated 28 British Prime Ministers – including Theresa May – compared with Cambridge's paltry 14.

But to most visitors, Oxford University's real claim to fame is its contribution to world literature  – particularly fantasy fiction.

Which is why I'm supping a pint in one of Britain's most celebrated pubs – the Eagle and Child (or "Bird and Baby" as its been called by locals for generations).

This is my final stop on a self-guided stroll using John Dougill's Oxford: A Literary Guide as a bible. 

It's only 5.30pm, but I've been lucky enough to score a table for early supper in the cosy snug known as the Rabbit Room. 

This is where two of Oxford's most famous literary dons – J.R.R. Tolkien (Merton) and C.S. Lewis (Magdalen) – plus a group of like-minded friends met every Tuesday lunchtime in what was then the pub's back room to discuss their progress on various books including The Hobbit and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe

Memorabilia around the walls reminds visitors about "The Inklings", as the Tolkien/Lewis group called themselves. 

Not all their lunches were scholarly. Sometimes they read aloud works by Irish writer Amanda McKittrick Ros (then regarded as the worst published author in the English language) to see who could last the longest without laughing.

Two of Oxford's most popular contemporary authors – crime writer Colin Dexter, creator of Inspector Morse, and Philip Pullman, author of the His Dark Materials fantasy trilogy – have also been known to cradle an ale at the Bird and Baby. 


Both live in the city, and feature Oxford in their novels. Pullman studied English at Exeter and has admitted Lyra's Jordan College in His Dark Materials (adapted by Hollywood as The Golden Compass) is based on his own college. 

The fictional Morse studied Classics at St John's (though Dexter was a Cambridge classicist) and had his fatal heart attack on the lawn of Exeter College. Indeed, so many Oxford locations have been used in the Morse novels and TV series that a separate walking tour is devoted to the morose detective.

"Since 1823, over 550 novels have been set or partly set in Oxford – but only one classic: Thomas Hardy's Jude The Obscure," Dougill writes. 

His judgment seems particularly harsh on Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited. Waugh was at Hertford College, and so was his narrator, Charles Ryder (though Hertford isn't named).

In the 1981 TV adaption, starring Jeremy Irons and Anthony Andrews, a corner of Hertford's North Quad was used as the setting for Ryder's ground floor rooms – into which the foppish Sebastian Flyte vomits through an open window on their first meeting.

Talking of fops, Dougill claims Oscar Wilde "arrived at Magdalen an obscure Irish provincial aged 20. He left four years later an ostentatious dandy with a reputation for brilliance." 

If that's so, Dougill also notes that on one of Wilde's many returns to "the capital of romance" (Wilde's phrase) he was introduced to Magdalen student Lord Alfred Douglas. Three years later their homosexual relationship led to Wilde's imprisonment and The Ballard of Reading Gaol.

Other distinguished poets who studied here include Gerard Manley Hopkins (Balliol), W.H. Auden (Christ Church), John Betjeman​ (Magdelen), Louis MacNeice​ (Merton), Philip Larkin (St John's) and Matthew Arnold (Oriel) – who fathered two resounding phrases that became synonymous with Oxford: "city of dreaming spires" and "home of lost causes".

Still, the greatest Oxford-educated poet was Shelley who arrived at University College in 1810 and was known as "Mad Shelley". According to Dougill, Shelley read for up to 16 hours a day, stuffed his pockets with bread (in case, as a vegetarian, he was offered meat), and ran electricity though his college door handle to literally shock visitors. 

If that wasn't enough, Shelley was expelled at the end of his first year for anonymously writing a pamphlet on atheism. His crime was being identified.

Graham Greene also had a wild time at Balliol, running up debts, drinking ferociously and regularly cheating death at Russian roulette in Elsfield Woods. 

T.E. Lawrence (of Arabia fame) lived in Polstead Road, North Oxford from the age of 12, studied history briefly at Jesus, and returned to the city after World War I, taking up a three-year post at All Souls where he had rooms overlooking "the High". He left after only a year, asked by Winston Churchill (according to his friend Robert Graves in Goodbye to All That) to help with the post-war settlement of the Middle East.

And yet, arguably, the greatest of Oxford's literary heroes is Charles Dodgson​, a name most people don't recognise.

A lifelong bachelor, Dodgson spent his adult life at Christ Church. A contemporary described him as an "austere, shy, precise, stiffly conservative" – qualities that may befit the professor of mathematics he became, but which hardly suit the profile of a fantasy writer.

For all his brilliance as mathematician, photographer, pamphleteer and lover of puzzles, no one would remember the stuttering don today but for his friendship with Alice Liddell.

Dodgson was 23 and Alice – the fourth child of his boss, Henry Liddell, the Dean of Christ Church – just three when they met. 

Seven years later, on July 4, 1862, as he was rowing them along the Isis for a picnic, Alice asked Dodgson to tell her and her two sisters another of "his stories".

The result was Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll, and followed in 1872 by Alice Through the Looking Glass.

There has been much speculation since about the relationship between Dodgson and his pubescent muse – and the sudden break with the Liddell family in 1863.

But, as Dougill writes, "For all its flights of fancy, [Alice's Adventures in Wonderland] remains rooted in Christ Church and full of Oxford references. Even the layout of the college can be seen as a source of inspiration with its long fall, strange rituals, mysterious openings, donnish exchanges, locked doors and secret gardens."

And I haven't even begun to explore Oxford's Harry Potter connections. 

Let alone women writers such as Somerville's most famous graduates – Dorothy Sayers (creator of Lord Peter Wimsey and female detective Harriet Vane) and Iris Murdoch, author of 27 novels whose slow decline into dementia was brought to life in the film Iris starring Kate Winslet. 

So much reading to do, and such little time in Oxford,

Note to self: spend longer here next time.






Oxford is 100 kilometres north-west of London by car, via the A40 or M25 to the M40. Trains leave Paddington every 30 minutes for Oxford, while buses (Oxford Tube and X90) depart Victoria Station every 15 minutes. There are also direct bus connections from London's main airports, Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted.

Steve Meacham travelled at his own expense.