A Literary Break in Oxford: Shrunken Heads, Afternoon Tea and The Inklings

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Last summer we launched our first ever SuperBreak Travel Writer Competition – you guys sent us some amazing entries and we’d love to share one of them with you now.

Catherine Kemp’s entry relayed her short break in Oxford seeking out hotspots with great literary reference. Whether you love books, celebrating World Book Day or simply looking for some short break inspiration, this wonderful post is definitely worth a read…

Oxford. Just the word conjures up images of academics striding across a University quad, robes flapping in the breeze, or perhaps Inspector Lewis frowning gloomily into a pint over his latest murder mystery. A group of book-loving girlfriends and I decided to spend a weekend here to soak up the atmosphere and perhaps even visit a literary haunt or two. Travelling by train from the West Midlands, we were determined to see as much as we could on a fairly modest budget, but without feeling that we were cutting any corners.

Many a confused tourist may ask where the University is in Oxford. It’s everywhere and with thirty-eight colleges, every corner you turn in this city will bring you to another University building. Many are old – from the Medieval Balliol (founded in 1263) to the concrete and glass St Catherine’s College (1963).

Our first decision, arriving on a Saturday morning, was to take an open-topped bus on a tour of the city. Geography has never been my strong point and if you’re similarly navigationally-challenged it’s a great way to get your bearings. An hour’s bus ride with City Sightseeing will cost £14 for an adult ticket with concessions for children, seniors and students and the tickets last 24 hours so you can hop on and off or do part of the tour in the morning and continue later on if the fancy takes you! You can get a recorded commentary of the sights as you go around (also available in multiple languages) so that by the end of the tour you’ll have learnt some fascinating titbits about the city and if you’re on the top deck as we were, seen some of the amazing architecture from a new angle.

Cath-at-Bod-libraryOxford-pushbike

We then spent a happy hour or two wandering down cobbled passages, peering through wooden gates into the colleges, and stopping for a photo opportunity at the Bodleian Library. If you’ve ever read Thomas Hardy’s heart-breaking novel “Jude The Obscure” you’ll know Oxford was the inspiration for the fictional university city of ‘Christminster’ where Jude longs to study. Standing in one of the doorways to the Bodleian, I felt some empathy for the fictional Jude. This was the closest I was ever going to get to studying here!

Oxford is stuffed full of places to eat, from cosy pubs to airy restaurants and busy cafes. For lunch we made our way to the Turf Tavern, an architecturally characterful pub with a beer garden, ideal for a summer lunch. It’s in Bath Place, near the famous Bridge of Sighs and is suitably historic, with ancient beams and one of Oxford’s old city walls running down one side. Trivia collectors will also be pleased to know that this is (allegedly) the place where a young Bill Clinton “didn’t inhale” the naughty cigarette while he was studying at Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. The food here is good old British pub grub, with a selection of pies, burgers and salads and the perfect pit-stop for a group of hungry tourists.

Sheldoian-Theatre-Oxford

Since Oxford is also famous for rowing against arch-rival Cambridge, it seems rude to come here and not see the River. On a sunny day, you’ll see students and tourists galore in hired punts wrangling a large pole while attempting to look serenely like an extra from Brideshead Revisted. We didn’t take to the water but enjoyed watching the antics of a University “Summer Eights’ competition, a four day regatta in May each year between competing college rowing teams. With families, friends and strangers watching from the river banks, the rowers exhibited strength and team work as well as the capacity to down a pint in quick time when it was all over! If you’re on a tight budget, you could do a lot worse than stroll from the city centre towards the river. With miles of meadows, there are some lovely walks to do and a gorgeous photo opportunity at every turn.

Summer-Eights-OxfordThe-Grand-Cafe-oxford

My top tip for spoiling yourself on a budget is to concentrate on cost-effective (or free) entertainment interspersed with little touches of luxury. In Oxford, one must-do stop is the Grand Café (84 The High Street). According to Samuel Pepys’ diary, this is the site of England’s first coffee house. Another literary connection! We just had to come here and test the delicious cakes and a pot of coffee, if only in memory of England’s greatest diarist (well, OK, a joint first with Adrian Mole).

Before dinner my friends and I continued our literary pilgrimage with an aperitif at The Eagle And Child. This 17th century pub in St Giles was where a group of Oxford writers including C.S.Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien regularly met. They called themselves The Inklings and as we sat with a glass of something cold and refreshing we drank a toast to the imaginations that dreamt up worlds like Narnia and Middle Earth.

Jamie Oliver’s Italian (24-26 George Street) was our final stop of the day. For £29.95 for three courses and a glass of Prosecco, it’s a good value taster menu, with food delivered on small wooden ‘planks’, and a great atmosphere with groups out celebrating birthdays and anniversaries.

Pitt-Rivers-Museum

Our last day took us to another bargain visit – the Pitt Rivers Museum on Parks Road, almost opposite the Victorian Keble College. With free admission, the Museum is a must-do for families or visitors of almost any age as it has something for everyone. We were greeted by dinosaurs on the way in before spending several fascinating hours looking at the plethora of exhibits, specialising in anthropology.  In the back exhibit room, a guide lends out torches with which to look inside small pull-out drawers and cabinets. From amazing costumes from the South Pacific to shrunken heads and musical instruments from across the globe, there are objects that really tell a tale of human life across the centuries.

Before leaving for our train home, there was just time to make our final literary stop by nipping into a lovely little shop dedicated to everything about Alice in Wonderland (83 St Aldates, Oxford). Open every day apart from Christmas Day and Boxing Day, it’s crammed full of Alice themed gifts, bags, cards, jewellery, toys and accessories. With a few souvenirs for the family we piled back on the train home, vowing to return again to continue our pilgrimage to the many other Oxford sights we never found time to visit.

We can’t thank Catherine enough for sending this fab post! What do you make of her literary-themed short break in Oxford? Let us know using the comments box below.