Oxford is honey-coloured, gothic and ancient. There are thirty eight colleges in the University, all orbiting within this city of dreaming spires. Most of the buildings are of Victorian vintage, some Georgian, many built on institutional foundations that go back to medieval times. The blueprint is time honoured: college buildings clustered around a quadrangle forming a self contained unit. Student accommodation, dining halls and library are on site, most colleges have their own church attached. It is one of those places, like New York, or Venice, or Paris, that we know without ever having to visit. It looms large in literature and learning, has become a historical constant, and, of course, a television star in its own right. We have decided to filter the city through the lens of the Inspector Morse television series, itself drawn from the books of Colin Dexter.
Oxford is just an hour’s train ride from London. The Thames has shaken off its city suit this far upstream where we enter the more bucolic side of the Home Counties. That startling skyline is revealed at a bend in the river a couple of miles out. That the place lives up to expectations is almost a surprise, Oxford being at the centre of a metropolitan are of a quarter of a million people. However, the ancient University is all-pervasive, dominating all aspects of the city.
After coffee at the Buttery on Broad Street, we make a quick reconnoitre before convening for the Morse tour. It’s a pleasant walk around the periphery of the city centre, through the busy main shopping precinct along Cornmarket Street, then past Christchurch and Merton Colleges into peaceful parkland and along the cheerfully named Deadman’s Walk.
Back at Broad Street, we assemble close by the original Oxfam shop. Directly opposite is Balliol College; dating from the thirteenth century, its frontage a picture-perfect slice of Victorian gothic. Further along, the Museum of Science History strikes a classical chord. Although its plinth mounted busts stand guard sternly at the entrance, its mission has always been to provide access. Established in the late seventeenth century to nurture the growing Enlightenment, it boasts that it is the oldest purpose built museum in the world.
The Morse tour is lead by Linda, an affable Liverpudlian who understands the guide’s mission: to inform and entertain. The city is counterpointed against the unfolding story of Endeavour Morse and longtime sidekick, Robbie Lewis. We learn the truth and truth-tweaking of some fictional episodes, of actor John Thaw’s preference for brandy, and, should real ale be your preference, where to drink the Morse way. We barrel through back lanes in the shadow of the city wall, with only enough time to sniff and take note of a few rambling, olde pubs.
Facts and foibles of the city are teased out. We learn about the examination undergraduates and the connotations of their dress, down to the significance of their carnations. It sounds formal and traditional but somehow seems such fun. There’s the constant whirr of spokes as students cycle by. There are end of exam celebrations, with much throwing of confetti, amongst other debris. Typically Oxford, such things are both picturesque and real. Looked at rationally, what better way for a self contained city of learning to conduct itself.
Oxford has been the fulcrum of England’s intellectual life for centuries, but it is also metropolitan, political, a microcosm of elite society. Prime ministers and poets, sportsmen and soldiers have all passed through these hallowed halls, haunt them still as ghosts, no doubt. The art and science launched from here still endures, weathering each and every stone with significance.
Tolkein and Lewis – that’s CS – also intrude, their elves and fabulous kingdoms spun from homely surrounds – the clink of glasses in a pub, the swirls of tobacco smoke. There’s more than a hint of Hobbiton about. Wonderland too, as episodes of Alice peek out from the masonry. It was here that Charles Dodgson first conjured the story of Wonderland, as he entertained his three child friends on the river. Punting and rowing can be arranged, with river cruises on the Thames just south of Christ Church Meadow. Perhaps another day.
The most iconic collection of buildings are grouped around Radcliffe Square. The Bodleian Library, a repository for all books published in Britain and Ireland, has expanded beyond its original buildings. It now includes the distinctive classical confection of the Radcliffe Camera, dominating the square. To the south is the place where it all began, the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, its elegant tower accessible for views of the city centre. Emphasising the theme of our tour, we have to wait while a film crew gets its shot, but that’s to be expected here.
We finish with a visit to the more day-to-day environment of the Covered Market. This is a fine example of the traditional markets that flowered in the eighteenth century and survive today. A colourful mixture of small businesses, whether food, fruit or fashion, forming a commercial counterpoint to the academic atmosphere all around.
In order to complete our quest, with an al fresco drink a la Morse, Linda advises us to go to the Trout Pub in Wolvercote for a sup by the river. It is a short excursion on the bus to Woodstock – but not the last one. Then we walk through a village hewn from times past, a rambling slice of Old England. We pass twin pubs set either side of the green, inevitably named: The White Hart and the Red Lion, then across the Common where the English typically protest their right of way. At last the Trout leaps into view. Time to take a bench on the terrace and sample the local cask ales. This is a drink that northerner Lewis – Robbie, that is – dismisses as ‘warm beer’. So does my companion, I’m afraid. For me it provides something of a perfect moment; to sit by a river between bridge and weir, in good company, far from the madding crowds, with a pint of traditional ale further reddened by the setting sun.