Imag­i­na­tions have long been sparked by the charms of Ox­ford­shire with some of the world’s most beloved tales spun from many of its sights. Mindy Teh is left spell­bound by the hal­lowed grounds of its univer­sity, its me­dieval city and be­yond.


Imag­i­na­tions have long been sparked by the charms of Ox­ford­shire, with some of the world’s most beloved tales spun from its many sights. Mindy Teh is left spell­bound by the hal­lowed grounds of its univer­sity, its me­dieval city and be­yond.

Twi­light in Ox­ford­shire brings the prom­ise of a stroll along the coun­try­side, en­ter­ing a se­cret gar­den from which one can view the sky change as an un­seen hand sweeps across this vast ex­panse with mas­ter­strokes of deep Ti­tian or­ange, ma­jes­tic pur­ples and dark mid­night blues. Cheeks are flushed from the walk in the cold, arms are wrapped around each other for warmth.

It is a re­mark­able county in­cor­po­rat­ing parts of the Cotswolds and Wes­sex. An en­chant­ment of ex­pe­ri­ences, per­haps un­like any other in Eng­land, with pas­toral scenes to ad­mire through which the River Cher­well run in deep emer­ald hues. Fields of golden bar­ley and wheat sway­ing in the gen­tle wind, sheep dot­ting the green land­scape, such bu­colic set­tings have been writ­ten about of Ox­ford­shire by the likes of Evelyn Waugh and Thomas Hardy.

Against this back­drop, in Wood­stock, Blen­heim Palace stands as the birth­place of Win­ston Churchill and presents a fairy tale set­ting for movies such as Cin­derella, wed­dings and even a Dior fash­ion show by its first fe­male de­signer. The world her­itage site is a vast es­tate that’s cur­rently home to the 12th Duke of Marl­bor­ough, its im­pres­sive struc­ture de­signed by Christo­pher Wren.

Ox­ford city (The City of Dream­ing Spires, as be­stowed by the poet Matthew Arnold) and to sig­nif­i­cant ex­tent its dis­tin­guished univer­sity, is spell­bind­ing not just for the ca­sual tourist but also to those who have lived or stud­ied here.

In­deed, the affin­ity for Ox­ford is very much a cul­tural one. Drawn from cen­turies of learn­ing, lit­er­a­ture and celebrity (the univer­sity’s alumni has an im­pres­sive roll call), no doubt con­tribut­ing to an al­most mys­ti­cal air about the place. This was home, after all, to two of the world’s most beloved fan­tasy au­thors. Both had carved out, in such an ex­ten­sive man­ner, the ‘true’ English mythol­ogy of their dreams. So per­va­sive have been the uni­verses of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis that you can now visit a ‘real’ Hob­biton, speak El­ven, or ex­pe­ri­ence a Nar­nia tour in Ire­land, New Zealand, Canada and Prague.

Ox­ford’s rep­u­ta­tion for fan­tasy was sealed from the pub­li­ca­tion of Jonathan Swift’s epic satire, Gul­liver’s Trav­els in 1726. Percy Bysshe Shel­ley’s poem, Ozy­man­dias, pub­lished seven years after the rebel with(out) a cause was ex­pelled for hav­ing writ­ten a pam­phlet en­ti­tled The Ne­ces­sity of Athe­ism, may have also con­trib­uted in part to the Ox­ford’s own mythos. Decades later in 1865, an­other Ox­o­nian who taught at Christ Church and whose un­healthy fix­a­tion on the child of the dean of the col­lege re­sulted in the writ­ing of Alice in Won­der­land, would be­come a cel­e­brated fig­ure in chil­dren’s lit­er­a­ture. To this day, Charles Dodg­son’s cre­ation has cap­tured the imag­i­na­tion with sev­eral mod­ern in­ter­pre­ta­tions in­clud­ing the Alice in Res­i­dent Evil.

New gen­er­a­tion fan­ta­sists in­clude Philip Pull­man whose His Dark Ma­te­ri­als tril­ogy de­tails Ox­ford as an al­ter­nate uni­verse. Ar­guably the most multi-gen­er­a­tional and fa­mous lit­er­ary force in the genre sees JK Rowl­ing (who was re­jected by the univer­sity upon ap­pli­ca­tion) bas­ing many of the set­tings in the Harry Pot­ter se­ries on real lo­ca­tions in Ox­ford.

But we could go on. Ox­ford magick ( magick be­ing a term coined, re­gret­tably, by a Can­ter­brid­gian—the in­fa­mous Alis­tair Crow­ley) is so rich and var­ied, even its sci­ence pos­sesses am­bi­tions of sci-fi pro­por­tions. Take Sir Tim Bern­ers-Lee (the for­mer Queen’s Col­lege alumni is a fel­low of and cur­rently lec­tur­ing at Christ Church) and his in­ven­tion of the World Wide Web, con­jured, seem­ingly, from thin air.

There’s much in Ox­ford to en­cour­age this no­tion. A visit to the Pitt Rivers Mu­seum re­veals a cav­ern of what is os­ten­si­bly bric-a-brac from around the world, donated in 1884 by the eth­nol­o­gist and ar­chae­ol­o­gist Gen­eral Pitt Rivers. The gen­eral’s In­di­ana Jones-like ex­pe­di­tions saw him amass­ing a wealth of over 20,000 ar­ti­facts (to­day, that num­ber has mush­roomed to more than half a mil­lion).

Upon closer in­spec­tion, this out­wardly hap­haz­ard yet fas­ci­nat­ing col­lec­tion of long boats, swords, masks, bowls, tra­di­tional cos­tumes, cer­e­mo­nial and witch­craft para­pher­na­lia, re­veals it­self as or­gan­ised chaos. Es­sen­tially, it is also an ex­plo­ration by way of dis­play and in­fer­ence of how sim­i­lar cul­tures and de­signs are de­spite geo­graph­i­cal dis­tances.

The Pitt-Rivers Mu­seum can be ac­cessed through the Ox­ford Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory, it­self an in­spi­ra­tion for the fer­tile imag­i­na­tion as it was for Charles Dodg­son’s. Lewis Car­roll (his pen name) made fre­quent vis­its to the mu­seum’s most fa­mous ex­hibit, the head and foot—the most com­plete re­mains in the world—of a sin­gle dodo. The 1650 paint­ing of a dodo by the Flem­ish artist Jan

Sav­ery, also dis­played at the mu­seum, was likely the source for the one in Alice in Won­der­land.

It was here, too, where Thomas Hux­ley and Sa­muel Wil­ber­force led a mo­men­tous de­bate on evo­lu­tion, with Wil­ber­force ques­tion­ing Hux­ley if it was through his grand­fa­ther or grand­mother that he claimed de­scent from a mon­key.

More trea­sures ap­pear at the Ash­molean Mu­seum of art and ar­chi­tec­ture—a Sume­rian king list, Paolo di Dono’s A Hunt In The For­est, an Egyp­tian mummy, even a dish with a com­pos­ite head of penises from the Re­nais­sance pe­riod— prove great fod­der for dis­cus­sion.

For the most part, how­ever, the real magick lies out­side the mu­se­ums and the hal­lowed halls of the col­leges. Take a lan­guid stroll around the city and the univer­sity with­out a tour. Trust your instincts, go by un­beaten paths. Some of them will lead you to grotesques like the many gar­goyles guard­ing the city, fas­ci­nat­ing in­scrip­tions and carv­ings, even pos­si­ble in­spi­ra­tions for Mr. Tum­nus, the faun in C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe, the Nar­nia Door fea­tur­ing a pos­si­ble spark for As­lan, even the sin­gu­lar lamp post that saw Lucy Peven­sie em­bark on her re­mark­able jour­ney through Nar­nia.

The warmer sea­sons of the year make it your chance to have a cham­pagne pic­nic by Christ Church Meadow, mak­ing daisy chains, feed­ing the ducks while dis­cussing

Gra­ham Greene and the com­plex­i­ties of Ox­ford’s most fa­mous band, Ra­dio­head. There is also the chance to go punt­ing by the scenic river Cher­well down­stream to Univer­sity Parks, an­other pop­u­lar pic­nic des­ti­na­tion. The Botanic Gar­den and Har­court Ar­bore­tum has a 400 year old his­tory (it is the old­est botanic gar­den in Bri­tain) of glasshouses and gar­dens filled with flora and fauna from around the globe.

If the weather is too cold or gloomy, take refuge in­side the Trin­ity Col­lege Chapel—or wait for a per­for­mance by the ac­claimed Trin­ity Col­lege Chapel Choir. More ba­sic instincts can be fed, quite lit­er­ally, at the Ea­gle & Child on St. Giles St. The pub­lic house, fondly known as The Bird & Baby (Fowl & Foe­tus, for some!), is fa­mous for be­ing the

spot where The In­klings for­mally met ev­ery Thurs­day to dis­cuss their writ­ing.

The In­klings, of course, were made up of none other than Tolkien and Lewis them­selves to­gether with Charles Wil­liams and Hugo Dyson. Largely a so­cial gath­er­ing, some im­por­tant mile­stones were reached at The Ea­gle & Child in­clud­ing the hand­ing out of proofs of The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe by Lewis for open cri­tique from his col­leagues.

What could be more in­spired than a manor in Ox­ford­shire promis­ing French re­fine­ment? Back in the coun­try­side, a cosy suite awaits at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons ( www.belmond.com). A bot­tle of port and a fire crack­ling with an­tic­i­pa­tion is a wel­come boon from a crisp evening ex­plor­ing hill and vale.

The manor, a 27-acre es­tate that en­com­passes lush gar­dens and or­chards, are cre­ated by ac­claimed Chef Ray­mond Blanc OBE, pos­sesses thirty-two in­di­vid­u­ally ap­pointed rooms, each unique from the other. In some, open fire­places are fea­tured whereas oth­ers have ro­man­tic court­yards, pri­vate ter­races, mar­ble bath­rooms with stand­ing baths and in­ti­mate walled gar­dens.

The main at­trac­tion of Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons would be its restau­rant, awarded two Miche­lin stars in 1984 when it first opened, with the re­mark­able rep­u­ta­tion of keep­ing them ev­ery year since. That it is truly one of the best restau­rants in Bri­tain is no small feat.

A laven­der-scented foot­path leads gour­mands and en­chanted lovers alike up to what has been de­scribed as a “twist of imag­i­na­tive ge­nius”. Pre­pare for sump­tu­ous culi­nary de­lights de­signed by Ray­mond Blanc and ex­ec­u­tive head chef Gary Jones. Sea­sonal lunch and din­ner menus in­cor­po­rate lo­cally sourced or­ganic pro­duce with a great se­lec­tion com­ing from the manor’s gar­den and ex­tend up to seven cour­ses.

Spé­cial­ités du Mo­ment cre­ations al­low one to sub­sti­tute dishes in the main menu. Sea­sonal dishes in­clude a Scot­tish lan­gous­tine brim­ming with fresh sea­side flavours ac­com­pa­nied by Jerusalem ar­ti­choke and au­tumn truf­fle. A melt-in-the-mouth foie gras spiced with ginger­bread and served with cle­men­tine curd and buck­ler sor­rel. For mains, a ten­der veal fil­let roast re­veal­ing a ro­bust pink when cut, and fea­tured with sweet­bread, chanterelles, wa­ter­cress and hazel­nuts. Duck is mar­ried with gar­den quince, cab­bage, ba­con and wild mush­rooms. Each pre­sen­ta­tion is care­fully cu­rated and paired with the right wines from a 2000-strong se­lec­tion housed in the manor by an ex­pert som­me­lier. Desserts see the deft hand of Chef Pâtissier Benoit Blin over a range of sweet pleasures such as the milk choco­late and Earl Grey tea crum­ble with ba­nana and pas­sion­fruit sor­bet.

By now, twi­light has turned to dusk by din­ner’s end. Loung­ing in the com­fort of the suite watch­ing the flames dance by the open fire, a glass of brandy in hand with Yusuff La­teef play­ing love songs in the back­ground, the mood turns mel­low. The witch­ing hour is at hand and for some, Ox­ford­shire’s magick has only just be­gun.

08 Could this gar­goyle have in­spired the faun in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe?

04 Christ Church Col­lege Great Hall was one of the in­spi­ra­tions for Harry Pot­ter’s Hog­warts din­ing hall. 05 Ox­ford Canal near Ban­bury with nar­row­boats. 06 The Mu­seum of Nat­u­ral His­tory in Ox­ford 07 The Bridge of Sighs.

02 Dis­play at the Pitt Rivers Mu­seum. 03 Aerial view of Blen­heim Palace.

01 Christ Church Meadow.

09 Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons 10 In­gre­di­ents for the Miche­lin starred cre­ations at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons are sourced lo­cally. 11 Guests can at­tend a gourmet cook­ing school at Le Manoir Aux Quat’Saisons.

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