10 Aug 2015

The 'Alice in Wonderland' Guide to Oxford


Which was your favourite book growing up? Besides the Enid Blytons that I used to devour (cream tea, anyone?), one of my favourites was Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll. I remember we had a chapter of it (the one with the Mock Turtle, I think) in our English textbooks one school year. Some of my classmates found it weird or couldn't understand why it was such a big deal. I had already read the book (of course) and had loved it - sure, it was pure fantasy but it did make for a cracking story! 


I didn't know then that Lewis Carroll (or rather Charles Dodgson) drew a lot of inspiration from Oxford, when he spun the tale to little Alice Liddell. In spring this year, I was invited by Tourism Ireland for a media trip (read my Dublin posts here), and I decided to hop over to England for a bit. While I spent most of my time in London, I did take a day-trip to Oxford. I had visited Oxford earlier, but this time I wanted to retrace Alice's & Lewis Carroll's steps, and see Oxford as they experienced it.


I was lucky to meet Mark Davies, a local historian and somewhat of an Alice expert. What follows is an unedited version of the feature that I wrote for Condé Nast Traveller on my Alice in Wonderland experience in Oxford. 

Follow me down the rabbit hole, then...


An Alice in Wonderland experience in Oxford

On the 150th anniversary of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, come explore the city the inspired Lewis Carroll to pen his iconic book. 


Alice was beginning to get very tired of sitting by her sister on the bank, and of having nothing to do.

And so begins one of the most beloved books that has fascinated children and adults alike for the past 150 years – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pen name Lewis Carroll. It’s a roller-coaster ride as we go hurtling down the rabbit hole along with Alice, into a wonderland filled with improbable events, memorable characters and all sorts of animals – from a hookah-smoking caterpillar to a grinning Cheshire cat.


Charles Dodgson came to Oxford as a student at Christ Church, one of the many colleges in the town, and later taught mathematics there. In 1855 Henry Liddell, Alice’s father, was appointed as Dean of Christ Church. Dodgson got along famously with the Liddell children and he often took them out boating, and regaled them with stories. 


It’s a grey, cold spring day when I arrive in Oxford, with a few rain clouds looming threateningly over the famous dreaming spires of this university town. But I am thinking about that ‘golden afternoon’ on July 4th 1862, when Charles Dodgson and his friend the Reverend Robinson Duckworth took the three Liddell sisters – Lorina, Alice & Edith – punting up the Thames, and spun out a fanciful story to keep the girls entertained. Alice begged Dodgson (or rather Carroll) to write the story, and in November 1864 he presented her with the handwritten manuscript of Alice’s Adventures under Ground. The book was published on July 4th 1865 as Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, though it was recalled and then republished in November that year.

I begin my day at Alice’s Shop, just across the road from Christ Church College. The shop stands at 83 St Aldates in a 500-year old building. What is today a souvenir shop was a small grocery shop in Alice’s time, and a place she frequented with her siblings (and Carroll) to buy ‘barley sweets’. At the shop I meet Mark Davies, a local historian, Alice expert and the author of Alice in Waterland – a book that explores Lewis Carroll’s, and Alice’s, connections with Oxford, and especially with the Thames. He tells me that this shop features in Through the Looking Glass, the second book of Alice’s adventures – in a bizarre chapter where Alice follows the White Queen into ‘the Old Sheep Shop’. The queen transforms into a sheep, the shop turns into a river and Alice finds herself in a boat with the sheep. “Oxford was prone to flooding in the winter, and this shop with its floor below street level would certainly be flooded, inspiring Carroll to make up the story”, explains Davies.


In keeping with the ‘waterland’ theme, the rain clouds give way just as we step outside the shop and walk towards Christ Church Meadow, adjoining the college. We retrace the path that Carroll and the Liddell sisters would often take from the college towards the river, past the ‘evil-smelling’ Trill Mill Stream towards Folly Bridge. Here Davies points out to a sign ‘Salters’, a boat rental business that has been around since 1858. “We do know from Alice’s own recollections that they usually rented a boat instead of using one owned by the college, and Salters’ would be where Carroll would choose a roomy boat for their river expeditions”, says Davies.


As the rain continues gently, we follow the course of the river, and are kept company by a family of trumpeting geese. Davies is surprised at how quiet the river is as there are no boats in sight; perhaps it’s exam time at the colleges! He draws my attention to a late-Georgian building constructed on arches over one of the canals. “This is Grandpont House, which was owned during Alice’s time by Alderman Thomas Randall, an eccentric tailor and hatter who was most likely the inspiration behind Carroll’s character of the Mad Hatter”, explains Davies.


By now the rain has stopped and the sun comes out, giving a good imitation of a perfect English summer day. We turn into a wide tree-lined avenue, known as the ‘Long Walk’, and head towards the college. Christ Church is the largest and the most imposing of all college buildings in Oxford. A walk through its hallowed grounds and corridors is a must-do – walk up the sweeping 16th-century staircase (where parts of the Harry Potter movie were filmed), and into the impressive Great Hall, which was replicated in the movie to create Hogwart’s dinner hall. The Christ Church Cathedral is dedicated to St Frideswide, the patron saint of Oxford, who in the 8th century miraculously summoned up a spring at Binsey, a village some 2.5 kilometres from Oxford. At the site of the miracle stands a well, which has been referenced as the ‘treacle well’ in Alice. “This seems preposterous at first, yet it’s based on an early meaning of the word treacle as a healing liquid or medicine”, informs Davies.


I bid him goodbye outside Christ Church and head back to Alice’s Shop to pick up some memorabilia. The shop is gearing up for the 150th anniversary of the book. “We are presenting an Alice in Wonderland Tour on weekends from July 5th to September 5th this year”, says Luke Gander the owner of the shop. The tour will be led by Davies himself and can be booked online. There’s also a new anniversary edition of the book being released by Macmillan, which will be available at the shop as well.


Every year the first Saturday of July is celebrated as Alice’s Day, which is coordinated by The Story Museum in Oxford, a unique, experiential museum for children (though I had a perfectly happy time there as well!). The museum is pulling out all stops for the anniversary – with a Mad Hatter’s Tea Party, storytelling and games, not to mention a Mad Hatter’s cocktail party (for adults) at Binsey. There will be 150 'Alices' in costume traipsing around, and several exhibitions around the city depicting Alice over the past 150 years.
(The Alice's Day event is now past, but The Story Museum is worth a visit anyway.)


Before heading back to London, I decide to treat myself to a traditional afternoon tea at Café Loco, next door to Alice’s Shop. From my seat at a window I can see the honey-coloured walls and spires of Christ Church College. I marvel at Carroll’s knack for turning Alice’s everyday surroundings and people into madcap adventures and unforgettable characters. As Jane Yolen (the celebrated American writer of fantasy and children’s books) says in her foreword to the 1992 edition of the book, “It can truly be said that without Oxford, there would have been no Lewis Carroll and no Alice in Wonderland”.



Getting there: Fly to London direct with Jet Airways or Virgin Atlantic. Trains run between London (from Paddington or Waterloo stations) and Oxford at regular intervals. Or take the convenient Oxford Tube – a coach service that runs 24 hours, with buses at 15 minutes’ intervals. The double decker, air-conditioned buses are equipped with washroom facilities, power sockets and free Wi-Fi. The bus halts at multiple stops within Oxford city centre.

If you visit Oxford, make sure you drop by at the Oxford Visitor Information Centre at Broad Street and pick up the recently released 'A Quick Guide to Oxford'. It's a compact booklet that will help you explore Oxford better. It contains information on Oxford's history, its top sights, museums, colleges and the available walking tours. 

Mark Davies conducts a series of Alice in Wonderland walks in Oxford for groups up to 20 people. Walks range from 75 minutes to 2 hours and are suitable for all ages. Entrance to Christ Church College is not included and a separate fee is payable to visit the college and the Great Hall.

This feature was commissioned by Condé Nast Traveller India and was published on their website in June 2015. Read it here.

So have you visited a place that has featured in your favourite book? Leave a comment below and tell us about it :) 


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