Literary City Guide | Oxford, England
Tour Guide: Emma Gardner
Emma is the creator of Poires au Chocolat, a baking and desserts recipe blog. Emma started writing the blog in her first year studying literature at Oxford University and has kept going ever since. Nearly five years on, she loves Oxford too much to leave. (All photos by Emma Gardner.)
Relationship to Oxford: My family came from Oxford but they moved away when my mum was a child. I returned for university.
Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Chaucer
Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: Ivan Day - so he could make something delicious that Chaucer would recognize.
Writing soundtrack: Silence
Pen or Pencil: Pen (a specific type of black ballpoint)
Coffee or Tea: Tea
Paperback or Hardback: Paperback for fiction, hardback for cookbooks
Blackwell’s, Broad St. Blackwell’s started in this building in Oxford in 1879 – it’s now a big academic bookseller with several stores, but there’s still something very special about this store with its winding corridors and funny shaped rooms. The Norrington Room, at the bottom, claims to be the largest single room devoted to selling books in Europe. There’s a music shop, art and posters shop, rare books and so much more. The café is a chain but it’s a nice place to work and overhear university gossip.
Oxfam Bookshop, Turl St and St Giles. Two nice little second hand stores.
Antiques on High, High St. A warren-like store filled with antiques. It has a good selection of antique books (there are two areas of books, one small nook and a bigger room further back).
Bodleian Library. There is only one library in Oxford, though it’s one of the best libraries in the world and holds many, many priceless treasures. It’s comprised of thirty individual libraries and covers around a hundred more in departments and colleges. It has more than 11 million printed items – it’s been a legal deposit library since 1610, which means a copy of every printed work published in the UK has to be sent there.
Two of the most beautiful buildings in Oxford, the Old Bodleian and the Radcliffe Camera, are both library buildings that are fully used today (that’s where I used to study every day!). There are tours you can go on – don’t miss the Divinity School and Duke Humfrey’s Library in the Old Bodleian (both of which featured in the Harry Potter films).
READINGS & CONFERENCES
Oxford Literary Festival. The festival happens every March and hosts some brilliant authors (and usually includes some food writers).
Poetry Tour. The Oxford Playhouse runs a poetry tour of Oxford in the summer.
Blackwell’s also runs literary and Inklings tours and has author events.
The Bodleian has exhibitions of books and holds lectures open to the public.
The Inklings. J.R.R. Tolkein, C.S. Lewis and their friends used to meet in various pubs around Oxford to discuss writing – the most famous location is the Eagle and Child, on St Giles.
Many of the colleges have literary connections (the University has 38 colleges, which are where students live, eat and have some of their tuition - most of the beautiful buildings around Oxford are colleges – it’s a bit hard to explain!) – for instance, Christ Church with Lewis Caroll of Alice in Wonderland and W.H. Auden, Magdalen with C.S. Lewis and Oscar Wilde, Merton with Tolkein and T.S. Eliot and my own college, Jesus, with Lawrence of Arabia. They’re all open to visitors at certain times.
The Botanic Garden. Founded in 1621, it’s one of my favourite places to sit and think, and was also featured prominently in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials. You can also go punting from Magdalen Bridge and Christ Church Meadow is right next door.
Zappi’s, St Michael’s. A wonderful little café tucked into an upstairs corner of a bicycle shop.
Turl St Kitchen, Turl St. My favourite thing about TSK is the corner room with windows onto Turl and Ship St. It’s full of sofas where you can sip tea and watch the world go by (or work, if you feel so inclined).
Olives, High St. A deli that sells made-as-you-watch sandwiches, baguettes and panini – I sometimes get one for lunch and take it to the Botanical Garden just down the road.
A PROPER MEAL
Edamame, Holywell St. Edamame is a family-run restaurant serving Japanese home cooking. It’s very small and you share tables, but the food is wonderful (make sure you get some of their miso soup). Do check if they’re open first as they have a very specific schedule.
Vaults and Garden, Radcliffe Square. Set in a beautiful vaulted room that was built in 1320, the café serves great soups, stews and salads. The same people run the tiny Alpha Bar in the Covered Market, which is also delicious – it does takeaways.
Mission Burrito, St Michaels St & King Edward St. If I’m honest, I eat here more regularly than anywhere else (& usually on my own - it's a nice place for that). It’s fast and the food is fresh and really satisfying. I’ve loved eating their burritos ever since I moved here (the second place opened a few years ago). You can either eat in or takeaway – if I go to the King Edward St one I tend to takeaway and go for a walk around Christ Church Meadows, which is about 2 minutes away.
SoJo, Hythe Bridge St. A great Chinese restaurant with brilliant service – I recommend asking the waiters for suggestions from the huge menu. It’s also moments away from the bus and train stations.
Le Manoir aux Quat’Saisons, Great Milton. If you’re looking for something for a very special occasion then Raymond Blanc’s famous restaurant near Oxford is the place to go. My mum very kindly took me there to celebrate my 22nd birthday and finishing university and it remains one the best meals I’ve ever eaten. Absolutely everything was perfect.
The Old Parsonage, St Giles. This is one of my special places. It’s especially cosy and gorgeous around Christmas. It’s a great place to go for a cream tea in the afternoon.
The Covered Market, off the High St. The covered market is filled with tiny shops including several lovely places to find food. Ben’s Cookies, which sells twelve types of cookies and Moo Moos, which does millions of milkshake flavours, are both institutions.
“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening,
Lovely all times she lies, lovely tonight!”
-Matthew Arnold (1822-1888)