W.B. Yeats once said that it was a wonder that anybody did anything at Oxford but “dream and remember the place is so beautiful." But Yeats wasn’t the only writer to draw inspiration from Oxford’s so-called dreaming spires. The UK’s oldest university has long drawn scholars and scribes to Oxford’s cobbled streets, with authors and poets such as Lewis Carroll, Oscar Wilde, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Dorothy Sayers picking up their pens while residing in the city.
Bookshops in Oxford
Bookworms browsing for their next read will be spoiled for choice when visiting Oxford, where there is an array of second-hand, independent, and charity shops to choose from.
Founded on Broad Street in 1879, Blackwell’s is perhaps Oxford’s most well-known bookstore. Despite looking unassuming from the outside, Blackwell’s is home to the underground Norrington Room; the world's largest single room selling books, it has a staggering three miles of shelving and houses everything from chart-topping non-fiction to serious scholarly works.
Shoppers seeking something smaller should stop off at The Last Bookshop, a quirky independent store based just outside the city center in the charming suburb of Jericho. The Last Bookshop sells second-hand reads at two for 5 pounds, making it the best spot in Oxford for a bookish bargain.
Fans of rare books can drop into St Philip’s Books on St Aldates, a tucked away labyrinth of long shelves and interesting finds. More studious types can visit Oxford University Press’ flagship store on the High Street to pick up an iconic Oxford World Classic.
Literary Pubs in Oxford
Book shopping can be thirsty work, but fortunately Oxford has plenty of literary pubs to perch in with your latest read.
The Eagle and Child on St. Giles is well known for its connections to The Inklings, Oxford's most famous writer’s group. Made up of C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Charles Williams, and Hugo Dyson, the club would meet in the pub’s Rabbit Room to discuss their work. Today, The Eagle and Child is a pleasant boozer serving real ales and classic pub grub, but it remains proud of its literary heritage; keep an eye out for "Lord of the Rings" memorabilia commemorating the group’s most famous member.
Fans of Inspector Morse will also be pleased to find that many pubs mentioned in Colin Dexter’s iconic novel—or used as filming locations in the enduringly popular television series—are still serving. The King’s Arms and the The Bear are both well-known stop-offs among Morse fans, and The White Horse served as a filming location for prequel "Endeavour."
Libraries in Oxford
The Bodleian Library is Oxford’s best-known landmark, and its interior is just as awe-inspiring as its much-photographed façade. A tour of the Bodleian includes a peek at Duke Humfrey’s Library—which has been lending out books since the Middle Ages—as well as filming locations for the "Harry Potter" series.
Just across the road you’ll find the more modern Weston Library, built in the 1930s and recently renovated. Although the Weston might not carry the same historic clout as its neighbor, its exhibition space plays host to fascinating features on its literary and local past, often featuring valuable manuscripts and first editions. It’s also home to a pleasant café and the Zvi Meitar Bodleian Shop, the perfect place to pick up a souvenir inspired by Oxford’s library collections and literary history.
Every spring, Oxford transforms into a homage to all things books, as world-famous authors descend on the city for the annual literary festival. With events held in the stunning Sheldonian theatre and in university lecture halls, the festival is as much an opportunity to explore some of the city’s most historic venues as it is to catch up with your favorite writers.
Blackwell’s is a reliable host of book launches and events, holding regular author talks, lectures, and even pop-up theatre. It’s also worth keeping an eye out for public lectures at Oxford University, which regularly features renowned poets, novelists, and literary scholars.
Things to Do
Outside of bookshops, libraries, and pubs, bookworms and writers can keep busy by immersing themselves in a number of things to do.
Explore Oxford’s Literary Past on a Walking Tour
Simply strolling Oxford’s sandstone streets will inevitably take you through fascinating facets of literary history. Walk down St Mary’s Passage to see a Mr. Tumnus-like carving and lamppost said to be the inspiration for "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe," or stop off at the Bodleian Library for a photo opportunity in front of the Radcliffe Camera. Meanwhile, "Harry Potter" fans can easily schedule stop-offs to see New College’s cloisters or The Divinity School, both used for scenes at Hogwarts.
See your Favorite Writer’s College
With thousands of years of history, it might be hard to find an Oxford college that hasn’t played host to a literary great.
Magdalen College boasts perhaps the most impressive literary alumni, including Oscar Wilde and Man Booker winner Julian Barnes. Bookish attractions aside, its vast grounds and deer park also make it well worth a visit, and you can wander the banks of the River Cherwell while musing on your favorite Wildeisms.
The imposing Christ Church College was the childhood home of Alice Liddell, the inspiration for "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland." It was here where she met Lewis Carroll, then a tutor in mathematics. Fans of the book or its Disney adaptation can visit an unusual Alice-themed shop, just across the road from the college gates.
If you’re more of a modern reader, then you might like to visit Exeter College, the alma mater of Philip Pullman and supposedly the basis of Jordan College in "His Dark Materials." Pullman fans might also be interested in visiting Oxford’s covered market and the Pitt River’s Museum (both referenced in "Northern Lights"), or the beautiful Botanic Gardens, where a daemon sculpture was unveiled in 2019 alongside "Lyra and Will’s bench."
Visit the Home of the Oxford English Dictionary
A short walk outside of the city center, Oxford University Press is a world-famous institution. A real-life slice of publishing history and the largest university press in the world, OUP is home of the Oxford English Dictionary and is where "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" was first published.
Oxford University Press is still an operating publisher, but book fans interested in its history can visit its museum, which features displays on key manuscripts and historic printing presses.