I didn’t intend my trip to Oxford, England, to be a personal Discovery of Witches tour. As a HUGE fan of the trilogy written by my mentor, Deborah Harkness, I knew I had to see All Souls, New College and the Bodleian, but that was all I had in mind; I was there to see the rest of the city (including places where Inspector Lewis was filmed) and attend the Historical Novel Society conference.
But the literary gods had other plans in store for me.
After a hellacious trip over to England that included a full day’s delay due to mechanical and weather issues, lost luggage (thanks, American Airlines) and having to re-buy everything (makeup, toiletries, clothing, shoes, etc), my arrival at The Old Parsonage hotel was like coming home. The staff couldn’t have been nicer, and pointed my stinking, travel-weary self toward the shopping district and arranged for the hotel to launder the only clothes I had (the ones on my back) for free as soon as I procured others.
While I was looking for clothes, I stumbled across the Covered Market where Diana buys the ingredients for her dinner for Matthew. If I lived there, this would be part of my daily life and I really could eat the European way, with fresh food daily. There are over 60 independent shops within the market, including two that sell fresh fruit, veg, and flowers, a butcher, a bakery and a small fish market, in addition to shops selling clothes, leather goods and pretty much anything else you can think of. I was certainly charmed. And yes, I did find clothes, though just outside the Market on Cornmarket Street.
I had no idea the hotel was even a part of A Discovery of Witches until I ran across the guide produced by the Tenth Knot on the day I was due to change over to St. Anne’s College for the remainder of my stay. I chose to stay at The Old Parsonage because it is one of the best hotels in Oxford and has its own library – I mean, what writer can resist that? I will tell you it is very expensive (but I was only there for two nights, including the one I missed due to delays, grrrr…) but it is worth every penny, er, pence. The food is to die for (no wonder Matthew chose to get his meal for Diana from there) and they really do work hard to ensure you have the best experience possible. (Word of warning, those bathtubs are slippery and the staircases twist and turn like a castle tower.) I will certainly stay there again when I return to Oxford, which I have no doubt I will do.
I also ended up heading back to the Old Parsonage for afternoon tea with the Historical Novel Society and dinner with friends one night, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, so even if you can’t afford to stay there or don’t have time, you can still experience the magic.
I decided to do the places the farthest from my lodgings and walk my way back on my first day. Little did I know they also had DoW connections. My first stop was the Oxford Botanical Gardens. I had to see them mainly because a) I love flowers and b) it was the setting for the episode of Inspector Lewis that gave me my original physical inspiration for Annabeth in Been Searching for You. The gardens are beautiful, but much smaller than I imagined. If you go, don’t skip the hothouses as they have some amazing plants.
Next, I hit Christ Church College/Cathedral, which is mentioned several times in the book. The grounds are beautiful, so if you go on a nice day, be sure to explore them. The cathedral itself is smaller than many in Europe, but the stones practically breathe history so it’s well worth the tour. The college is also home to the hall that inspired the one in Harry Potter, but I found it underwhelming.
While I was in the area, I also visited Merton College, which is where Alex teaches in Been Searching for You and is one of the many colleges Matthew has attended. Unfortunately, it was closed at the time I was there, so I couldn’t go inside, but it was cool to be able to see where one of my characters lived and worked, albeit four months after the book was published.
By my second full day in Oxford, it was time to get serious to make sure I saw the two sites no fan can miss: All Souls College and New College, homes of Matthew and Diana, respectively. All Souls is only open from 2-4 p.m. on certain days of the week, so I lucked out having free time while it was open. As soon as I walked in, I knew this was Matthew’s abode. Consciously or unconsciously, Deb did a fantastic job matching the energy of the colleges with the characters. There are only a few parts open to the public, but what you can see is more than enough to leave a lasting impression. All Souls is very majestic and imposing, so it doesn’t take the imagination of a writer to picture a vampire stalking its halls and quadrangles. The chapel is surprisingly light-feeling, especially for all the gothic finery on the inside, and is to me a reflection of the human Matthew, while the rest fits his vampire self. I did not get to see the famed library, but studying there, a privilege not granted to many, is now on my bucket list.
Walking from All Souls to New College, I got giddy realizing I was taking the exact route Matthew would have walked when stalking Diana. To get there, you pass underneath the bridge connecting two parts of Hertford College (known as the Bridge of Sighs, but it looks nothing like the one in Venice – trust me, I’ve seen it) and walk down New College Lane. The bridge is pretty, and I’m sure appreciated by Hertford students, especially in bad weather, but it’s pretty much just a photo op.
I fell in love with New College. Not only is it much more accessible to the public, it’s energy is much lighter – it feels like Diana. I’m not kidding. There’s a bit of an air of mystery to the place, but a playfulness as well. The chapel feels surprisingly heavy; it’s not a place I’d want to spend a lot of time, but the rest of the grounds are great. You can see the cloister (which is in the book), the gardens (also in the book) and the outsides of several buildings. I kept looking at the
windows, wondering which room was Diana’s. There’s a bit of a mystery in the garden: a mound which is forbidden to the public. Of course, that got my writer’s mind going. The porter told me there is no story behind it – it’s purely ornamental – but feels more like an ancient temple to me. I may write a book with that idea someday.
On Sunday, there was the pinnacle of any writer’s trip to Oxford: the Bodleian Library. Hard to believe that two weeks ago today I was drinking in the magic of that grand place. I purposefully took the extended, extended tour so that I could see the reading rooms that aren’t on the other tours. We started in the Divinity School, which was used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter movies. I
have a thing for windows, so I was in love with that room. We moved on to the Congregation Room, which is supposedly the model for the House of Commons. I saw a ghost in there (swear to God – it wasn’t very clear but he was a young man, just hanging out on the other set of benches where no one from our tour was. That would be at least my third ghost on a trip to England; the other two were back in 1999).
My favorite part was next. Duke Humphrey’s is second only to Trinity College’s Long Room in Dublin as my idea of heaven. Too bad you can’t take pictures. We started in the Arts End and saw way the books used to be chained up and shelved with their spines in. Then we moved through the part with the circulation desk and reading bays into The
Selden End. I thought I was going to faint. This area usually isn’t open to the public, but it was on this tour and we spent a good long while there, long enough that I could wander around and look up and the second floor, trying to picture exactly where Diana was when she used magic to call the book and which chair Matthew was sitting in. It is my goal to research there someday. I did convince the tour guide to let me take a blank call slip as a souvenir.
Then we moved on to the Radcliffe Camera, which is cool, but somehow I expected more. It’s a round study area with computers and bookshelves. But believe me, if I went to school there, I wouldn’t turn down the chance to study in it. (Sidebar: one of my friends was staying longer in Oxford so she got a reader’s card and was actually able to research in the Bodleian. I’m dying of jealousy! Another thing to add to the bucket list!)
After the tour was over (I never wanted it to end!), I went across the street to Blackwell’s bookstore to see where Diana had her whispered conversation with the daemon Agatha. If you go, don’t confuse this location with the cafe by the same
name in the Weston Library. Both are across the street from the Bodleian, so it’s easy to mix them up. I did.
I was hoping to make it down to the river to see the boathouses, the bridge where Matthew watches Diana row, and the Isis Tavern (really called the Isis Farmhouse), especially since I took up rowing because of this book, but my legs just wouldn’t carry me. But I need something to do next time I go back, right?
And for those wondering – the conference was good, though I prefer the way the US conference organizes things, and I had a great time reuniting with my friends.
I’m hoping to get all my pictures up on Flickr soon, but given my crazy schedule of conferences and speaking engagements, it may well be a month or more before I’m able to. I also still need to post research photos of Chicago from two years ago when I wrote Been Searching for You, so I’ll let you know when that is done. I hope you enjoyed touring Oxford with me!
One thing I like about Blackwell’s is that it has a pub right in the middle of it, between the two parts of the bookshop: the White Horse. I think it appears in the film ‘The Oxford Murders’ with Elijah Wood, which is well worth watching if you want to revisit the scenes of the city from back home.
Btw ‘Pence’ isn’t the British version of ‘penny’, it’s the plural!
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