Visiting Oxford London
Alice’s Journey Through Wonderland
by Nicole Hanratty
Flying to London the week when the summer Olympics were kicking off was very exciting. While my itinerary was quickly filling with events that would showcase the best of London, a day trip into Oxford came across my radar. Long enamored by the prestige that surrounds the University, I carved out some time in my far too short trip into Great Britain to attend this event.
Put on by Visit England, this press trip was crafted upon the creative premise of visiting the campus and seeing Oxford through the looking glass of Alice in Wonderland. I couldn’t get on board--the plane or this trip--fast enough!
For starters, (and I hate to admit this) I didn’t even realize that Alice was a real person. But, I threw the borrowed edition of the book--from two years prior and as of yet to be read--into my carry on and headed off to England.
“2012 celebrates the 150th anniversary of the first telling of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in Oxford, the birthplace of Lewis Carroll’s stories. The famed author spent much of his life teaching Math at Christ Church college in Oxford. Here he met the Dean of the College and his family. He built up great friendships with the Dean’s daughters and it was Alice Liddell, the younger daughter, who is said to be the inspiration behind his magical stories.” -- via www.storymuseum.org.uk/alice/
On the agenda for the day was meeting Elizabeth Hudson-Evans for a tour of Oxford’s Alice related locations which included seeing Christ Church Cathedral, the Oxford University Museum of Natural History, a delicious lunch at the Macdonald Randolph Hotel, the Story Museum, and a final Mad Hatter’s style tea party at the Malmasion Oxford hosted by award winning designer Katherine Elizabeth who would help us all make our very own bespoke fascinators.
Entering into the campus of Oxford through the front gate was quite a thrill--and available to our tour only on that particular day because there was a student graduation occurring.
(Photo: Interior courtyard of main entrance)
As we entered we looked up to our left and saw the windows into what was Charles Dodgson’s (given the pen name Lewis Carroll by his student newspaper editor) room. Within an instant we were in Wonderland. The stories and the history began.
Our guide showed us the architecture, gave us the history of the campus and explained where growth was planned and never realized which in many ways preserved history.
(Photo: The ceiling outside the Oxford dining hall on the staircase entry has intricate detailed emblems and carvings.)
We were taken through the dining hall (which was famously used as the model for Harry Potter) and marveled at the absolute attention to detail given to preserving the room. Every column was polished and brass plate shined. There was no trace of distress as every attempt is made to keep things pristine. (In fact, people were cleaning while we toured.) It felt a bit like being in your parent’s formal dining room, where you are afraid to touch a thing. Yet, to this day students dine here.
Christ Church Cathedral at the core of Oxford provided the backdrop for Lewis Carroll’s stories. It was while photographing the church that Dodgson first met Alice and her two sister’s Lorina and Edith.
They formed a lasting friendship that led to spending much time together. Carroll made up fantastical stories that were based on real characters and locations that thrilled the girls. Christ Church is also home to the garden in which Alice played croquet, famously incorporated into the Alice in Wonderland story. (It was here I decided to pull out my borrowed edition and photograph the story in its’ rightful place.)
The grounds are spectacular and while walking through them, history seeps through your bones. Feeling the influence of the famous Oxonians, the great men and women who’ve spent time on these grounds, is inescapable. The Christ Church Meadow, as it is called, begs you to meander down the same path Alice and her sisters frequented with Dodgson to see the riverbanks they sat beside when Alice uttered her famous words, “Tell me story…”
From the inside of the church we got a tiny rare peak at the rabbit’s door, a view not often offered to visitors.
Lunch time shuttled us to the Macdonald Randolph Hotel, (a five star landmark hotel that has hosted prime ministers and presidents), where the Olympic press was treated to a beautiful private room and served a lovely lunch. This historic building is beautifully renovated and a classic option when traveling to Oxford.
During lunch we learned of the astounding number of applicants Oxford University receives every year and just how nearly impossible it is to gain admission. According to Oxford University, in 2011 they received more than 17,000 applications for just 3,000 undergraduate spots.
We sipped our wine, enjoyed a moment of getting to know one another and then set off again. Cameras were back up and snapping away with none of us wanting to miss a square inch of the town we were covering. The beauty is overwhelming!
“Alice would have visited the University Museum of Natural History often,” our tour guide told us as we stood in front of the case that housed the dodo bird made famous in Dodgson’s stories. This extinct bird draws a bit of debate over what caused its demise and has been immortalized by the Alice in Wonderland tales.
Lewis Carroll in the Museum:
“Dodgson often visited the Museum accompanied by the young Alice Liddell and her two sisters. The animals they saw there, their friends, and familiar places around Oxford often became incorporated into the stories Carroll created for his young friends. The dodo was a favorite for Dodgson and some believe that Jan Savery’s painting of a dodo, which hangs in the Museum, was the original inspiration for the character of the dodo in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” --via www.oum.ox.ac.uk
No one in our tour wanted to leave this museum, we were all fascinated by the exhibits, many of which encouraged you to “touch and feel.” It is a fantastic destination within Oxford that one should not overlook, especially if you have children in tow.
Walking through the town to our next destination, we passed graduates in their robes--another rare treat--walked over cobble stone streets and passed one architecturally remarkable landmark after another. Oxford is nothing short of magnificent to wander through and has a bustling fun college community with famous pubs-- and lots of quaint dining options.
We ducked inside a virtually unmarked courtyard to find a charming patio that leads the way into The Story Museum. This is another MUST SEE destination in Oxford for all ages. Entering the museum felt much like what Alice would have felt like escaping into her storybook world as we climbed the staircase to enter into the museum’s fantasyland.
The exhibits are whimsical, childlike and inspire the imagination. Kids were engaged in hands on projects with their parents who seemed to be enjoying the interaction. An absolute favorite was something not even at first noticeable upon entry. The upside down tea cup lights were an over-the-top decorative treat!
Adults were captivated by the colors, illustrations, decor and the Storyloom (pictured above) in the museum.
(Photo L to R: Julie Falconer and Nicole Hanratty, Story Museum in Oxford)
What made the tour of Oxford even more special was meeting a new friend on the trip, travel blogger Julie Falconer. (@aladyinlondon www.aladyinlondon.com) We were definitely in the Alice spirit and had fun trying on the “Mad Hats” at the tea party table in The Story Museum.
The staircase was tied with tags and of course Julie and I added one of our own and signed the ascending stairwell guestbook. Once again our tour had to be dragged out the door as we wanted to see and learn more from this fantastic hidden gem.
We toured the Malmaison hotel in Oxford--an historic site--that was originally called Oxford Castle. It was originally constructed in 1701 by William the Conqueror. The property is five acres of natural beauty.
In the 20th century the building was used as a prison, (known as HM Prison Oxford), until 1995 and some of the original prison elements are kept in tact. Of note is that Michael Caine’s movie “The Italian Job” prison scenes were filmed here at this breathtaking location.
Outside, both the scenery and the bar at Malmaison hotel will beckon you to enjoy the courtyard.
Here’s a peak inside of the modern, yet classically decorated hotel rooms:
Next we were escorted up to the very rock star purple and hip decorated private party room of the Malmaison Oxford hotel where they are known for serving up treats on vinyl records. We were aptly “late late for a very important date” at our Mad Hatter tea party, but the whole day was set off into “Alice” motion by the laughable amount of u-turns we had to make just to get out of the road blocked streets of London holding the men’s Olympic cycling race.)
(Photo L to R: Julie Falconer, Katherine Elizabeth & Nicole Hanratty)
While we regretted being late to spend time with our gracious hostess the fabulous talented award winning designer Katherine Elizabeth, received us with smiles, champagne and endless treats!
No decorating detail was spared, and every inch of the room was devoted to our Alice in Wonderland theme. The characters were in bronze statues, the oversized cards lined our tables and the tea pots were right in character.
(The bronze sculptures are part of a series at the hotel called ‘Wonderland Bronze’ based upon Tenniel’s illustrations from Alice. They are modeled in terra-cotta, cast in bronze, and use cora perdu (lost wax) process. Artist: Robert Ellis & James Coplestone of the Robert James Workshop Ltd.)
Julie and I may have giggled more than we designed. Lucky for us we got lots of one on one assistance! In the end we came up with our own unique hand sewn creations that made fabulous souvenirs of our day trip into Oxford and our adventure down the rabbit hole.
And yes, we left an enormous feathery mess behind!
Thank you to Visit England, especially Mark Anthony McCulloch, for planning a rock star event!
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