Degrees of excellence: Oxford and its literary festival

by zara

Oxford is known for its great colleges with their beautiful quads and "dreaming spires", unique museums and water meadow rambles. Combine these with the annual literary festival for a memorable visit

Note: Oxford Literary Festival 2011: saturday 2nd april - sunday 10th april

On literary matters

Jan Morris is one of our greatest travel writers and these days appears the quintessential granny figure with a halo of soft grey hair, though the gravelly voice rather betrays her manly origins. For 40 minutes, she shared anecdotes and read extracts from her latest book Contact! consisting of "glimpses" of people encountered in her worldwide travels.

In a question session afterwards she told us her favourite island is Torcello (insider tip!), good travel writers travel alone, the first of her three drafts is often the best, and that writing has always been easy for her.

Ms Morris was among 400 writers taking part in one of the 300 events that make up the Oxford Literary Festival, now in its 14th year. Though one needs no such excuse for visiting Oxford, if you are interested in literary matters there is no better place to enjoy the huge variety of speakers and debates. Such diverse authors as John Le Carre, Martin Amis, Joanne Harris and Richard Dawkins join Shirley Williams, John Simpson and Belle du Jour. Topics range from art, architecture, music and food to history, politics (I attended one impassioned session where the author’s slant on the Arab world did not coincide with that of the Israelis in the audience), travel and the environment.

The action takes place in a large marquee beside Christ Church and in college lecture rooms. Founded in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey, Christ Church has England’s smallest cathedral housing the remains of the city’s patron saint: St Frideswide. It has changed little since though its great Tudor hall may now be better known for Hogwarts Hall and Harry Potter.

Sleeping in

To appreciate the atmosphere of the great college it is possible to stay at Christ Church College. We had a nice ensuite room overlooking the gardens, though these are student rooms and thus have traces of the more usual occupant: the physics textbooks were not ideal bedside reading. However, the timeless pleasure of wandering alone at night through the great Tom Quad, under the eye of the huge clock tower with the Mercury fountain silver in the moonlight, more than compensates. If you have ever wished that you had been an undergraduate at Oxford, this will make you doubly regretful for what you missed. Rooms from £55 per person per night including full breakfast in the Great Hall.

In 2010 for the first time some of the other colleges also offered accommodation; check the festival website - or call 0870 343 1001 for details and event bookings. It takes place over a week towards the end of March. Each event lasts an hour on average and costs £10 though there are also dinners in the Great Hall, walking tours and children’s events.

If you have grown out of student digs and need a little more luxury I suggest the Old Bank Hotel (91-94 High Street, OX1 4BN; rooms from £135). Centrally located, a stroll to the festival, colleges and sights, it has stylish bedrooms in white/mushroom shades, big pillows and gleaming ensuites. Our room overlooked the large interior terrace and though their taste in art is questionable, we had an enjoyable stay. Check out their website for good deals which include dinner in their popular restaurant: Quod (01865 202505;, worth a visit in its own right for its fresh seasonal menu and lively atmosphere.

Dining out

Pierre Victoire (9 Little Clarendon St, Jericho; 01865 316616) has tasty meals at bargain prices: a 3-course lunch at £9.90 or £19.90 for dinner which can include rich rabbit rillette, chunky fishcakes and hearty sausage cassoulets. Their creamy moules and steak-frites are also good.

My favourite cafés include the comfy Nosebag (6-8 St Michael’s St; 01865 721033), for great value soups, salads, casseroles and cakes, and the brightly painted, funky Georgina’s (Covered Market) for excellent paninis, salads and spicy spud skins.

Many cosy pubs have literary associations. Chequers is a good local down a passageway off the Carfax Tower end of High Street. It does bangers and mash with about 20 real ales. The White Horse (Broad Street), the Turf Tavern (off Holywell Lane) and the Eagle and Child (St. Giles) are other popular choices with lots of character and dark corners.


On Thursdays, the Open Market, off George Street, has interesting antique, book and clothing stalls as well as scrummy local food producers. One has a superb range of second hand clothes and cashmere: at 9am you will find the locals-in-the-know unpacking his van to find the bargains.

Duckers on Turl Street has colourful loafers and an impressive range of stripy socks. At the Covered Market on High Street there are all the ingredients of a picnic. The cheese shop has delicious local cheeses: try the creamy Isis or blue goat's cheese. There are also fashion outlets and cafes.


My favourite viewpoint is from the tower of the University Church of St Mary (£3) on the High Street for the best view of the Radcliffe Camera and a peek into the college quads - the stairway up is a bit of a squeeze! Their Vaults café provides a scenic view if you sit outside.

My best advice is to wander: most of the colleges are open to visitors in the afternoons and you can discover for yourself the beautiful quads, with their creeper-covered doorways and leering gargoyles. Check out the pillar in Corpus Christi, the immaculate lawns and old church at Lincoln and the stately Magdalen.

The Ashmolean Musuem (free; has just had a £61million refit to display its world famous collection and its new bright glass-windowed rooftop restaurant is a big hit (; 01865 553823). The Pitt Rivers Museum (free; is the complete opposite: dark and cluttered with a wonderfully diverse anthropological collection with handwritten labels - how museums used to be before we felt the need to have ‘interactive experiences’.

There are pleasant walks along the banks of the Isis - visit the tourist office at 15 - 16 Broad Street for maps - and punting options for the brave. In fact, you might well find that there are so many things to do and the literary festival such fun that an Oxford visit will become a yearly event in your calendar.