Oxford is built around books. Books are studied, books written, books published, sold and stored in limitless libraries and boundless bookshops. Following the footsteps of many famous feet I will take you on a tour of Oxford that will include over 20 bookshops, 12 colleges and a many other famous attractions. Several of the bookshops and many of the attractions have websites and I have included links in order of mention in the bar on the right. I will also link to any relevant reviews I have written.
We take a circular route through Broad St, Holywell and Longwall, The High St, St Aldates, the Westgate finishing in Park End St which is near both the Railway station and Gloucester Green. You can download a map of central Oxford from Daily Information so you can follow the route.
Gloucester Green is the home of the bus station, a few shops and cafes and the weekly open general market on Wednesdays and the antique and craft market on Thursdays. Bookstalls can usually be found at both the markets. There is a regular stall selling new books at bargain prices on Wednesdays.
To get to the first Bookshop, Borders, exit from Gloucester Green by the Cinema into George St, which consists almost entirely of pubs and restaurants. Turn left and left again by the New Theatre and this will take you to the back entrance of Borders into the coffee shop.
Borders is the new kid on the block in Oxford and is the trendiest bookshop in town. Although it stocks serious books it is a fun place to be. Music, fiction and serious stuff intermingle in the colourful environment and the coffee bar is the place where things happen. Borders is open to 11pm and has regular discussion groups for film buffs, SF fans and creative writing.
After Borders one may decide to take a five minute detour up St. Giles to the Oxfam Bookshop or continue to Broad St.
Turning left as you come out of the main entrance of Borders you will notice the Martyr's Memorial (read my review) on your right and pass the Randolph Hotel (one of Inspector Morse's and his creator Colin Dexter's favourite haunts) to your left. and across the road is the famous Ashmolean Museum,. Opposite the Ashmolean is St. John's College, the richest college in Oxford. Whose famous graduates include: Kingsley Amis, Philip Larkin, A. E. Housman, Robert Graves and Tony Blair.
The Oxfam Bookshop has a very good selection of s/h books on many subjects. It is on two floors and has a very quick turnover of books. It has both academic and general books and a very good literature selection.
Just past the Oxfam bookshop is the Eagle and Child which is famous for being the meeting place of the informal literary group known as 'the Inklings'. Led by C. S. Lewis the group included J. R. R. Tolkein, Charles Williams and Nevill Coghill. Nowadays with tourists in the pub one finds the intellectual discussions more often taking place in the rather scruffy little St. Giles café nearby which becomes packed with students between lectures.
On the corner of Broad St and Cornmarket is Waterstones. Waterstones is strategically placed as the first bookshop in Oxford's street of bookshops. Part of a large chain of 220 shops it has a reasonable selection of books on 5 floors. I quite like the children's section downstairs as there are things to keep the children amused.
Diagonally opposite Waterstones in Cornmarket is The Works which sells bargain books and further along the road is W.H. Smith. There is also a very small bookshop Arcadia in St. Michael's St just off Cornmarket which specialises in older penguin books.
As we turn into Broad St the Oxford Story exhibition is on the right hand side. I have not visited this experiential trip through Oxford's history but it seems popular with tourists.
Opposite is Balliol College whose literary graduates include Aldous Huxley and Graham Greene.
Thornton's was Oxford's oldest independent bookshop and although it no longer has a physical presence in Broad St. I have included it because I have the fond memories of it. When I was a poor theology student Mr Thornton was very kind to me. Thorntons then had a thriving theology department and Mr Thornton often invited me to take first pick of the latest s/h arrivals in the warehouse at the rear of the shop. He was convinced that the site of the burning of Latimer, Cranmer and Ridley, the famous Martyrs actually took place somewhere near the back of the shop rather than the place marked by a cross in Broad St. Thornton's is now an internet bookshop but it does have a few photo's of the good old days.
Continuing along Broad St we pass a small Oxfam shop. A small plaque on wall identifies it as the very first Oxfam shop opened in 1947 and possibly the very first charity shop. Like all charity shops it has a selection of S/h books.
If you are in need of sustenance at this point I recommend Morton's sandwich bar which has a secluded little courtyard at the rear or a small room upstairs if the weather is inclement.
On the corner of Turl St. is the first of many Blackwell's bookshops this is their Music shop stocking, would you believe it, music and books on music. The next shop is Blackwell's Art and Poster shop on the opposite corner. This is the last shop on this side of Broad St but across the road next to Trinity College are what appears to be two more bookshops separated by a small pub, the White Horse another favourite of Morse, but which are in fact connected.
Finally we arrive at the original Blackwell's now probably one of the most famous bookshops in the world. The façade of the shop disguises the Tardis like interior. Entering Blackwell's main shop you will find little trace of the tiny bookshop which was originally 12 sq. feet. It used to be marked by coloured carpet tiles. The original size of the shop forms adequate contrast for the cavernous, terraced Norrington Room which, having 10,000 sq. feet stocked with 3 miles of books, is the largest in Europe and took its place in the Guinness book of records. Perhaps taking a cue from the subterraneous stacks of the Bodleian Library, Blackwell's excavated under neighbouring Trinity college to create this amazing chamber in 1966.
Blackwell's has a reasonable second hand department on the top floor, past the coffee shop with its tempting but expensive smells. I preferred it when the s/h books were kept in the relevant departments. The s/h books are quite expensive but Blackwell's do give very good prices for s/h current academic books. So it's a good place to sell if not buy. Blackwells has two other shops, one at Oxford Brookes and the other at the John Radcliffe hospital (medical).
Incidentally, Blackwell's also offer real Literary tours of Oxford. See their website for details.
Opposite Blackwells the enigmatic 1970's replica heads of the 'herms' or 'emperors' which defy explanation solemnly guard the Museum of the History of Science which was the original home of the Ashmolean and is arguably the oldest public museum in the world. Its exhibits include Lewis Carroll's 'notorious' camera. Next door is the Sheldonian Theatre (The first major work of Christopher Wren 1664) where the flamboyant rites and ceremonies of the University, matriculation, degrees and Encaenia, take place in their seasons and classical concerts and lectures at other times. The cupola on the top is not the original but a later (1838) addition and provides one of the best and most easily accessible views over the city. (opening times 10 - 12.30 and 2.00 - 4.30 price £1.50)
On either side of Broad St., and in fact beneath it, is the famous Bodleian Library. Deep under Broad St millions of books are stored in the stacks to be delivered to the readers above. I have been down into the stacks and was amazed at the contents. Because it is a 'copyright' Library it stocks everything published including even children's comics and such like. The Library itself is not open to the public but there are guided tours available of some parts (£3.50) and there is usually an exhibition of some sort on with free admission. There is also a shop with original gift ideas and souvenirs.
Just behind the Bodleian is the Radcliffe Camera one of the most distinguished buildings in Oxford. It was built 1737 James Gibbs. It is not open to the public as it is one of the reading rooms of the Bodleian - the one I mainly used as an undergraduate. Thankfully it is now fenced off. I say thankfully for as a student I found it quite disconcerting to raise my head from a book in deep thought only to find hoards of tourists peering through the windows.
We are now at the end of Broad St. and Holywell St straight ahead is flanked on either corner by the Kings Arms pub on one corner and the history Faculty on the other. The history faculty used to be the Indian Institute for training civil servants. You will notice elephants, lions and Hindu gods decorating it rather than the more familiar gargoyles of Oxford.
The road to the left leads to the University Museum of Natural History (read my review), Pitt Rivers, the Parks (read my review), and the University science area but we will continue into Holywell. Holywell St no longer has any bookshops but is one way of getting to the top end of High St. On the left we find the Holywell Music Room, the first purpose built Music room which was opened in 1748 with a performance of Handel's oratorio Esther. It has superb acoustics and is still used for concerts of various kinds. The next block of houses on the left hand side belong to Harris Manchester College just round the corner in Mansfield Road, whose illustrious alumni include me.
Bath Place, on the right, is a narrow winding lane which leads to the city walls, the Turf Tavern (yet another famous pub frequented by Morse) and eventually to New College lane which has the public entrance to New College (1379) which is the college on the right.
At the junction of Holywell and Longwall is the Garage where William Morris built his first car in 1912 and began the huge car industry which dominated Oxford's industry until recently. The road to the left would take you to St Cross church (c.1160) no longer open to the public. Kenneth Grahame is buried in the graveyard which is accessible.
Behind the long wall to the left is Magdalen College and its deer park. Famous students include C. S. Lewis, Oscar Wilde and his close friend, and John Betjeman. To the left just over Magdalen Bridge is the Plain and where Bottom's Up wine store now is was Maxwell's (as in Robert) which was the place to be in the 60's. Just like Borders today it stocked music and books and at its hub was a coffee shop. Just along from there in St Clements is a Comic Bookshop and a Christian Bookshop.
We turn right into the High St and on the right is Waterfield's bookshop. Before it relocated to High St this s/h bookshop used to be the biggest and best in Oxford with a superb selection and wonderful literary atmosphere. There were worn chairs and a sofa to relax and discuss whatever. Since its move it has gone downhill - the stock hardly seems to move at all. The block of shops is owned by St Edmund's Hall, the cutest college in Oxford, which is located just round the corner in Queens Lane. Queens Lane coffee house on the corner is the site of the first coffee house in Oxford and the Grand Café opposite, which is indeed quite grand, was originally the home of Coopers 'Oxford' Marmalade.
Opposite the shops are the Examination Schools - yuk, which are not open to the public. Another general s/h bookshop Books on High can be found inside The Antique shop. Walking down High St University College is on the left and Queens College on the right. University College honours its former student Percy Bysshe Shelley with a monument even though he was expelled in his first year. As you follow the famous curve of the High you will see on your right the impressive spire of St. Mary's church, which is another tower you can climb to get a birds-eye view of Oxford. On the left opposite Turl St is the Oxford University Press bookshop selling only its own titles.
Cross the road here and turn right into Turl St where there are two bookshops. The first is The Classics Bookshop which sells classics and humanities, remainders and rare books. This bookshop has been seen on Morse quite often. Just a bit further on is Unsworth's Bookshop, a relative newcomer to Oxford, which has become a source of major temptation for me. It stocks classics, history and philosophy and suchlike but at amazing prices (50 - 90% off publisher's price). It has a superb range of top class remainders at seriously tempting prices and also a good quality s/h range as well.
Coming out of the Unsworth's bookshop turn left into Market St and left again into the Covered Market ( Read my review here) . There used to be a tiny bookshop in the covered market,sadly no more, but as the market is worth a visit we will go that way. Take an exit out the Market into the high St, turn right towards Carfax tower and then left into St Aldates.
St Aldates is home to the Museum of Oxford and Christ Church college (my review) and meadows (my review). Opposite Christ church Meadow is a small bookshop St Philip's Books which specialises in Catholic books and further down is Resevoir Books with rather stange and erratic opening hours.
If you haven't gone down St Aldates take the next right into Pembroke St and at the end is the Museum of Modern Art which has its own bookshop and a popular vegetarian coffee shop Café MOMA.
Opposite Pembroke St is the rear entrance to the Westgate shopping centre whwere there is another is another branch of The Works. Just outside the front of the Westgate is theCentral Library which has a good selection of s/h books, DVDs videos and music for sale at bargain prices (from 50p) in the periodicals room.
The last bookshop in the tour is another specialised one. Oxbow Books specialises in ancient and medieval history, archaeology, art and antiquities. It has new, remaindered and s/h books. If you want to visit this specialised bookshop turn left at the Westgate and walk down New Rd. On your left you will pass the Old Prison where many films and TV programmes are filmed. In the prison grounds are the remains of Oxford Castle from which in 1142 the rightful queen Matilda made her romantic escape from her rival King Stephen. On the right you can't miss the most modern and ugliest spire of Oxford, belonging to Nuffield College and which houses yet more books. Continue into Park End St and Oxbow Books is in Park End Place on the left.
The Inner Bookshopis one of my favourite bookshops. It specialises in esoteric books. It stocks new, s/h and remainders. It is not located in the city centre and if you want to visit and discover the best range of remainder books available on those subjects you could catch a bus from Queens Lane. The bookshop is in Magdalen Road, off the Cowley Road which is a ten minute bus ride away. Catch a number 1 bus to Blackbird Leys which run every 5 minutes and get off at Magdalen Road. There is a superb vegetarian café (the Magic Café) next door which is worth a visit in its own right (read my review).