C.S. Lewis Walking Tour of Oxford Centre

Walking Guide

(Prepared by Kim Gilnett with assistance from Stan Mattson and Michael Ward)

 Caveat

Please be aware that this is an outdoor walking tour, and NOT a tour of the interiors of the locations you’ll be seeing. The buildings on the tour may not be open and available to the general public.

General Recommendations

Distance: 3 1/2 Miles
Time Required: 2 Hours

    • Start this walking tour in the early afternoon so your arrival at Magdalen College will be during visiting hours, 2:00pm to 6:15pm daily.
    • Wear good, comfortable walking shoes.
    • Wear light, but waterproof, clothing. We can’t promise anything about the weather except that it will be varied.
    • Stop along the way when anything catches your interest. There is a great deal to see in Oxford.

 

Recommended Route

1. Begin this walk in front of the world-famous Blackwell’s Bookshop on Broad Street, directly across the street from the Sheldonian, Oxford’s most illustrious meeting hall designed by Christopher Wren. (You’ll love Blackwell’s!)

2. When facing Blackwell’s you will notice a tiny pub on your left. The White Horse, which seems almost part of the shop. A short distance to your right, beyond the traffic lights and on the corner, you’ll see The King’s Arms pub.

Humphrey Carpenter, in his excellent book, The Inklings, reports that Lewis and his friends used to meet in these two pubs during the war (and at the Mitre on the High Street) because of a beer shortage “caused largely by thirsty American troops waiting for D-Day.” The shortage meant that the Inklings could not always rely on their favourite haunt, The Eagle and Child (also known as “The Bird and Baby”) to provide refreshment.

From the diary of Major Warren Lewis (C.S. Lewis’s brother), we read of the death of Charles Williams on Tuesday, May 15, 1945:

“I felt dazed and restless [at the news of Williams’ death], and went out to get a drink: choosing unfortunately the King’s Arms, where during the winter Charles and I more than once drank a pint after leaving Tollers [J.R.R. Tolkien] at the Mitre, with much glee at “clearing one’s throat of varnish with good honest beer” as Charles used to say. There will be no more pints with Charles: no more “Bird and the Baby”: the blackout has fallen, and the Inklings can never be the same.”

3. Continue on past The King’s Arms along Holywell Street. As you proceed down one of the most wonderful streets in Oxford, notice a little side street called Bath Place. If you wish to take a short detour, stroll down this lane to the renowned and ancient pub, The Turf Tavern. It is one of the few places where you can order the old English drink, Mead.

4. Back on Holywell Street, notice the Holywell Music Room across the street. Built in the 1740’s, it is the oldest surviving building in Europe designed exclusively for concerts.

5. Continue walking down Holywell Street until you come to the corner of Mansfield Road. Turn into Mansfield and stop by the first house on your right. It was here that Lewis spent his first night in Oxford in December 1916.

From Surprised By Joy, by C.S. Lewis:

“My first taste of Oxford was comical enough. I had made no arrangements about quarters and, having no more luggage than I could carry in my hand, I sallied out of the railway station on foot to find either a lodging-house or a cheap hotel; all agog for “dreaming spires” and “last enchantments.” My first disappointment at what I saw could be dealt with. Towns always show their worst face to the railway. But as I walked on and on I became more bewildered. Could this succession of mean shops really be Oxford? But I still went on, always expecting the next turn to reveal the beauties, and reflecting that it was a much larger town than I had been led to suppose.

Only when it became obvious that there was very little town left ahead of me, that I was in fact getting to open country, did I turn round and look. There behind me, far away, never more beautiful since, was the fabled cluster of spires and towers. I had come out of the station on the wrong side and been all this time walking into what was even then the mean and sprawling suburb of Botley. I did not see to what extent this little adventure was an allegory of my whole life. I merely walked back to the station, somewhat footsore, took a hansom, and asked to be driven to “some place where I can get rooms for a week, please.”

The method, which I should now think hazardous, was a complete success, and I was soon at tea in comfortable surroundings. The house is still there, the first on the right as you turn into Mansfield Road out of Holywell. I shared the sitting room with another candidate, a man from Cardiff College, which he pronounced to be architecturally superior to anything in Oxford. His learning terrified me, but he was an agreeable man. I have never seen him since.”

6. Walk a short distance along Mansfield Road and then turn right into Jowett Walk. (Benjamin Jowett was a famous 19th Century Oxford figure and Master of Balliol College). Proceed to the end of Jowett Walk, stop and look ahead and to your left. There you will see one of Oxford’s forgotten treasures, St. Cross Parish Church. Built on an ancient foundation as the parish church of the Holywell Manor, the chancel arch of the Church of St. Cross dates from the mid-12th Century. It is the setting of the wedding between Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey in Dorothy L. Sayers’ mystery, Busman’s Honeymoon.

NOTE: St. Cross is a Special Collections Centre of Balliol College and is not open to the general public without prior appointment. See their website for information and visit here for their enquiry form.

Make sure you take time to visit the adjoining St. Cross Cemetery. As you enter, notice a small map that will lead you to the graves of Hugo Dyson, Austin Farrer and Charles Williams, all members of Lewis’s circle of friends. Also you can find the resting place of Kenneth Grahame, author of the classic children’s book, The Wind in the Willows.

7. Upon leaving the cemetery, go back towards Jowett Walk and continue past it (the pavement becomes very narrow). You are now in Longwall Street. On your left, you will find a substantial section of the old city wall. Behind that wall is the Magdalen College Grove with its unique deer park. You will see it better when you enter Magdalen College.

8. Continue to the very end of Longwall Street where it meets the busy High Street. Turn left and walk past the entrance of Magdalen College on to the center of Magdalen Bridge, which spans the River Cherwell.

9. As you turn to face Magdalen College, you will find one of the most beautiful sights in all of Oxford, the glorious Magdalen Tower. Built between 1490 and 1510, it is more than 150 feet high.

10. Looking down from the bridge, over the parapet, you will very likely see a number of punts on the Cherwell River. This is a great place to rent a punt for an afternoon on the slow-moving river.

11. Retrace your steps to the entrance of Magdalen. There is a small fee for visiting. It is highly recommended that you pay a little more for the guided tour. These tours are generally given by current students who can often take you into areas to which you would otherwise not be allowed. We also recommend that you purchase one of the guidebooks. It will give valuable information on Magdalen College. Allow at least 45 minutes to visit the college.

12. During your visit to Magdalen, don’t miss:

    • The New Building: Dating from 1735 (hence “New!”), this imposing building provided C.S. Lewis with a beautifully situated suite of rooms. They were on the second floor (first floor by English reckoning), near the middle. The two windows directly to the right of the protruding center section, above the wisteria, were Lewis’. It was here that Lewis was converted to a belief in God (theism).From Surprised by Joy, by C.S. Lewis:

      “You must picture me alone in that room in Magdalen, night after night, feeling, whenever my mind lifted even for a second from my work, the steady unrelenting approach of Him whom I so earnestly desired not to meet. That which I greatly feared had at last come upon me. In Trinity Term of 1929 I gave in and admitted that God was God, and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night, the most dejected and reluctant convert in all of England.”

 

    • Addison’s Walk: Named after the great English man of letters and graduate of Magdalen, Joseph Addison, this was a favourite walking place for Lewis and his friends.From They Stand Together: The Letters of C.S. Lewis to Arthur Greeves:

      ” September 1931 He [Hugo Dyson] stayed the night with me in College… Tolkien came too, and did not leave till 3 in the morning… We began (in Addison’s Walk just after dinner) on metaphor and myth – interrupted by a rush of wind which came so suddenly on the still warm evening and sent so many leaves pattering down that we thought it was raining….

      We continued on Christianity: a good long satisfying talk in which I learned a lot….

      October 1931 Now what Dyson and Tolkien showed me was this: that if I met the idea of sacrifice in a Pagan story I didn’t mind it at all: and again, that if I met the idea of god sacrificing himself to himself…. I liked it very much… provided I met it anywhere except in the Gospels… Now the story of Christ is simply a true myth: a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with tremendous difference that it really happened…. Does this amount to a belief in Christianity? At any rate I am now certain (a) that this Christian story is to be approached, in a sense, as I approach the other myths; (b) that it is the most important and full of meaning. I am also nearly sure that it happened…. “

 

    • Deer Park: The deer in this special reserve are kept as part of the Magdalen College grounds. Once a year one of these magnificent beasts has the great honor of becoming the feast for Magdalen College and its guests.
      From C.S. Lewis’s Letters:

      ” My big sitting room looks north and from it I can see nothing, not even a gable or a spire, to remind me that I am in town. I look down on a stretch of ground which passes into a grove of immemorial forest trees, at present coloured autumn red. Over it stray deer. They are erratic in their habits. Some mornings when I look out there will be half a dozen chewing the cud just underneath me, and on others there will be none in sight — or a little stag (not much bigger than a calf and looking too slender for the weight of his antlers) standing and sending through the fog that queer little bark which is these beasts’ “moo.” It is a sound that will be as familiar to me as the cough of the cows in the field at home for I hear it day and night.”

    • The Hall (included on guided tour only): Notice the fine woodwork of the screen. It dates from the end of the reign of Elizabeth I or the beginning of James I.
    • The Chapel: After Lewis’ conversion to Christianity in 1931, he used to attend weekday services in the College chapel.

13. After completing your tour of Magdalen College, step out of the Porter’s Lodge and cross the road. In front of you is the Botanic Garden, open to the public. This is the oldest garden of its kind in England and contains many rare and interesting specimens. It is built on an ancient Jewish burial-ground as is Magdalen College.

14. As you face the Botanic Garden, turn right and walk back towards the center of Oxford along the High Street (known to many simply as “the High”).

15. Continue along the High until you reach the Eastgate Hotel, which is on the corner of Merton Street. Since Tolkien was a Fellow of Merton College and Lewis of Magdalen College, the Eastgate was a convenient place for them to meet.

C.S. Lewis in a letter to his brother, November 1939:

” On Thursday we had a meeting of the Inklings — you and Coghill both absent unfortunately. We dined at the Eastgate. I have never in my life seen Dyson so exuberant — “A roaring cataract of nonsense.”

16. If you wish, you may take a detour down Merton Lane to Merton College. If you do, be sure to come back to this point to resume your tour.

17. As you return to the High, turn left and continue along the High. You will immediately find the Examination Schools on your left. Here and in other venues, Lewis, Tolkien and Williams presented their lectures to Oxford students.

C.S. Lewis in a letter of February 1940:

“On Monday Charles Williams lectured, nominally on [Milton’s] Comus but really on Chastity. Simply as criticism it was superb-because here was a man who really cared with every fibre of his being about “The sage and the serious doctrine of virginity” which it would never occur to the ordinary modern reader to take seriously.”

18. Carry on along the High Street, passing Logic Lane on your left, and you come to University College. It was here that the young C.S. Lewis arrived on April 26, 1917 to begin his academic studies as an undergraduate.

His rooms were on staircase XII, Room 5 of the Radcliffe Quad. When the young Lewis interrupted his studies to join the army, he had the good fortune to stay in Oxford and train at Keble College. He often would return to University College (known as “Univ.”) for weekends.

C.S. Lewis in a letter of July, 1917:

“You can’t imagine how I have come to love Univ., especially since I left. Last Saturday evening when I was sleeping alone, I spent a long time wandering over it, into all sorts of parts where I had never been before, where the mullioned windows are dark with ivy that no one has bothered to cut since the war emptied the rooms they belong to.”

Lewis was to take a double first in Literae Humaniores (more commonly known as “Classics”); he completed his studies with a first in English in 1923.

19. Leaving Univ. through the Porter’s Lodge, cross over the High Street, walk back towards Magdalen for a short way and you will come to Queen’s Lane. Turn left down Queen’s Lane and, as you pass St. Edmund Hall (“Teddy Hall”) on your right, notice the church of St. Peter’s-in-the-East. Now converted into the Teddy Hall Library, this church was attended often by Lewis (on Wednesdays) for Holy Communion.

20. Continue along Queen’s Lane, noticing how quiet it becomes. On your right is New College. On your left is The Queen’s College and then All Soul’s College. You will pass under a bridge which is where Queen’s Lane becomes New College Lane.

21. Continue along New College Lane until you pass under another bridge which connects two buildings belonging to Hertford College. This bridge is sometimes called “the Bridge of Sighs.” Stop here and look to your left and you will see what is perhaps the most impressive architectural view in all England: the square tower of the Bodleian Library, the round dome of the Radcliffe Camera and, beyond that, the soaring spire of the University Church. Begin to walk past these buildings.

22. To your right is the famous Bodleian Library (the main library of Oxford University) where Lewis spent many hours reading and studying. The Radcliffe Camera is part of the Bodleian and contains mostly books on theology and English.

The University Church of St. Mary the Virgin (you’ll find the best view of Oxford from its tower!) is where Lewis delivered his famous war-time sermon, “The Weight of Glory.”

23. Walk past University Church and out onto the High Street. Turn right. You may wish to visit Hall Brothers Tailors and Merchants at 119 High Street. Established in 1860, they are the perfect place to purchase a silk bow tie which was required for high table dinner in college. Halls is one of the finest clothiers in England.

24. You will pass Brasenose College on your right and, as you advance along the High Street, you will reach the Mitre Hotel (also on your right). This was another favorite spot for C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien and friends.

25. Carry on up the High Street until you reach a cross-roads. Pause for a moment. In front of you is Carfax Tower, so-called from the French “carrefour,” meaning crossroads. In contrast with the quiet Queen’s Lane, this area is one of the busiest places in Oxford.

26. Turn right into Cornmarket Street and walk past all the shops until you come to Broad Street. Ahead of you and on your right you will see St. Mary Magdalen’s Church. Lewis used to frequent this church for confession.

27. Walk alongside the church (known as “Mary Mag”) and you will come upon the Martyrs’ Memorial, built in remembrance of the 16th century martyrs, Cranmer, Latimer and Ridley, who were burned at the stake nearby. Cross the street (carefully). On your left you will see the Randolph Hotel, a wonderful place for high tea (reservations recommended).

28. Continue to your right past the famed Ashmolean museum, down the wide, tree-lined road called St. Giles (so named after St. Giles’s Church at the far end). On your left you will come to the most famous Lewis pub, The Eagle and Child (also known as “The Bird and Baby”). It was here that the Inklings met informally every Tuesday morning to drink and to discuss the books they were reading (and writing). In 1962, after a remodeling of the Bird and Baby (one of many), they moved across the street to The Lamb and Flag.

From Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet:

“[Ransom, after arriving back on earth,] contrived to get into a lane, then a road, then into a village street. A lighted door was open. There were voices from within and they were speaking English. There was a familiar smell. He pushed his way in, regardless of the surprise he was creating in the bar. “A pint of bitter, please,” said Ransom.”

29. This seems like a good place to end the Lewis tour, unless, of course, you have the time and energy for one of Jack’s favorite walks. A late afternoon walk to The Perch (a quaint, thatch-roofed pub on Binsey Lane across the Port Meadow) for a pint and conversation, followed by a stroll along the Isis River to The Trout (the most glorious of pubs) for dinner.

30. If you can’t take the walk from The Perch to The Trout, do go directly to The Trout via taxi or auto. You’ll not regret it. In any and all events, do take your time. Enjoy yourself and, by all means, return!

Note: This guide does not include information on a visit to The Kilns (Lewis’ long time home in nearby Headington) or to his parish church and grave site at Holy Trinity Church in Headington Quarry.