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Murders, Magic and Middle Earth

Oxfordshire was destined to become inextricably linked with literature of all shapes and sorts...
Tourists flocked to Wallingford, Henley-on-Thames and Warborough to see where DCI Tom Barnaby solved some terrible gruesome rural crimes

Housing one of the most famous universities in the world within its boundaries, Oxfordshire was destined to become inextricably linked with literature of all shapes and sorts. While famous authors have graced the halls and lecture theatres and many colleges, the conspicuous architecture of the city itself has spawned many fictional tales and characters. There is no doubt about it – Oxfordshire loves its books.


The perfect setting

From the dreaming spires and gothic lanes of the city to the sprawling green countryside and small English villages, Oxfordshire is a back-drop worthy of the most notable author’s pen. Over the years, it has been the setting for many novels and the city itself lends itself to a good murder mystery.

No round-up of books featuring Oxford would be complete without a mention of the most famous British detective of all, Inspector Morse. The brooding, Jag-loving, intellectual detective was the brainchild of local Oxford author Colin Dexter. From his first appearance in Last Bus to Woodstock, Dexter’s dark lead character and down-to-earth deputy Lewis took the nation by storm. Between 1987 and 2001 the characters were brought to life for the popular ITV adaptations. And of course, no television adaptation would be complete without the biggest star of all, the city of Oxford.

Oxford also crops up in many other works. One gem of a book is The Moving Toyshop, by Oxford Graduate Edmund Crispin. Another classic Oxford crime novel, detective Gervase Fen investigates a murder discovered by a poet at a toy shop, only to discover the building has become a grocer’s store. And that’s just the start of the mysteries that arrive within the pages of the book.

Outside of the city, the countryside has provided the inspiration for many writers. Part of Hardy’s Wessex, Jude the Obscure starts in the Alfredston area (Wantage) and sees Jude Fawley’s attempts to make it to the university halls of Christminster (Oxford). The story ends in tragedy, as so often happens in a Hardy novel.

And of course, who can forget that Oxford University was the meeting place of Charles and Lord Sebastian from Evelyn Waugh’s provocative novel Brideshead Revisited. Although the novel eventually moves on to the setting of Sebastian’s family seat in Wiltshire, Brideshead Castle, the novel pays close attention to his first meeting with Charles and the early development of their relationship. The feeling of a privilege that pervades the University at that time helps capture the essence of excess which Waugh wished to describe throughout the book which he himself described as his magnum opus.

The Lark Rise to Candleford trilogy describes in semi-autobiographical detail the countryside on the Ox-Bucks boarder. Flora Thompson describes rural life under threat from industrialisation at the end of the 19th century; great changes can happen within a single generation in a cluster of villages. The books were, of course, made into a well-received Sunday night period drama on BBC1 for several years.


Amongst the many other books set in Oxfordshire are…

In Search of the Black Rose, Nancy Drew

The Second Time I Saw Your Face, Pipa Croft

Oxford Blood, Antonia Fraser

The Silver Collar, Mathilde Madden

An Instance of the Fingerpost, Ian Pears

Lyra’s Oxford, Philip Pullman

Tom Brown’s Oxford and Tom Brown’s School Days, Thomas Hughes

The Dalder Game, Blue Balliett

Chrome Yellow, Aldous Huxley

Jill, Philip Larkin

Three Men in an Boat, Jerome K Jerome


Oxfordshire authors

The academic credentials of the county means that there is a wealth of authors; some native to Oxfordshire and those that settled here later in life.  Notable among these are C.S. Lewis, Agatha Christie, Lewis Carroll and J.R.R Tolkien, among many, many others.

C.S. Lewis arrived in Oxford as a student of the Greats and English. He stayed on to work in the English faculty at the university and would often meet with other writers in the small pub next to Blackwell’s Nook shop, The White Horse. His series of seven children’s books known as The Chronicles of Narnia have been well loved by generations of children and are still enchanting new audience’s today.

Lewis Carroll is one of the city’s best-loved authors and like many of the city’s great writers, he came to study. He was a brilliant mathematician and had an academic career waiting for him. But instead he chose the life of a country parson. But while at Oxford, he befriended the wife and family of the Dean of Christchurch. He would often take them rowing on summer days and it was on such a trip to Nuneham Courtenay that he invented the story of Alice in Wonderland.  One of the children, Alice, begged him to write the story out of her and the result was the book we know and love today.

Another writer that has seen his work only grow in popularity is J.R.R Tolkien. After studying at Exeter College, Tolkien spent the First World War fighting in some of the fiercest battles. He brought a lot of his military experience into play when he penned The Hobbit and the first two volumes of Lord of the Rings while working at Pembroke College. After the Second World War he moved to Merton college, where he spent the last of his career.

Outside the city, Agatha Christie was already a famous writer before she moved to Oxfordshire. Her primary characters were Hercule Poirot and the lovable Miss Marple and by the time she had moved to Nettlebed House near Wallingford in 1936, she had already written almost 20 novels. Wallingford became her favourite home and it was from there that she wrote a massive catalogue of books before passing away in 1976.


Some of the other authors with a local connection include…

Diran Adebayo

PD James

Iris Murdoch

Philip Pullman

William Golding

Oscar Wilde

John Buchan

...among others.


On screen Oxfordshire

Oxford not only appears in thousands upon thousands of tourist photos every year, it is also a decadent and mysterious backdrop for films, so much so, that novels that weren’t even written about the city are routinely filmed there.

The most well-known has got to be Harry Potter. In creating Hogwarts, producers needed to look no further than the grand staircases, ornamental refectories and inspiring libraries of Oxford University. Even Blenheim Palace got in on the act, being featured in flashback sequences from Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix.  If you were looking for ‘the real Hogwarts’, then Christ Church is the best place to start as this college provided a great many of the locations that are passed-off as the famous school for wizards.

Oxford resident Philip Pullman chose to set the opening to The Golden Compass in Oxford University and when the film was made, the university was more than happy to allow cameras in. A wide variety of locations were used in the filming and the ‘Oxford effect’ makes the opening, as well as other scenes in the trilogy, nothing short of magic.

Long before Downton Abbey put Oxfordshire on the map, tourists from across the world flocked to Wallingford, Henley-on-Thames and Warborough to see where Caroline Graham’s lovable detective hero DCI Tom Barnaby solved some terrible gruesome rural crimes. The television adaptation lasted for a fantastic 17 series and although the actual Midsomer is supposed to be in Somerset, the proximity of Oxfordshire to London as well as the fantastic scenery meant Oxfordshire was the location for all of the 253 unexplained deaths.

So if your New Year’s resolution this year was to read more books and you haven’t yet come good on that promise, head into one of the many local bookshops across the county and pick up something a bit local to pique your interest.