A visit to Lyra's Oxford (and other British children's lit landmarks)

I'm just back in the office after a week and a half in the UK — which seemed like a long time when we booked the trip, but felt like a whirlwind tour. The occasion was my cousin's wedding in Oxford (congratulations, Emily and Felix!), but we visited Bath, London, and Edinburgh as well. We also unintentionally saw quite a bit of the English countryside around Carlisle via train, by bus, and on foot while attempting to get to Hadrian's Wall...which we never officially did, winding up instead at the — incredible — Roman ruins/active archaeological dig Vindolanda. Who knew it would be so difficult to find a wall seventy-plus miles long?! (My boyfriend's coworkers: "Did you go hiking in the UK?" Wilber: "...not on purpose.")

I took the opportunity to see a few literature-related sights, and in particular children's literature–related ones. Our first stop, Oxford, is where Lewis Carroll, Theodore Geisel/Dr. Seuss, C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, Kenneth Graham, Susan Cooper, and many, many other literary figures went to university. At the Bodleian Library we pored over original manuscripts, first editions, and other treasures related to famous alumni...including a watercolor jacket of The Hobbit done by the author himself — with comments written by Tolkien and by the printer — and a handwritten draft of The Wind in the Willows. (Not to mention a Gutenberg Bible and works by Shakespeare, Blake, Austen, Shelley...)

My favorite Oxford alum (other than my cousin Emily, of course!) is Philip Pullman. Pullman attended Exeter College, and a fictionalized Oxford appears in his fantasy trilogy His Dark Materials. While we weren't able to actually get in to see Exeter, several landmarks were recognizable from the cover of HDM companion volume Lyra's Oxford.

radcliffe camera images the Radcliffe Camera on the cover of Lyra's Oxford and in person

On our last day in Oxford I spent a long time in the Botanic Garden looking for "Lyra's bench" (sob!).


We also got a chance to pop into the Oxford University Press bookstore. Did you know that there's an essay on Dr. Francisco Jiménez's BGHB-winning memoir The Circuit in The Oxford Handbook of Children's Literature? Neither did I.

oxford handbook of children's lit

I also didn't know that Simmons ChLit grad program professor Kelly Hager was a contributor!

While heading to the London Bridge, we happened to walk by The Walrus and the Carpenter pub.

walrus and the carpenter

There were also plenty of Harry Potter–related sights to see. In Oxford, we saw parts of the Divinity School and Christ Church which served either as inspiration for sets or as actual filming locations for the movies. In Edinburgh, we stumbled upon The Elephant House tea house, where JKR wrote parts of the first several Potter books. But the "Making of Harry Potter" Studio Tour at the Warner Brothers lot in Watford was where it was at, with sets, costumes, props, vehicles, concept art, and to-scale models. (I might have gotten a little teary when I turned a corner to find an enormous Hogwarts model used for filming outdoor shots.)

great hall christ church the inspiration for Hogwarts's Great Hall, the Great Hall at Oxford's Christ Church College...

great hall model ...and the model of the Great Hall ceiling used for filming

concept art concept art of a merperson and Fawkes the phoenix by Adam Brockbank...

...and their incarnations in the Creature Shop ...and their incarnations in the Creature Shop

hogwarts bigature the Hogwarts bigature

Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross Station

[Lolly Robinson was interested in an entirely different Potter when she visited London a few years ago. Read about the rare Beatrix Potter original art she viewed on her trip in "London Sketches: Illustration Past, Present, and Future," November/December 2012 HB Mag.]

Of course, we saw plenty of non-literature related landmarks as well — such as Stonehenge, the British Museum, the Roman baths/temple complex in Bath, the Tower of London, and Edinburgh Castle — and we went on enough tours (including one of Mary King's Close, *shudder*) that I lost count. And there were so many sights, book-nerdy and otherwise, that we didn't see that I'm already making a list for the next trip across the pond.

Katie Bircher

Katie Bircher, formerly editor of The Horn Book Guide, is a freelance children’s and YA editor. She's also a former bookseller who holds an MA in children's literature from Simmons University. She served as chair of the 2018 Boston Globe-Horn Book Award committee. Follow Katie on Twitter @lyraelle.

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