England: An Oxford wonderland

By Pamela Wade

The Great Quadrangle and the Tom Tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, at Christ Church College, Oxford. Photo / Pamela Wade
The Great Quadrangle and the Tom Tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, at Christ Church College, Oxford. Photo / Pamela Wade

Never underestimate the benefits of tedium. Nearly 150 years ago, three little girls got so bored on a slow upstream row along the Thames from Oxford to a summer picnic that Charles Lutwidge Dodgson made up a story to amuse them on the way. It was such a success that the middle sister, Alice Liddell, asked Dodgson to write it down for her.

Over the next couple of years Dodgson, equally bored in his job as a maths tutor at Christ Church College, expanded on the story. He added bits that amused him - word-play, logic pushed to absurd extremes and caricatures of his friends and colleagues, including Dean Liddell, who was both his boss and Alice's father - and was persuaded to send it to a publisher.

It was snapped up, and Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, under the pen-name Lewis Carroll, joined the surprisingly long list of classic children's books produced by Oxford academics. It's never been out of print since.

As with many of those other fantasies, it wasn't just children who loved this book. Queen Victoria was a particularly enthusiastic fan.

The Tim Burton directed movie Alice in Wonderland which opened here last week is only the latest in a series of big-screen versions feeding off the story's enduring popularity with a wide range of audiences. A sequel rather than an adaptation of the two Alice books, it stars Johnny Depp with wild orange hair as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter, her head blown up to three times its normal size, as the Red Queen, and many other big names, as well as an Australian unknown as Alice herself. It's a live action/animated 3D treatment in which Burton's characteristic surreal style meshes well with Dodgson's often bizarre imagination.

Readers of the book could be forgiven for suspecting that the Oxford don's random collection of strange characters, and the free associations that seem to direct the storyline, might have something to do with whatever it is that the Caterpillar is smoking in his hookah: but the guided Alice Tour in Oxford can point to concrete origins for many of Dodgson's apparently wild flights of fancy.

Alice tour? Certainly. Oxford isn't all dreaming spires and groves of academe: tourists have been coming here for hundreds of years, and their interests are well catered for, whatever they may be. There are specific tours for admirers of gargoyles, gardens, bluestocking women, William Morris, murderers, martyrs, Inspector Morse and more.

But the city is small, and the locations for many of these themes overlap. People jostling for views in the dining hall at Christ Church College, for example, could be Harry Potter fans imagining the floating candles above the young wizards and witches of Hogwarts, or stained glass enthusiasts, or art aficionados studying the rows of portraits including Elizabeth I and Henry VIII, as well as Dodgson himself; or Alice addicts like us, craning our own necks to see the grotesquely elongated ones on the brass firedogs in the fireplace, credited with giving Dodgson the idea for what happens to Alice after eating from one side of the Caterpillar's mushroom.

This magnificent building, nearly 500 years old, is full of fascination: there's the ornate hammerbeam ceiling and the stained glass windows, including an Alice one featuring both her face and Dodgson's, plus a scattering of Wonderland characters; there are paintings of illustrious founders and members of the college; and three rows of long wooden tables, gleaming in the soft light, which during our visit were being set for lunch by white-jacketed stewards.

Some very significant and serious men have eaten here: college graduates include 13 British Prime Ministers, W.H. Auden, John Ruskin, Sir Joseph Banks and Albert Einstein, among many more.

Our focus was silliness, however, and after noting the narrow spiral staircase, somewhat like a rabbit hole, down from the hall to the Senior Common Room beneath, we emerged into the vast and elegant expanse of Tom Quad, its velvety central lawn immaculately striped. "Only God and the gardener are allowed to walk on the grass," growled a bowler-hatted Custodian.

The quad is named after the seven-tonne bell Great Tom which, in an engaging piece of nonsense, chimes 101 times every evening at 9.05pm: the original college had 101 students, whose curfew was 9pm. Despite GMT being made the standard throughout Britain with the coming of the railways in the mid-19th century, Christ Church College has stuck with Oxford time, which is five minutes behind Greenwich: perhaps the reason that Dean Liddell was always running late, just like the White Rabbit.

The College's cathedral, where services begin at five past the hour, is even more ancient and has glorious stained glass in richly glowing colours, designed by William Morris and Edward Byrne-Jones. Tongue in cheek, Byrne-Jones dated one of his windows by inserting into the background an instantly recognisable white porcelain flushing toilet, newly invented at the time he was working on his cartoon-strip treatment of the story of St Frideswide, Oxford's patron saint.

Behind the cathedral lies a walled garden visible to Alice from the Deanery where she lived, and to Dodgson from his office in the Library, and both of them were tantalised by the small locked green-painted door that prevented their entering it: the door in the story gave the fictional Alice just as much trouble as she grew and shrank, grew and shrank, and kept misplacing the key.

Beyond the croquet lawns, Christ Church Meadow runs down to the river, a lovely rural scene complete with rabbits, and a favourite walk for the junior Liddells.

But on the other side of the College, just across the road, is somewhere that was much closer to Alice's heart, and stomach. Now called Alice's Shop, this pretty Tudor building was, in her day, the sweet shop where she bought her barley sugars.

Behind the counter, endlessly knitting, sat an old lady with a quavery voice: in the second Alice book, she's depicted as a bleating sheep, and the goods in her shop float about in a particularly frustrating manner, much as the real-life ones must have done during its regular floods.

The entrance is still several steps below street level, and customers can still buy barley sugars there, but it's Alice who's mainly for sale these days: this is the place to come for a Cheshire Cat tea cosy, a Drink Me mug, White Rabbit pocket watch or Tweedledee and Tweedledum earrings.

It's a pretty place, and it's fun to see that Tenniel's illustration of the frontage, while perfectly accurate, is drawn as a mirror-image: the second book's title was, after all, Alice Through the Looking Glass.

The Alice Tour also visits the wonderful Museum of Natural History to view the remains of a dodo there, and a painting of the bird by Jan Savery that's familiar to all readers of the books.

There's yet more memorabilia at the Museum of Oxford in the permanent "Looking for Alice" exhibition, where photographs show her with short dark hair, nothing like Tenniel's illustrations or her many celluloid incarnations, including the latest one. She also looks like a formidably determined child, and not one to accept boredom lightly - fortunately for Alice fans everywhere.

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to London daily. Oxford can be reached by bus and train from London.

Where to stay: Stay in old-world style at the centrally-located Randolph Hotel.

Alice Tour: Details of the Alice Tour (and many others) can be foound at: oxfordcity.co.uk and visitoxford.org.

The National Trust's Antony House in Cornwall was the main site for the filming. To commemorate the filming the trust is transforming the house into Wonderland, with a rabbit hole entrance into a magical garden (where everyone will feel smaller than usual), giant caterpillars, croquet on the lawn and Mad Hatter tea parties, from now until the end of October. See nationaltrust.org.uk.

Further information: VisitBritain has a website with information on sites related to Wonderland at visitengland.com.

Pamela Wade went to Oxford with assistance from VisitBritain and Cathay Pacific.

- NZ Herald

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