The faces of Oxford are multi-faceted and fascinating; the experience can be overwhelming with something new to see at every turn and a plethora of information about the city’s history and residents, past and present, confronting visitors from near and far. So it was very beneficial yesterday to concentrate on one perspective of Oxford’s mythology, the world-wide phenomenon that is Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse. Of course this subject is itself complex and many-layered, from the author’s long-term North Oxford residency through his TV-series spawning characters such as Endeavour, Lewis and the eponymous Morse.
My tour with Alasdair began on Broad Street with some pictorial and literary orientation before our two hour walking tour. We visited many of the buildings and byways which feature in the TV series beginning with the Covered Market – scene of an early hot pursuit of a suspect by Lewis at Morse’s behest. The tour also took in several of the colleges featured: Corpus Christi, Exeter and St John’s (Morse’s fictional alma mater, Lonsdale College). Throughout Alasdair was a pleasant, enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide – clearly well-informed, well-connected (with a nod and a greeting at every Porters’ Lodge), entertaining and engaging. As this had turned out to be a 1:1 tour there was little need for Alasdair’s dramatic skills and, most fortunately, I did not have to follow a luminous sign or tour guide’s umbrella, but I have no doubt that with a larger group some of his dramatis personae would come to the fore as evidenced in the Shakespeare’s Street Theatre, Alice in Wonderland and Harry Potter themed tours ILoveOxford.com offer.
On our walk we discussed some of the central themes of Morse: his fascination with opera; his Quaker background; his failure as an undergraduate; his love of crosswords and his default philosophical position – drinking beer. We passed several of his favourite pubs including the White Horse, the Mitre, the Boar (I learnt there is a tunnel under the High between the two), the Bear and the Turf, to name but a few. On a more serious note we visited the Bodleian and the beautiful Divinity Hall and discussed John Gielgud’s performance as the University Chancellor and the Encaenia procession he leads in one particular episode in Broad Street to the Sheldonian. We also talked in passing about various other famous Oxford residents and academics: CS Lewis, Tolkien and the Inklings (on passing the Eagle and Child and Lamb and Flag – featured in Lewis - and also by the Radcliffe camera while passing a film crew working on a film about Tolkien); T. E. Lawrence and the 'Seven Pillars of Wisdom'; Cranmer and the Reformation; Narnia; Lyra and Pullman’s Oxford; the Shakespeare connections; Reverend Dobson’s Alice and the pre-Raphaelites.
The tour naturally ended in the Randolph Hotel – frequently featured in the TV series - where the victim is staying in the “Wolvercote Tongue” and where the man who killed Lewis' wife is running a scam in a later series. We played spot the Morse actors in the hotel’s famous guests’ gallery. In fact this reflected the general bon homie and gently interactive and informative nature of the whole tour. It must have been difficult for Alasdair to accommodate only one person on the tour, let alone a long-term resident familiar with Oxford but he was unphased and insightful.
I visited places I had not been and I learned more about the city on this two hour stroll in good company as I have accumulated since I moved here 20 years ago. Now I can’t decide whether to take ILoveOxford’s Harry Potter tour or explore Alice’s Oxford next (although I cannot be persuaded onto a cycling tour) - Alasdair hinted that they are putting together a pre-Raphaelite tour which I would happily put my name down for as I found the Morse tour experience so enjoyable and informative. I will certainly be saving myself some time and energy next time I have visitors by pointing them to the tour of their choice.