A Fool-Proof Guide to Oxford, Home of Harry Potter and the New Lit Sensation Black Chalk


Oxford’s Radcliffe Square. (Photo: Chris Chabot / Flickr)

Christopher J. Yates’ brand-new debut novel, “Black Chalk,” is set in a fictionalized version of Oxford, England, where he once studied. We got him to create an insider’s guide of things to do in the British university town.

Visit Colleges (Seriously)

Many Americans don’t realize that Oxford University isn’t a single campus—or even a single entity. It’s actually formed of 38 colleges and six private halls spread across the city. They all operate under the auspices of the university, but each has its own setup, character, and unique architecture. No trip to Oxford would be complete without visiting a few colleges, but they have their own rules regarding tourists (differing opening hours and fees). So work out where you’d like to go and check that college’s website before showing up.


(Photo: David Nicholls / Flickr)

Some of the famously pretty colleges are Christ ChurchMagdalen (pronounced mawd-lin), New College, and Merton. But I also recommend Wadham, the college where I was a student and the inspiration for the college in “Black Chalk” (you can visit for free). A formidable 75-year-old widow, Dorothy Wadham, had it built starting in 1610. She got the job done in just four years. If you go, wave to the library for me (I lived above it for a year).

Enjoy Some of the Country’s Best Pubs

Because the legal drinking age in the UK is 18, British universities have a different character from American ones. Pubs are places where students go to enjoy each other’s company without fear of being carded or hearing the blare of “Don’t Stop Believin.’” I based The Churchill Arms pub in my book on the King’s Arms on Holywell Street, a major student hangout that’s well worth a visit. Built in 1607 and with a variety of different rooms and beers to explore, this is where you can spy the student in his No. 1 natural habitat (the library only takes second spot).


Turf Tavern pathway. (Photo: cyocum / Flickr)

Two other favorite Oxford pubs: The Turf Tavern and The Eagle and Child. The Turf is at the end of an almost-hidden winding alleyway, St Helen’s passage. Its foundations were laid as far back as the 13th century, and its glorious low-beamed front bar (mind your head) dates from the 1600s. This is where, according to local legend, Bill Clinton didn’t inhale.

The Eagle and Child, Oxford’s literary pub, is a delightful old inn full of nooks and wooden snugs. This, famously, was where “Lord of the Rings” author J.R.R. Tolkien would meet with other writers, including C.S Lewis (“The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe”).


(Photo: Sheila Sund / Flickr)

Take a Trip Out to Blenheim Palace

An extravagant, stately home in my novel is based on Blenheim Palace (pronounce it blen-im), an enormous country house built between 1705 and 1722 just eight miles outside Oxford. You can take a bus (route S3) from the Oxford train station or Gloucester Green to the utterly charming village of Woodstock (ask the driver to let you know where to get off). You could easily while away an entire day there. The village is picture perfect and full of cozy pubs and wonderful shopping (art, crafts, antiques).

Blenheim Palace itself, occupying a vast estate next to the village, is one of the foremost attractions in Britain. A trip inside is highly recommended, if you’re over 21 and not achingly pretentious. You should also know that Blenheim Palace was the accidental birthplace of Winston Churchill—his parents didn’t live there, but he came early. However, it was his family’s ancestral home, and he spent a great deal of time there, even proposing to his beloved Clemmie in the temple of Diana in the gardens.


(Photo: Denni Schnapp / Flickr)

Other Things to Keep You Occupied

Take a punt: A punt is a flat-bottomed boat that you propel forward with a long pole. It’s the popular river craft of Oxford and a great way to see the city from its branch of the River Thames, called the Cherwell (pronounce it char-well). Hire a punt from Magdalen Bridge or Cherwell Bridge.

Admire the view from St. Mary’s: Climb the 127 steps to the top of the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin tower for the best view in the city.

Explore the Covered Market: You can buy anything from a new hat to a skinned rabbit at the Covered Market, open since 1774. Why not pick up a delicious pie or a ciabatta sandwich here and head off for a punt or a picnic?

Wander down Queen’s Lane: I remain to this day in love with this beautiful stroll, which I consider the finest city stroll anywhere in Britain. Start at the High Street end and you’ll pass under Oxford’s version of the Bridge of Sighs.

And if all that isn’t enough: Spread out a picnic or read a book on Christ Church Meadow or the Water Meadow, watch cricket in the University Parks, experience the museums (the Ashmolean, the Pitt Rivers, the University Museum of Natural History), see the Bodleian Library (pronounce it bod-lee-uhn), or explore the University of Oxford Botanic Garden.


Macdonald Randolph Hotel. (Photo: Jolyon Hunter / Flickr)

Where to Stay

Hotel: “The Randolph” (the Macdonald Randolph Hotel), a perfectly located 19th-century Gothic stunner, is the most iconic hotel in Oxford (about $320 per night and up).

Boutique B&B: Beautiful, airy, and luxurious, The Oxford Coach & Horses is only 10 minutes’ walk from the city center and has an incredible breakfast ($220–$235 per night).

College rooms: Outside of term time, colleges rent out their rooms on a bed-and-breakfast basis for as little as $50 per night through the website University Rooms Oxford. The rooms are basic, but the price is unbeatable.

Christopher J. Yates was born and raised in Kent and studied law at Oxford University before working as a puzzle editor in London. He now lives in New York City with his wife and dog. ‘Black Chalk,’ his debut novel received critical acclaim for its British release and just hit shelves in the U.S. this month.

If you’d like to read a sample of “Black Chalk (you do),” click here.