Griselda’s Secret Oxford
Celebrated children's author Griselda Heppel has a hotline to some beautiful places in the city that most of us have never heard of. Come on, let's check them out.
Griselda Heppel is an award-winning children’s author, living in Oxford with her husband and four children. Heppel’s book Ante’s Inferno, a modern re-telling of Dante’s journey through Hell, won the Children’s award in the People’s Book Prize 2013. Her second novel The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst was published in 2015.
The Painted Room, Cornmarket Street, Oxford
I’m really excited about this. Up some narrow stairs by – of all things – a betting shop in Oxford city centre, lie the remains of the 14th century Crown Tavern, a place Shakespeare is known to have stayed in, probably in this very room where the walls are decorated with the original hand-painted sixteenth century paper. Hidden behind wall panels until 1927, the Painted Room has been a secret to the general public until only last year, when the Oxford Preservation Trust got permission to open it for viewing on certain days.
The lovely trellis pattern enclosing depictions of Canterbury bells, windflowers, roses, passion-flowers and grapes was painted between the 1560s and 1580s – which made me particularly keen to see it, since my most recent children’s book, The Tragickall History of Henry Fowst is partly set in 1586!
Magdalen College Fellows’ Garden in April
A lovely garden at any time of year; but something really special happens in the second/third week in April when the snake’s head fritillaries come into bloom. Only a few places exist in Britain where these delicate, bell-like flowers with their purple chequered petals still grow wild; and the meadow at Magdalen is one of them.
To protect the bulbs, the meadow itself is fenced off but from the path running around it – bordered by blue and white anemones, aconites and here and there, escaped fritillaries – you get a glorious view, framed by the college buildings in the distance. At their peak the flowers are so thickly massed together, it looks like skeins of coloured silk drifting across the grass. Breathtaking.
Worton Organic Garden Farm and Cafe, North Oxford
No, it’s too bad! Thirty years’ living in Oxford and I only find out about this splendidly eccentric and unbelievably delicious outfit two months ago. A wealth of organically-grown fruit and vegetables, including lots of traditional English apple varieties you’ll never find in shops, superb Real Bread, home-made jams, chutneys, pickles – even my husband’s favourite, kimchi (Korean pickled cabbage… I think).
If the shop’s too busy – as it was when we arrived – you have the perfect reason to slip next door for coffee and cake. Or lunch, rather, because once you’ve laid eyes on and smelt that chicken pie, suddenly nothing else matters. And coffee and cake to follow, of course.
I want to go back. Every weekend.
This has to be the coolest hairdressers, not just in Oxford, but ANYWHERE.
You know you’re in the hands of an artist when you see stripped pine floorboards holding a fabulous display of guitars, sculptures, beautiful quality cowboy boots and hats, all kinds of action figures from Edward Scissorhands to Buzz Lightyear, vintage clothes and jewelry; while clever, sharply observational and often touching photographs (all taken by James, the proprietor) cover the walls.
Plenty to look at and chat about as I sit in the chair while James does brilliant things with my hair – he’s as skilful with scissors and colour as he is with his camera, guitar, composing and stocking his shop with wonderful (and witty) objets d’art. It’s no surprise that several magazine editors have pounced on Cowboymod for photoshoots. Or even that the shop’s fame has spread as far as Korea, where a publication recently ran a whole feature on it.
Harris Manchester College Chapel, Oxford
With buildings dating from 1889, Harris Manchester College doesn’t usually feature on the average tourist’s route through Oxford. But they’re missing so much! The chapel is a very rare example of a complete Arts and Crafts building, with a complete set of stained glass windows designed by the Pre-Raphaelite Edward Burne-Jones and installed by the firm of William Morris, who also painted the organ pipes. Having a wide aisle and twelve rows across of comfortable pews, the place can seat 144 people, making it the perfect venue for a wedding – not too big, not too small.
Which is why, three years ago, my daughter chose to get married there!
The Book House, Thame
More of a Book Mansion – the shop’s pretty exterior belies the depth within, where richly stacked shelves turn corners and suddenly you’re in yet another section of this Aladdin’s cave owned by Brian Pattinson, who’s been selling books for forty years. All kinds of titles are stocked, but it’s particularly known as a specialist children’s book shop, with a terrific range of books for all ages, displayed with charm and instant appeal. I defy anyone to go in there and not emerge clutching a year’s worth of birthday and Christmas presents.
And if you visit in mid-October you have the added bonus of the Thame Arts and Literature Festival, which the Book house helps to organise.
The Rose and Crown, North Parade, off Banbury Road, Oxford
A lovely, old-fashioned, comfortable pub with Real Ale (Adnams, Hook Norton) and good, unfussy food (how many other places will serve you a pint of delicious, well-made – sausages?). No fruit machines, no canned music – just a warm, quirky atmosphere, full of Oxford types.
On the last Saturday of every month hosts Andrew and Debbie take part in the North Parade Farmers’ market, setting up a mouthwatering hog roast outside on the street, while providing a cosy space inside for a local author to do a book signing. Who says beer and books don’t go together?
This feature was first published in Aug 2015.