I was nervous about setting my new novel, After I Left You, in Oxford, but my editor talked me into it. It’s a challenge to write about a place you love without pretending that it’s somewhere else, especially if it’s very close to home.
In the end, I’m really glad Oxford’s in there. Books need to have avatars of things you feel strongly about in them. It’s as if the book digests your emotional attachments and translates them into something that is no longer personal, but is (hopefully) available to anybody who reads the story.
I did fictionalise Oxford a little, and blurred some of its geography and landmarks. Here are ten things I love about Oxford and the surrounding countryside, and suggest you sample if you go there.
The Eagle and Child, The Turf and the Lamb and Flag are all lovely, the Perch and the Trout are vital stopping-off points on the Port Meadow walk (see 5), and I have fond memories of some of the Cowley pubs, including The Bullingdon Arms as was (last time I looked, it had turned into a nitespot with girls with shiny dresses.)
But my favourite of all is the King’s Arms, the inspiration for the Wickham Arms in After I Left You, ‘a city pub with a hall of fame of past patrons displayed on its dark green walls: poets, politicians, sporting heroes… captured in dim corners and on banquettes, their features both emphasized and softened by the shadowy, forgiving light.’
I’m pretty sure I had some Moments of Destiny in the King’s Arms. Anna certainly has one in the Wickham Arms in After I Left You.
I love having tea and people-watching in Blackwell’s. There’s always someone nearby tapping importantly on a laptop: writing what? An essay, a novel, a thesis, an email to a lover or a longlost friend? I also love a browse in Waterstones, where I very nearly ended up working after I graduated (I ended up taking a job at the JR hospital instead, as a secretary in the IT department.)
My heart belongs to the Queen’s Lane café, which brings back memories of cutting class to eat carrot cake with the indie-music-loving, long-fringed boy of my dreams. My son, who has autism and a fascination for things that go round, loves Brown’s in the covered market for the ceiling fans.
I first visited Oxford when I was 10 or 11. I was into dungeon-and-dragons style books at the time, where you had to choose which way to go and then turn to the page to find out if you’d arrived at treasure or a nasty imp. Oxford, with its cloisters and quadrangles and halls, struck me as being a made-up fantasy place like the kingdoms in the books, where anything could be lurking round the corner.
5. Port Meadow.
6. The White Horse.
A friend who read a proof copy of After I Left You said she was waiting for the White Horse to turn up, and sure enough, a version of it does.
On the way back from visiting the ancient chalk landmark, the friends discuss the game of truth or dare they played when they first met, leading to this exchange, which is pretty much the set-up of the story in a nutshell:
‘No one went for truth, then,’ I said.
‘No,’ Clarissa agreed. ‘In the end, no one did,’ and she started the drive back to Oxford.
7. The river.
I love a walk through Christ Church meadows, and the Salter’s Steamers boat trip from Abingdon to Oxford.
In After I Left You, when Anna meets up with her friend Meg and looks through her photo album, she sees a snap of the friends together on a bench near the river: ‘there we all were, squeezed on to a bench overlooking the river on a frosty autumn morning, happy and complete and sure of ourselves, a pack surveying its territory’.
And here’s the cover of the German edition of After I Left You (out in June!) showing what I imagine to be the same bench years later.
If you go punting, in my experience, the trick is to find someone who knows what they’re doing and persuade them to do the punting bit, while you lounge around taking in the scenery and drinking something fizzy.
8. The Oxford University Museum of Natural History and the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Dinosaurs! Shrunken heads! Witchy stuff!
This is where we first meet Keith in After I Left You, ‘standing awkwardly in one of the dinosaur footprints… as if half attempting to strike a pose and half wanting just to get the photo over with.’
9. St Margaret’s Church and St Margaret’s Well.
An otherworldly place, along the lane from the Perch. The well inspired the treacle well in Alice in Wonderland and it’s the model for St. Bartholomew’s well in After I Left You, which is also in a churchyard:
A canopy of leaves sheltered the little congregation of the dead from the wind, the sun and the rain. It was as if we were already inside, if not a church, then some other protected space.
10. Bleinheim Palace.
It’s a magnificent building, but what I love most about Bleinheim is the view. In After I Left You, there’s a stately home called Shawcross Hall where Keith spends a happy summer showing tourists round the orangery, and where Anna is finally given the chance to confront the past.
I was so lulled by the sun and the champagne and the scent of grass and lavender and roses, and the gentle thud of elderly pop hits issuing from the grand house behind me, that I didn’t even jump when I heard footsteps and realized that someone was about to find me.
What happens next? After I Left You is out in paperback in July and will be available from all good bookstores – but if you can’t wait till then, it’s available for Kindle and in other ebook formats now (click on ‘buying options’ to see the different available formats.)
- Five rules for writing an Oxford novel
- The two types of love story and After I Left You
- After I Left You: the story of my second novel
- After I Left You: the ebook comes first
Something else I love about Oxfordshire, which you can’t help but notice wherever you are, is that it has such big and beautiful skies.