THE elderly American tourist’s body was found in room 310 on the third floor of Oxford’s grandest hotel, the Randolph.
And though Chief Inspector Morse established straight away that Mrs Laura Stratton had died of a massive heart attack, mystery surrounded the fate of the priceless Saxon jewel that she intended to give to the Ashmolean Museum, amid great ceremony, the following day.
John ThawSo began Colin Dexter’s ninth Morse novel The Jewel That Was Ours, televised as The Wolvercote Tongue on Christmas Day, 1987; just one of a series of 13 books and 33 ground-breaking small screen dramas first aired 25 years ago that accumulated a legion of fans. Even now, 10 years after the premature death of actor John Thaw, aged just 60, the memory of the character he created – the impulsive, real ale swigging, curmudgeonly detective – is still potent in the city of the dreaming spires.
Morse’s faithful sidekick Lewis has carried the TV torch in recent years and a series of Endeavour , the “prequel” based on Morse’s early years in Oxford in the 1960s, is set to air soon following a critically acclaimed pilot last spring.
Oxford is a wonderful destination for a weekend break by any measure and Macdonald’s five-star Randolph is the perfect base from which to explore. The splendidly refurbished Ashmolean, the world’s first museum, is just across the road from the hotel’s grand main entrance. And opposite and to the right is the Martyrs’ Memorial to the Protestant prelates Latimer, Ridley and Cranmer, burned at the stake just round the corner in Broad Street during the reign of “Bloody” Queen Mary in 1555 and 1556.
Easily walkable, though the open-top tour bus is great fun (don’t try it in a car, by the way, Oxford is notoriously hostile to the automobile; the ease with which Morse was able to park his plum coloured Jaguar is pure fiction), the city oozes history and culture from every street corner and honey-coloured limestone pinnacle. The colleges, of course dominate; every one different, each with its own fascinating to tell and all open to the public at certain times.
University College, Balliol – nearest to the Randolph – and Merton, home to England’s oldest library, were established between 1249 and 1263; Exeter followed in 1314 and Oriel in 1326. Yes there is history here by the bucket load and no shortage of academic eccentricity, not to say arrogance, to boot.
Within Christ Church the time will be forever five minutes behind everyone else on the planet who set their clocks by Greenwich Mean Time – established in the mid 19th Century to accommodate railway timetables. The college never recognised that standard and has stuck with “Oxford time”, as governed by the sun. Crazy? You may think so – but then Christ Church has influence.
Its “chapel” serves as Oxford’s cathedral; its massive Tom Tower dominating St Aldate’s is the work of Sir Christopher Wren and the college has produced 13 British prime ministers – a number equal to the rest of Oxford’s 45 colleges put together.
If “Gown” is spectacularly grand in Oxford, “Town” is no less fascinating; the shopping is first rate and largely traffic-free; the covered market right in the city centre, just brilliant. So it really is remarkable amid all this history and the cultural splendour that the character created by Dexter and portrayed by Thaw – a working class lad from Burnage, Manchester – remains so forceful. There are many variations of Inspector Morse walks in the city, one of the best starting from the Randolph and available to download via this link.
Many of Oxford’s best pubs highlight their Morse links – the White Horse in Broad Street; the Bear Inn, the city’s oldest (1242), by Oriel College; the Eagle and Child in St Giles, also a favourite of J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis and perhaps best of all, the Turf just through the Bridge of Sighs and reached by a narrow alley close to New College.
The Victorian Randolph Hotel too cherishes its place in Morse lore; so much so that its elegant cocktail bar – Chapters Bar in the stories – is now the Morse Bar. Ironically perhaps, you won’t find real ale on the drinks list; nonetheless we relaxed there with our pre-prandial G&Ts with Morse and Lewis looking down on us from their photographs on the wall behind.
The baronial-style two AA Rosette restaurant is a delightful space with the arms of all the Oxford Colleges decorating the frieze and its walls hung with impressive period portraits. We enjoyed expertly presented classic seasonal British cooking with an innovative contemporary twist: crab and mayonnaise with kohlrabi remoulade; smoked haddock and pea tart; grilled lemon sole with sauce vierge; aged Scottish rib of beef with roasted butternut squash; chocolate delice and a fine local cheeseboard.
And so to bed in one of the Randolph’s roomy executive doubles, comfortable, stylish and comprehensively equipped with every modern convenience. The hotel also boasts a state-of-the-art spa complete with thermal suite, rock and bio sauna, hydrotherapy plunge pool, sensation showers and ice room in the basement for which a range of packages are available.
The Macdonald Randolph Hotel & Spa, Beaumont Street, Oxford OX1 2LN. Tel: 0870 400 8200 www.macdonaldhotels.co.uk/randolph
Rooms from £187. Special breaks available.
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