Wilde Times at Oxford: This Spire-Filled College Town Was the Backdrop to English History's Queerest Scandal and Holds Plenty for the Gay Traveler of Today

By Kelly, Gretchen | The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine), November 8, 2005 | Go to article overview

Wilde Times at Oxford: This Spire-Filled College Town Was the Backdrop to English History's Queerest Scandal and Holds Plenty for the Gay Traveler of Today


Kelly, Gretchen, The Advocate (The national gay & lesbian newsmagazine)


Bill Clinton studied here, as did Margaret Thatcher. The town helped inspire J.R.R. Tolkien to pen The Lord of the Rings, and his friend C.S. Lewis wrote the Narnia chronicles here too. Alumni include Aldous Huxley: T.S. Eliot, and Indira Gandhi--as well as Dr. Seuss. And yes, many of the scenes in the Harry Potter films were shot here. But perhaps the most celebrated character closely linked to the academic powerhouse that is the University of Oxford is none other than England's greatest queer, Oscar Wilde himself. The town of Oxford is where "the love that dare not speak its name" spoke up first. It was in this quaint yet monumental town that the queer Lord Alfred Douglas, better known as "Bosie," first published those words in a poem contributed to an Oxford literary journal.

The year was 1892, and Oscar Wilde was the cosseted darling of London's smart set. His plays, poems, and bons roots were on the lips of everyone who was anyone. Bosie was a blushing boy-toy undergraduate at Oxford's Magdalen College--ripe for the fame, fortune, and free meals in tony restaurants that Oscar offered. After a mutual friend introduced them at a London high tea, Oscar and Bosie (both alumni of Magdalen) first courted and then consummated their love in this city., that Wilde considered "the most beautiful thing in England." Only later was Wilde tried for the crime of his romance with Bosie and sentenced to prison with hard labor, which contributed to his decline in health and eventual death.

Nowadays this idyllic getaway, little more than an hour from London by train, is more than gay-welcoming. The honey-hued "dreaming spires" of the medieval city's colleges, ancient pubs filled to the groaning rafters with imbibing undergraduates, and willow-shaded restaurants with riverside views of muscular young oarsmen punting on the River Cherwell are still as refreshing and as unabashedly romantic as they were when Oscar and Bosie were here. But "the love that dare not speak its name" shouts it from the rooftops now.

"Oxford is very gay-friendly," one student was quoted as saying at a recent gay pride festival. "Although most students go to London for the gay social scene, we feel very comfortable living and studying here. The scene is low-key and friendly."

Travelers who want to re-create the turbulent romance of Wilde and Bosie can start by booking a weekend in the Oscar Wilde Deluxe Room at the Old Parsonage Hotel. A short walking distance from the High Street and the city center, the Old Parsonage is a late-15th-century building that let out rooms to students during Wilde's day. Oscar's old room--behind the office and up a winding staircase--is large and cottage-comfy. Church bells can be heard pealing through its streetside windows. A 20minute drive away, Raymond Blanc's fresh-from-the-garden cuisine lures hedonists to the uberposh Le Manoir attx Quat'Saisons. Stroll around the Manoir's grounds and watch your evening greens harvested from the earth in front of you. A stay in the renovated stables, just off the main building, completes the Wildean-era rustic romance.

A weekend in Oscar's Oxford should commence with a stroll around his and Douglas's alma mater, Magdalen College. Ask the warden to point out Oscar's rooms on the ground floor (just facing the modern-day ladies' toilets). When I visited, the current occupant had placed a GAY RIGHTS decal prominently on the window. How different from Oscar's day, when "Grecian love" was evident to insiders but hidden from the outside world.

Walk from Magdalen to Oxford's busy High Street. Here the Mitre Pub was a favorite place for Oscar to drink during curfew hours when he should have been in bed. Also, Douglas had his student rooms on High Street when Oscar came to visit. Take a light meal here, then head to The Bear pub for a pint of ale and a gawk at the gorgeousness of the Oxford student body.

The ties on the wall were a tradition started in the '50s by a lascivious pub owner's wife, who apparently collected a tie from each student to whom she gave her own "private lessons. …

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