Exploring Alice’s Real-life Wonderland in Oxford, England

Lewis Carroll's inspirations for Alice in Wonderland come to life in Oxford, England

Credit: Lori Henry

The Alice Shoppe in Oxford, England, where real-life Alice bought her sweets

On my way to an Alice in Wonderland-themed tour, I realized how different the present-day rabbit hole is from Alice’s.

It’s now an hour and a half bus ride from London’s Heathrow Airport to Oxford, England. But once I arrived, Alice’s Wonderland began creeping into my reality at every turn.

Alice-themed Tours in Oxford, England

I signed up for a tour with Alice enthusiast Danièle Lucas, one of the guides who is an encyclopedia on all things Lewis Carroll. It was her duty to explain how the peculiar characters in the Alice stories were actually based on real people. We stepped into Christ Church and the first thing I learned was that Charles Dodgson (pen name Lewis Carroll) hadn’t been the mad, drug-induced writer I had once believed him to be.

No, he was an awkward, stuttering mathematics don who was more comfortable in the company of children’s imaginations than adult conversations. In fact, he is represented in the story Alice in Wonderland by the dodo bird, an extinct animal that he introduced Alice Liddell and her sisters to at the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. (There is now a dodo and Alice exhibit there.) When introducing himself, Charles would often stutter, “do…do…do…Dodgson,” which eventually became the character of the “do…do” bird.

Lewis Carroll Trivia in Christ Church

Each step into Christ Church, where Alice’s father was Dean, took me further into Lewis Carroll’s mind. We had to get the church security to open a secret door hidden behind a curtain, leading us to the courtyard where, clear as day, the little door that Alice needed a key to get through was sitting there like a picture book. (The door is open to visitors on most summer days.)

To its right is a chestnut tree where Alice’s cat, Dinah, could often be found watching the scene below, much like that pesky Cheshire cat…

The little door was also the locked entrance that Alice’s father rushed through each morning, checking his watch to see how late he was for work. He may not have been red-eyed and white-furred, but he was certainly the inspiration for the white rabbit.

Of course, it couldn’t have been entirely his fault, as Oxford is five minutes away from Greenwich on the meridian and the church runs its clock five minutes past the rest of England. It’s a better excuse than saying the dog ate your homework, no?  

Treacle Well in Binsey

Walking into my favourite childhood story was quite overwhelming, so I rented a bike and took a calming cycle along the Thames River where Charles Dodgson famously told Alice and her sisters the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

I eventually came to a tiny village called Binsey where the local pub stopped me in mid-pedal: the thatched roof of this 17th century building was exactly the same as the rabbit’s house in Harry Harris’ 1985 TV movie (best movie of all time!), but certainly not the same as the wacky effects in Tim Burton’s version.

Around the corner I came to St. Margaret’s Church where, within the church’s graveyard, was a real treacle well! It wasn’t much to look at but I began to think that the hatter and his tea party weren’t so mad after all.

My head spinning, I cycled back to Oxford and dropped off the bike. After a quick stop at Alice’s Shop, where young Alice once bought sweets (but would now be marvelling at souvenirs of herself), I took a stroll through Oxford’s streets with students rushing about their business as usual. Was it all just a dream?

Lori Henry is a travel writer and actor based in Vancouver. She is currently writing a book about dancing her way across Canada.