On a chilly winter Tuesday morning in 1962, Simon Winchester, then about 17 years old, got off the train at Oxford. The young man had just arrived at one of the world’s most eminent universities from his home town of Dorchester, in the southwest of England. It was his first visit, and he was en route to the college where he was to write his entrance examination, when something hit him sharply. It was the bewildering but bewitching scent of marmalade, and it seemed to engulf the air. “And I thought, this is so delightful,” says Winchester, on the phone from Massachusetts, U.S.A., “but why is it happening?”
It turned out the aromatic ambience was one those vintage Oxford traditions, courtesy Frank Cooper’s jam factory nearby—makers of the famous Oxford marmalade. “On Wednesday they made strawberry, on Thursday they made blackcurrant, but on Tuesday they made marmalade,” he continues. “I thought that was a wonderful introduction [to Oxford].”
Winchester, a journalist and travel writer, has chronicled fascinating true stories from the forging of the United States of America, to the man who mapped England and the volcano that singed a region. But before he became the distinguished non-fiction writer, he was just a boy laid low by the smell of jam, and over the shaky phone line he narrates this adolescent memory with relish.
Smitten by this wonderful Emerald City, Winchester eventually made it to the entrance examination, where the question paper contained one essay-type question that stood out among the rest. It went: “Two cheers for democracy: is two the right number?” “And I often thought,” he says, “any institution that asked me a question like that is an institution I would like to be a member of.” When Winchester arrived that Tuesday, allowing the soaring spires, triumphant turrets and imperious stone buildings to wash over him, it would not be the last time he visited. A little after that, he got in to the university and in 1963 began his degree in geology at St Catherine’s College.
As a boy, Winchester grew up in Dorset county—best known as Thomas Hardy terrain—in a smaller, but equally historic town. But when asked to pick a city that had transformed him or affected him deeply in some way, he immediately picked Oxford. “It was the most important city for me,” he says. “Because I never dreamed I would get a place at Oxford University and when I did, those three years really opened my eyes to the realities and possibilities of the world. So, on a personal level, it was important.” The university town is a grand architectural poem; a cornucopia of Gothic, Tudorian, Georgian styles and wonders, with some buildings dating back 800 years. The river Iffley runs through, and nearly every structure is an arresting marvel of its own. “It’s the most important city I know,” he says. “I love it dearly.”
So in the 1980s after a stint as a correspondent in India, when Winchester went back to England to work for the Sunday Times newspaper, he chose to base himself out of Oxford. Though he spent much of the time in those four years from 1980 to 1984 traipsing across the world, Oxford was officially home. “And I realised what perhaps I hadn’t realised quite so much when I was a student, that it is an extremely beautiful city filled with magnificent pieces of architecture and a repository [of some of the most important knowledge] in the world,” he says. But in the 1980s, neither a student nor a teacher, Winchester had a different experience of the city. “I had nothing to do with the university,” he says. “In the 1980s it was a bit betwixt and between.”
In 2009, Winchester became an honorary fellow at his old college and over the years has been visiting the city a few times every year when he visits the U.K. This is again different from being there in the 1980s, and once more of a piece with university life. He visits the common room, relaxes at the library, eats dinner at the formal high table from time to time. But he also makes sure to use the university’s Bodleian Library, “one of the greatest libraries on the earth”. The library also commissioned a book about the university for which Winchester wrote the text to accompany photographs by Martin Parr. He spent about a month writing it following several visits last year. “It’s a subject I know reasonably well,” he says. “Once I decided the structure it was quite easy to write.”
Though the university is the fulcrum of the town, there is more beyond it. Winchester speaks of the markets and the fairs and the prominent car manufacturing industry (the stamping machines for the body of the Morris Isis car were later taken to India in the 1950s to aid in the making of the Ambassador car).
Winchester’s fond words and exuberant recounting of his time at Oxford, are but natural, given his years spent there as a student, researcher and now a fellow. But what is the city like for someone who has not lived and worked there and who is somewhat more of an outsider? “My wife, for instance, who is not connected to the university at all, sees it in a very different way,” he says. “If she’s on her own, then she can’t gain access to the institutions and so she feels it’s a city of walls that keep out people, and to me it’s a city of walls that let people within. So she likes Oxford when she’s with me but doesn’t care for it so much when she’s not with me.”
Winchester’s most recent trip was in March, when he was there to work out certain filming permissions. This month, he will be back when they film for The Professor and the Madman, based on his first book, a global bestseller that detailed the obscure and bizarre tale of the making of the Oxford English Dictionary. The film stars Mel Gibson and Sean Penn, and the crew will be shooting for three days at Christchurch College, so they’ve requested him to be around. Later, Winchester will return in September, for the release of the book about Oxford University.
Each phase of his relationship with the city has taken on its own flavour, but restaurants and hang-out places have naturally changed over time. The old shoemaker Ducker and Son, whose store stood for more than 100 years, shut down a few months ago, so a shoe pit stop is no longer possible. Still, some things are determinedly part of the built fabric; Winchester always visits Blackwell’s, one of his favourite book stores for decades. Book stores and gardens—especially the ones at Exeter College and Trinity College—are very much on the Oxford beat. There are friends everywhere. And a visit to his old tutor, who is past 90, is also on the agenda each time. “Favourite restaurants of mine in the 1960s and 1980s have gone but the colleges and libraries are still there and I have many friends there,” he says. “So there is a wonderful unchanging quality about Oxford which I like.”