The Lady in Wonderland
For the 150th anniversary of the first telling of Lewis Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland, Melonie Clarke tumbles into the magical locations that inspired it…
Yes, it can only be the tale of Alice In Wonderland, told for the first time on a jaunt along the River Isis in Oxford in 1862. The story was later published in 1865. This tale of talking flowers, bottles labelled 'DRINK ME' and cakes labelled 'EAT ME' was conceived one sunny afternoon in Oxford, so it seems only fitting that for the 150th anniversary of the first telling of the story, I go to Oxford in search of the White Rabbit and a Mad Hatter's tea party...
Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym Lewis Carroll, spent most of his life teaching maths at Christ Church College in Oxford – although he also wrote a monthly puzzle column, called Syzygies, for The Lady. It was in Oxford that he became friends with the college Dean, Henry Liddell, and his family – most significantly with his daughters, one of whom was called Alice.
Carroll spent lazy summer days telling Alice tales of the White Rabbit who was always late (inspired by Alice's father, who was notoriously tardy and always losing his gloves) and of the Dodo, who was inspired by Carroll himself because of his stutter.
Tumbling down the rabbit hole and landing in pictureperfect Oxford, you can't help but feel that you are entering Wonderland. Every turn takes you to a building that has some link to the story. Echoes of Wonderland ring all through Christ Church College. Carroll's room is still intact, looking out on to the picturesque Tom Quad. In the dining room, now more widely known as the inspiration for the Great Hall in the Harry Potter films, there is a beautiful stained-glass window – made by Patrick Reyntiens – decorated with characters from Carroll's tale.
The Queen of Hearts's catchphrase, 'off with his head' was inspired by the large dining-room portrait of Henry VIII, which Carroll would sit and daydream about as he ate his meals. The grounds of the college also inspired Carroll's story. The walled garden where the real Alice would play croquet inspired her Wonderland match with the flamingos and the hedgehogs.
The Christ Church meadow, planted with poplars and other wild flowers would be the inspiration for the talking flowers in Carroll's later novel Through The Looking- Glass And What Alice Found There.
Our guide and 'Alice' specialist, Elizabeth Hudson- Evans, took us on a whistle-stop tour of the rest of Alice's Oxford. The Museum of Natural History may be a monument to the natural world, but in a way it is also a monument to the world of Wonderland as it houses many statues, stuffed animals and plants that inspired Carroll's main characters. Here, you can meet the Caterpillar, the White Rabbit, and most notably the Dodo.
Alice's Shop, meanwhile, at 83 St Aldates, Oxford, was where Alice used to buy her sweets, which she undoubtedly took on some of her adventures with Carroll. Across the road from her old home, it now offers all the Wonderland themed treats you can imagine, from 'eat me' jams to pocket watches.
But no trip to Oxford is complete without a Mad Hatter's tea party. Luckily, milliner Katherine Elizabeth was holding a very glamorous soiree including Prosecco, Alice themed cocktails, upside-down cakes and a hat-making masterclass at Oxford's Malmaison hotel, which was once a prison – in fact, visitors can stay in one of the highly sought-after 'cell rooms'.
Katherine supplies all the main items you need for a couture tea party; felt, feathers, fascinators and tea served in vintage crockery. While tucking into some delicious scones and sandwiches, I managed to make a rather pretty 1940s-style hat, and still had time to have a quick cup of tea with my new friend the Cheshire Cat afterwards.
One hundred and fifty years after the first telling of the tale, and a whistle-stop tour of Oxford later, I am a little bit wiser about the world of Alice and her Wonderland. I almost feel like a native. And best of all, I also have a fetching hat to wear every time I visit.
Katherine Elizabeth Millinery, Studio 53, Craft Central, 33-35 St Johns Square, London EC1. To book your own Mad Hatter's Couture tea party: 020-7490 0303, www.katherineelizabethhats.com
Daily tip from the lady archive
"DEEPLY-ROOTED is the idea that men are indifferent to dress, while the ladies, God bless them, think of nothing else"The Lady, With Prejudice, 8th January, 1942