Our luxury hotel in Oxford is perfectly positioned to learn about the history of our city. We recently launched an exclusive walking tour experience with Iain Stephenson, Oxford University graduate and expert guide on the city. There’s no one better to teach you the mysteries of Oxford.
We sat down with Iain to ask him some questions about his VIP tours, and get him to spill some secrets on the city.
What makes your tours so unique?
Depends on who’s on them! The key is to adapt to the people on the tour. But all my tours have several elements in common: interaction and engagement with guests, humour, all interwoven with the unique personal insights, memories, and stories from my time as an undergraduate student at Jesus College. I’m in the entertainment business, as well as the tourism business.
Unlike some traditional guided tours which can be information dumps with little feedback from the group, I always connect with people, keeping their interest not only by asking them questions, but also by encouraging them to ask me questions at any time. Of course, there is information to be delivered as well, but I always adapt my delivery with sensitivity to their background and interests.
What’s your favourite site to tell people about?
New College. Not that new, founded in 1379, and the blueprint for all the 39 Colleges and Halls which followed. Standing outside the 600+ year old original entrance in New College Lane, basically unchanged from medieval times, there is a very tangible sense of travelling back in time to the 14th century. From the enchanting cloisters, the wow-factor chapel, or the Hogwarts look-alike dining hall, this College has everything you could possibly want.
Can you tell us any secrets about your college, Jesus College?
Some will go with me to my grave! During the English Civil War King Charles I set up his capital in Oxford and, short of funds, he appropriated all the other Colleges’ silverware, but he never got ours.
But where is it hidden…? Occasionally a member of staff (who shall remain nameless!) can be seen emerging, dust and cobweb covered, from some old underground passageway in his hunt for the buried treasure.
What’s the oddest fact you’ve ever heard (or told)?
Easy one. This fact is from the Rules of the Oxford Union Society, the world-famous debating society of which I am a life member. The Union has welcomed guest speakers from all walks of life, from Michael Jackson to football manager Sam Allardyce.
Here is Rule 51: DOGS. Any Member introducing or causing to be introduced to a dog into the Society’s Buildings shall be liable to a fine of £5 issued by the Treasurer. Any animal leading a blind person shall be deemed to be a cat. Any animal entering on Police business shall be deemed to be a wombat. Any animal that the President wishes to exempt from the Rule shall be deemed to be a mongoose.
As a local, what do you think is the best pub in Oxford?
The King’s Arms, no contest. Quintessential Oxford pub, owned by Wadham College which is next door. In fact, there are student rooms above the pub. If I’d known that when I was applying…
From James I times, 1606, it’s been a playhouse, a venue, and the cool cellars provided the right conditions for anatomy lessons. Today the King’s Arms during term time boasts the highest IQ per square foot of anywhere in the world. Sit in the lounge bar with the stunning vista of the 18th century Clarendon Building and the Emperors’ Heads of Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre. Simply the best view from any city centre pub in England. The food’s not bad either.
In your opinion, who is the most interesting person to have studied or taught at the university and why?
It’s a tie between two Jesus students, TE Lawrence (Of Arabia), and Harold Wilson.
Lawrence was an undergrad at Jesus in 1907, charmingly he was granted special permission to live outside College in his first year with his mum in North Oxford. This is a man who ten years later was not only a brilliant student, but also a military strategist and writer.
Harold Wilson, Labour Prime Minister from 1964-70, and again 1974-76.
Another brilliant student who went straight from Jesus College to teaching at another Oxford College, the youngest since Cardinal Wolsey in the 1500s. Very close to my heart, we share the same home town, Huddersfield in West Yorkshire. His most enduring legacies for me are the foundation of the Open University, as well as keeping my generation of young British men out of the Vietnam War.
Your tours are all run by graduates, what is it about Oxford that keeps people here after university?
Oxford has been characterised as “old buildings, young people”. It’s this exciting blend of history, learning, and ancient traditions of the oldest English speaking university in the world, with the vibrancy, energy, and idealism of the young minds studying, teaching and working here.
If you’re as fascinated by Iain’s stories as we are, why not book onto one of his VIP walking tour packages at Vanbrugh House Hotel?