The Oxford of Inspector Morse: Dreaming spires, dead bodies… and lots and lots of pubs

Oxford, the ‘city of dreaming spires’, was home to both fictional detective Inspector Morse and his creator, Colin Dexter. Daniel Pembrey tours the city to learn more.

It wasn’t until the second-to-last Inspector Morse novel, 1996’s Death is Now My Neighbour, that fans finally learnt his forename. By then, a dozen Morse books had been published and the TV series starring John Thaw had been on air for almost a decade, firmly implanting the cask-ale-loving detective in the public consciousness. Speculation over Morse’s name had grown feverish; perhaps it would be embarrassing – ‘Mickey?’ suggested one comedian. The name was revealed to be Endeavour and would beget the eponymous prequel TV series now bringing Morse to new fans.

The name equally gives valuable clues about the mind of Morse’s creator, Colin Dexter, who died last year, aged 86. He used to wander the banks of the River Thames in his adopted city of Oxford, where, opposite the boathouse belonging to the 22nd Oxford Sea Scout Group, there stands a building named TS Endeavour. The author even gave Morse’s father a special interest in Captain Cook, who commanded HMS Endeavour.

So much of Dexter’s inspiration and the appeal of his stories came from the setting of Oxford that it’s hard to pick a landmark from which to set off, but one place might be the Macdonald Randolph Hotel, where he would go to write and enjoy a pint of bitter or a single-malt whisky. Head concierge William Thomson recalls a diminutive figure with a glint in his eye; the bar Dexter frequented is now named the Morse Bar.

The Morse Bar at the Macdonald Randolph hotel in Oxford. The bar still features in episodes of follow-up series Lewis. (Picture ©Macdonald Hotels)

Just around the corner is St John’s College, where the author had his character fictionally read Classics. Alas, young Endeavour was distracted by a lady named Wendy and failed Greats.

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The Randolph recommends a Morse tour offered by Elizabeth Hudson-Evans, who leads four group tours a week, plus other private expeditions among the warm stone buildings and spires that feature so prominently in the stories.

‘Tour members very often refer to Morse in the present tense,’ she says.

‘One lady from America, who returns every few years, will not allow me to mention his death. She always leaves the tour early, before reaching Exeter College, where Morse succumbed to his heart attack on screen.’

In many ways, the cherished detective is the archetypal middle-Englishman, in love not only with real ale and heritage, but also – and above all – with his language. Drive five miles north to Kidlington and you’ll find a village regularly visited by busloads of Chinese tourists, precisely because it’s presented as the typical English village.

It’s also the location of Thames Valley Police HQ, where Morse was based. At various points in the books, his office is furnished with a bottle of Glenfiddich, six pint-bottles of beer, a Chambers dictionary and Fowler’s Modern English Usage.

Morse started out just up the A44 with Last Bus to Woodstock, his first outing in print (1975). The Black Prince pub is still to be found in Woodstock, as is the car park to the rear, where fictional murder victim Sylvia Kaye was discovered.

Our beautiful garden in the sunshine #woodstockoxfordshire #sunshine

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Neighbouring Blenheim Palace featured memorably in the TV version of The Way Through the Woods (1992), which opens with Morse attending an outdoor concert – this love of classical music came directly from the author.

Tragically, Dexter lost his hearing during the 1960s and had to give up his job as a schoolmaster (boys would allegedly test how loud they could turn up portable radios before he noticed). He went to work for the University of Oxford Delegacy of Local Examinations and became well acquainted with the academic world that he would render so vividly in fiction.

Blenheim Palace

In the final book, The Remorseful Day (1999), Morse visits Burford, the delightful former wool town to the west of Oxford. His health is failing – not least from overconsumption of alcohol – but it’s oh so easy to imagine him on Sheep Street, which featured on both page and screen, or perhaps inside the calm, ancient Lamb Inn, suddenly seeing patterns to a case in the bottom of a pint glass.

You can equally imagine him driving away in his Mark II Jaguar, although it was an old Lancia in the books and you’re now more likely to run into a Thames Valley Police-liveried Kubota utility vehicle, complete with balloon tyres for off-road pursuits.

Morse’s growing health issues mirrored Dexter’s own. Rarely did the writer turn down an invitation to socialise, if only for a visit to one of the local pubs, The Dew Drop in Summertown or perhaps The Trout Inn over at Wolvercote. Although he could only hear fellow conversationalists when they were sitting to his right, Dexter remained convivial by all accounts, with a wicked sense of humour – sometimes irreverent, occasionally ribald.

To understand Morse more fully, one must enter the mind of the crossword compiler. Jonathan Crowther, setter of the Azed crossword in The Observer for the past 46 years and formerly a dictionary editor with Oxford University Press, is a near neighbour of Dexter’s unassuming former home on Banbury Road. (The financial success that Morse brought Dexter never altered his modest lifestyle.)

Inspector Morse, like Colin Dexter, in a pub once again: Judy Loe, John Thaw, Kevin Whately, 'Death is Now My Neighbour,' (season 10, episode 1)

Inspector Morse, like Colin Dexter, in a pub once again: Judy Loe, John Thaw, Kevin Whately, ‘Death is Now My Neighbour,’ (season 10, episode 1)

Crowther came to know his neighbour through crosswords, Dexter being highly successful in the Azed competitions. The author also, for some years, set crosswords for The Oxford Times under the pseudonym Codex, formed from the first letters of his forename and surname.

‘Many “crossworders” have had a classical education, as Colin and I both did,’ explains Mr Crowther. ‘This gives us a preoccupation with grammatical accuracy and also an awareness of the potential ambiguity of English words. The essence of a good crossword clue is the playful exploitation of this ambiguity, so that a word or phrase appearing at first glance to mean one thing may be read to mean something else.’

Dexter carried this into his Morse stories, in which, for him, plotting was paramount. Even after his novels had all been televised, he remained closely involved in the TV shows as a script editor.

Ian Rankin is another crime writer and crossword setter who named his character after a puzzle: Inspector Rebus. ‘Whenever Colin and I met for a beer, we would discuss crossword setters and memorable clues,’ says Mr Rankin.

‘He would also try to teach me a bit of Latin, but I always disappointed him.’

Mr Rankin has equally won worldwide devotees for the harmony between his detective and the setting. ‘One reason why Morse works so well – and this was Colin’s genius – is that Morse’s methods are intimately linked to the cerebral Oxford story world that he inhabits,’ he observes.

‘Readers, including myself, can’t help responding to both the cohesion and intrigue.’ And they continue to do so, down the generations. Bravo, Endeavour.

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