We are lucky that Oxford is a renowned hive of culture. The downside to this, though is that the vortex of city absorption often neglects the literary life of the rest of the county - and in today’s uncertain political climate, as prices rise but wages don’t, as the arts are undervalued, we need more than ever to realise that the ‘Oxford’ writer often lives outside its city walls. Is it even possible to be a writer full time and afford Oxford’s living costs? What are we missing out on by only looking to Oxford for inspiration and conversation?
It’s time to redefine the boundaries of our city. We need to keep the writing community alive across Oxfordshire; to look at what’s happening across Oxfordshire, and celebrate it. It’s time to look away from the bright lights towards those who circle Oxford as writers, performers, festival organisers, to expand our horizons in the name of writing, to support those supporting writers throughout the county. Join us as we (literally) take you to the streets of Oxfordshire - placards optional. Here are some hidden gems of Oxfordshire that you might not have come across – yet.
Oxfordshire is great at high quality independent bookshops, whose survival is grounded on their ability to act as creative hubs, whose stock is brilliantly curated and who hold events with local writers. To name a few: Mostly Books in Abingdon, a small but perfectly formed gem, has a window full of adverts for events and often welcomes readings from local writers, while further afield Jaffe & Neale in Chipping Norton supports writers with their varied, individual book recommendations and author events. The more Oxfordshire grows and decentralises, the more widespread opportunities there are for writers and readers.
At Cole’s Books in Bicester, the owner states that while the town ‘sometimes get stuck in the shadow of Oxford, we try to get the growing population more connected with what is happening right on their doorstep’. Cole’s hosts monthly book nights with authors and author events in the shop, local schools and library, as well as a number of poetry events and open mic sessions with local poets.
This need to connect with and surprise a broader range of people can result in a wonderful, and beneficial, variety of events, with more new or up-and-coming writers finding exposure. Sometimes, it results in the simply quirky: a special mention has to go to the Madhatter Bookshop in Burford for uniquely combining ‘great books and fine hats for all occasions’ – because why not? – while it is also the box office for the Burford Festival of writerly events.
Which brings our literary treasure trail to the world of festivals, and there are a pleasing amount of these. In Wantage, an October festival celebrated several local authors and well-established writers, including performance poet Lucy Ayrton exploring an investigation of tragedy through poetry, storytelling and song. This month, the Woodstock Poetry Festival hosts two independent publishers of poetry, the Emma Press and Nine Arches Press, followed by an open mic session and an event with a former London and UK Poetry Slam champion.
Woodstock Poetry Festival
While it’s not strictly in Oxfordshire, Swindon’s Poetry Festival is worth a mention for being ‘surely the best in terms of spirit, friendliness, and general sense of a poetry friendly environment’.
Swindon Poetry Festival
Other Writing Hubs Other venues provide opportunities to present work, meet writers, and bounce ideas around: the wonderful Northwall in Summertown is host to a variety of events, including drama by the new Oxford-grown Poltergeist Theatre.
The North Wall
Similarly, the Cornerstone in Didcot has a strong programme of classes and workshops, including a monthly opportunity for writers, actors and directors to meet and an open mic night. If you’re not ready to think about public performances, Oxford’s offshoots can help with that too. The number of writing groups in the county is huge and includes the well-established Abingdon Writers Group with several published writers, and the pleasingly named WOW group – or West Oxfordshire Writers’ Group - with a huge range of writing and a very strong play/screen play section.
So if the Oxford bubble or its prices are starting to press on you or those rolling green fields are calling, you don’t need to decamp to the countryside and start writing pastoral scenes. Oxfordshire is very much alive, rebelliously varied, and ready to lend you a pen. You might just find some hidden treasure in unexpected places.
The Cornerstone, Didcot