There I was eagerly planning my trip to Oxford, a town that has bred the world’s best innovators, philosophers, authors and home to some of the best rowers in Britain. As soon as the plans were being formalised, my head began swimming in the literary ocean of quotes from Narnia and Alice in Wonderland. Happy as I was under the impression that I had read all that mattered about this erudite town, my introduction to a historic townhouse on Merton Street bewildered me to wonder, “what could be so special about this property?”. My only brief was that of C. S Lewis proposed his wife in this boutique hotel and frequented it for meals with his dear friend J.R.R Tolkien. The bibliophile in me jumped at the very information and took to rummaging the internet to verify this trivia. Was it possible that I’d be a guest at the address that entertained The Inklings? Join me as I recount my time at this boutique hotel – Mercure Eastgate.
Location: On the corner where the bustling High Street meets the cobble stoned Merton Street, stands the townhouse which was has seen many a refurbishments in its lifetime. Merton Street then bends down leading to two of the most eminent colleges the university has founded – Merton College and Christ Church. Magdalen College and Magdalen Bridge are right behind the townhouse. Just opposite to the hotel on High Street is the bus stand for shuttle service to London, Heathrow and Gatwick Airports. If you grumble for having to travel without a car, beware the town is famous for bicycles not cars. Radcliffe Camera, Bodleian Library, All Souls College and Sheldonian Theatre are a leisurely stroll down Catte Street just two minutes from the hotel. Then again I enjoyed the luxury of calm on Merton Street while residing a shout away from the hustle bustle of Broad Street which is the busiest streets next to High Street.
Arrival Experience: I reached out to the hotel minutes before my arrival as I needed assistance for the address ( what a perfect time for my Google map to crash). The duty manager was with me for as long as I needed him for directions and was absolutely patient in his guidance. The tawny facade of the townhouse is nondescript, a quiet reminder of the architecture from the late 1800s. The entrance is understated and quite contrary to the hues and tones awaiting inside. No sooner I reached the entrance than I had a welcoming smile as my luggage assistance. Thanks to our conversation pre- arrival my check-in was almost complete. I immediately took notice of the framed pictures of bicycles on the wall at the reception and the octa-desk lamp fixture looking down at me. “Quite eclectic interiors.” I thought, getting a glimpse of the drawing room next door before I was ushered to my room. There is a warm vibe that runs across the property and the reception is hardly the typical hotel desk, rather a foyer of a house with a large desk and chairs.
Rooms and Amenities: Although three townhouses have been combined together the boutique hotel is just as intimate as per my taste – 64 rooms. The rooms and suites alike are decorated with muted tones accented by a burst of dramatic colours on chairs and cushions. My room was spacious enough and had ample exposure of light from the tall windows. Every bed in the superior category has a feature headboard with an image of Oxford’s cultural and design heritage. Mine had the Bridge of Sighs while some rooms have punting boats. What I appreciated about the room was it had the closet in a separate enclosure and not next to the door. I agree that most hotels (business or leisure) have the closet as you enter the room, but I am not much a fan of this placement as our own bedrooms don’t have such a design.
Today, the younger generation has redefined luxury completely and that said it is all about attention to detail, intimacy of the hotel and unique experiences or heritage associated with the location. By that yardstick Mercure Eastgate offers it all. The bathroom though adequately spaced does not have a separate bath and shower area. Besides that and of course, my soft spot for bath amenities from a Spa brand, I wasn’t missing much. The bath tub was sinkable enough for a warm soak to retire my day after walking all over the town from one college campus to another. I made it to 10 of the 38 colleges not to mention the museums and pubs. Probably my favourite amenity was the Nespresso machine that motivated me to leave the possessive cuddle of my bed. I rose each morning to sip on my espresso while watching the sunrise behind Magdalen College.
Interiors and History: I am compelled to elaborate on the historic significance of the townhouse as evident on the walls of it’s drawing room and lounge of The Library Bar. The management has invested in a recent refurbishment to render a chic look without stealing away from its glorious past. As you step further inside from the foyer the tonality of the place transforms into a gregarious kind. A slow departure from the calm exterior, finally draws into the wonderland of Alice and the realm of Narnia. Lime coloured tall chairs with Marsala cushions are stark against the muted toned couch. The walls are patterned to offer a library feel to the space, inspired by the scholarly culture of the town as well as scenes from Alice’s adventures and Aslan’s valour in Narnia. The colours and animation throw you in rapture yet there is an innate sense of balance surrounding it all. The sensory innervation is controlled and inspiring. If you take the time to glance through the artefacts you’d realise how much history has transpired within these walls. Standing on the very spot since the 17th century this Coaching Inn has exchanged ownership to become the Flying Horse Inn and later in 1899 when architect E. P Warren designed the current structure it stood out as a townhouse than the modest Inn that it was near Eastgate of Oxford. Its existence dates as far back as the early 1600s when the medieval Eastgate existed on its east end hence adopting the modern day name of Eastgate Hotel. J.R.R Tolkien lived in the house next door but managed to dine with C.S Lewis on numerous occasions perhaps exchanging astute ideas. After the death of his wife when he moved to Merton College as a professor, Tolkien would treat his grandson Simon at this hotel. A plaque bearing the map of the Middle Earth from his famed novel Lord of the Rings is on the wall and then there is a venerable grandfather clock oblivious to the buzz from the academians lounging around over a sip of wine or single malt.
Dining: The eponymous chef Marco Pierre White has his signature restaurant at the hotel with an entrance on the High Street. Marco’s New York Italian celebrates the taste of New Yorkers through their favourite Italian cuisine. Most aptly located to serve the audience visiting the university as guest lecturers, financial consultants and business orators from across the Atlantic. An informal ambiance braces the venue with a vibrant atmosphere coming from the fervent conversations of the day gone by. Discover more about my experience at Marco’s New York Italian in a new post.
Guest Relations: In a word informative. I engaged with four of the team members at the reception and all were equally warm and friendly with a tonne of information to share about getting around Oxford. From heading over to Binsey Lane to walking down narrow lanes in the city or the famous taverns to explore they had an answer customised to my needs.
Will I come back? Most definitely, I will! I don’t see a reason not to, there is a lot to explore in Oxford beyond a weekend. There are only so many pubs and meadows you can visit in three days. I have a list at the ready to take another dive as a local this time around.