The mystery appeal of the dreaming spires

On the trail of Inspector Morse: Rhiannon Batten investigates Oxford
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The Independent Culture
Apparently one particular room in Oxford's Randolph Hotel is invariably booked up by Americans these days. The reason for the popularity of room 310 is that a certain occupant recently died in it. Fortunately for the visiting Americans, this was not to do with any health or safety problems the room might have had. The doomed lady was not even alive, as such, in the first place. She was a figment of Colin Dexter's jottings. As his fans will know, he is the writer behind the Inspector Morse programmes. The series has become so popular around the world that many tourists now visit Oxford specifically to try to seek out Morse's sleuthing grounds.

To cater for this massive interest, the local tourist information centre has just set up an official walking tour especially for all the Inspector Morse location-spotters. Taking in colleges, museums, pubs and gardens, the tour is intended for true Morse enthusiasts, but you need not be terribly well-versed in the Inspector's code - on the walk I joined our guide was quite happy to change the itinerary to suit the wishes of the party.

The majority of tourists in my group requested a tour that took in some of the more general Oxford sights as well as those associated with Morse. The two-hour meander around the city saw us blinking up at the Ashmolean Museum from the steps of the Randolph Hotel, dodging the college tortoise at Brasenose College, gargoyle-spotting at Exeter College, admiring the effects of the light outside the Sheldonian Theatre, catching an impromptu cello recital inside a college chapel and stepping on to Addison's Walk at Magdalen, all the time being reminded of numerous classic Morse scenarios.

Scoring a few Brownie points for herself, our tele-literate guide revealed our naivety at the liberties taken by TV programme makers. The "colleges" frequented by Morse, it seems, are in fact an imaginative assortment of various bits of different colleges pieced together to deceive viewers. And our Oxford tour guide was especially scathing about one particular episode that featured ... an Oxford tour guide. The on-screen reputation of the profession was tarnished by the provision of some very suspect information indeed.

The Morse tour ticket also includes reduced admission to Carfax Tower, a regular location in the programmes. From the very top of the tower you get a chance to peer down into those college quadrangles that you wouldn't otherwise be able to see.

Living in Oxford myself, and wearing heels well worn by several self- devised walking tours staged for friends visiting the city, I wasn't initially inflamed by the prospect of spending a blustery March afternoon visiting the scenes of various invented murders around the city. However, I came away knowing a great deal more about Oxford, as well as its screen appearances. Certainly for anyone who hasn't previously explored the dreaming spires and is a fan of Dexter's dreamed-up stories, the Morse tour makes for an entertaining as well as educational way to explore the city.

Inspector Morse tours run on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, between March and October. They start at 1.30pm from outside the Oxford Information Centre in the Old School at Gloucester Green (beside the bus station). Prices are pounds 4.50 for adults and pounds 3 for children, including a voucher for reduced admission to Carfax Tower. The tour lasts for two hours. For mor(s)e information, call 01865 726871 or fax 01865 240261.

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