Finally, I found myself reading the road signs (and reading them out loud) signalling the way to Oxford.
The mere whisper of ‘Oxford’ oozes history, sophistication, wit and a sharp pen. For me, Oxford means mainly literature – well, I know, almost all places mean mainly literature for me, but Oxford is the pinnacle of this booky tendency of travel. Normally, when visiting a long overdue place on my list of places to visit, the procedure of research is hectic – but this was not the case with Oxford: it was enough to get to walk the same streets that were onced walked by Wilde, Huxley, Waugh, and Murdoch, see the same views once seen by Eliot, Auden, and Byron and possibly be situated on that same, special, spot of time-space continuum where something brilliant once came into existence.
And then, of course, there was the coffee to consider, as Oxford is the first place in England, and second in Western Europe, to have its own coffee shop. This put High Street and The Grand Café on my one item “to visit” -list as in its slogan the coffee shop announces to be “the site of the first coffee house in England (according to Samuel Pepys’ Diary, 1650)”.
I tried, as I’m sure there are cleverer people than I visiting an Oxford coffee shop, to ignore the fact that Pepys started his famous diary in 1660, and told myself that surely there must be another diary from 1650. Or, does the year refer to the actual date of the first coffee shop in that location? I get so easily confused… I also tried, just now typing this up, to quickly find the original reference from Pepys but failed – as even in his 1660s diary there are 128 references to coffee, and I don’t think this is an appropriate place or time to go through them all.
What I do know is that Oxford as an university town was one of the first European cities to be introduced to coffee: “There came in my time to the College one Nathaniel Canopius, out of Greece… he was the first I ever saw drink coffee,” writes John Evelyn in 1637. Canopius was later sent to Smyrna, but coffee had come to Oxford to stay, and one Anthony à Wood tells us that in 1650 “Jacob, a Jew opened a coffey-house at the Angel…and there it was by some, who delighted in the noveltie, drunk.” Ah, Oxford! In spite all the cleverness and grand ideas, the mighty men still had time and willingness to make notions of coffee in their precious diaries.
Excitement was tangible as I approached the Holy Grail, The Grand Café. First thing I noticed as I stepped in was the long and shiny wooden counter with cakes on display, then the golden elements around wall sized mirrors. The chatter hit the high ceiling, and all the little tables seemed to be occupied. And, although located on the same spot as the first coffee shop in England, I did not step into a remnant of a dingy coffee shop selling their liquid from big cauldrons on open fires, but into a grand looking café of the more prosperous, upper class bohemian Paris.
We managed to get a table and sat down to explore the menu, which included items from breakfast and lunch and brunch to high tea and cocktails. And more importantly, specialty coffees. I was so happy to read the origins and taste descriptions of the coffees available that I even forgot the confusing reference to the Pepys diaries.
As I was waiting for my coffee, the subtle tasting Jamaican Blue Mountain, I looked around my first Oxfordian surroundings: next to me a lady was leisurely reading her Sunday Times, and on the other side a mother – maybe proudly visiting her clever offspring? – and daughter munched away their breakfast plates. Bigger groups were scattered around and chatted away enthusiastically while poking on their salads, and a young couple was enjoying their tea and scones in a corner.
The space was light and, as I thought, big. But, in fact, Grand Café uses the centuries old trick of creating the feel of long and narrow space with, no, not acquiring more actual space, but with mirrors. Maybe, if you step into the biggest, gilt framed mirror at the back, you find yourself in the Oxford of olden times, when beans were roasted on an open fire, steamy discussions held over long communal tables, and coffee… well, coffee – after travelling over the vast seas in mouldy bags only to be diluted with chicory and served by ladles to the male visitors of ‘coffey-shops’ – it did not taste good.
You can read more about my coffee travels for example here: