Peter Welcome to our travel podcast. We’re specialist travel writers and we’ve spent half a lifetime exploring every corner of the world.
Felice We want to share with you some of our extraordinary experiences and the amazing people we’ve met along the way.
Peter This week we’re in Oxford, which the Victorian poet, Matthew Arnold, famously called the City of Dreaming Spires. Now exactly where you choose to rest your head and dream here is down to personal choice and budget. Booking.com lists no less than 311 hotels, of which 21 are five star. However, no establishment is more iconic than the Randolph Hotel in Bowman Street, bang opposite the Ashmolean Museum, and most conveniently located for shops, restaurants and of course, the majority of the 39 colleges that form the world’s top-ranked university.
Felice You might think that the Randolph is named after Randolph Churchill with his connection to Blenheim Palace, which is just ten miles up the road, but it isn’t, actually. It’s named after the Reverend Dr Francis Randolph, who left money to the university in the 18th century. Famous people ranging from Oscar Wilde to J.R.R. Tolkien, along with 15 British prime ministers, have visited. But these days the hotel is best known for its links to Inspector Morse and the TV series written by Colin Dexter and starring actor John Thaw.
Peter The Randolph changed hands a few years ago, and during lockdown the building underwent a complete makeover. We spent the night there and met up with general manager, Phil Lewis. We started by asking him when he took over the running of this exquisite hotel that has paid homage to the history of Oxford for the past 157 years.
Phil I joined this property in July 2019. It was owned by the MacDonald family back then, and was soon purchased after that in November 2019 by AJ Capital.
Felice That’s the same as Graduate Hotels?
Phil Yes, AJ Capital were effectively the creatives and the financiers and they got the project started. I guess the most successful brand that they’ve created is Graduate Hotels. There’s over 30 of them now in the US and here and Cambridge are the first two that are outside of the United States.
Felice The ones in the United States, are they all in university towns as well?
Phil That’s correct. Yes, they’re based in university towns; they’re part of the local community and they draw their success from that.
Peter Tell us first about the history of the hotel. I mean, it’s a very famous building, isn’t it?
Phil That’s right. Yes. It’s built in 1865, designed by architect, William Wilkinson, and Victorian Gothic in its appearance, which was all the rage at the time. That reflected on the interiors as well. So right behind me you can see the beautiful cantilever staircase, which was one of William Wilkinson’s signature bits of architecture. And it’s been a hotel from day one, which is the most exciting part, I think, of this of this building.
Felice How has it changed over the years?
Phil Well, it’s obviously gone through a lot of different ownerships and a lot of different styles. Most recently, of course, with the McDonald family owning it, there was the fire in 2015, which was a very sad time for the property, but luckily no one was injured. Soon after that new life was breathed into the property with refurbishments to the bedrooms, etc. I think back in the 1980s there was an extension to the back of the property. So we’ve got a total of 151 bedrooms now and we’ve got a beautiful ballroom as well, which is down near the car park area. So yes, it’s grown in size over the years.
Felice And it’s been used for filming a lot?
Phil That’s right, yes, of course. So most recently we’ve had programmes like Industry that filmed here. But of course Inspector Morse is the most famous TV show that has filmed in the area, and Colin Dexter, who used to sit right behind us in the Morse Bar penning his latest novel, would often write the Randolph into his stories. I think one of the bedrooms is famous for having a murder in it. Luckily, fiction, not fact.
Felice Which bedroom is it? Can you remember?
Phil I think it’s 231.
Peter We were in 203, so we were all right.
Peter So let’s have a walk around.
Phil So just walking through the lobby towards the drawing room.
Peter Well, this is a fine room.
Phil Yes, a beautiful room. So a wonderful drawing room where we serve our afternoon tea, and right behind here is the Lancaster Room that’s named after Osbert Lancaster. So the paintings you see before you are mainly drawn by Osbert Lancaster himself.
The story goes he came and stayed for several weeks at the hotel and ran up quite a hefty bill and was struggling to pay it. So I think that there was a deal made with the then general manager to provide some wonderful paintings, which you see before you, which depicts the Oxford Love Story. So that deal was made. Whether that’s true or not, I don’t know, but I quite like the sound of that story. I hope it is.
Felice There are a lot of paintings. Almost 20, I think.
Phil Yes. So the ones that depict almost like a cartoon, I think it’s Zuleika Dobson who is the lady in the pictures. The Oxford Love Story tells that she comes to Oxford and all the men in Oxford fall in love with her and she sends them on a wild goose chase.
Peter Just opposite the steps leading up to the Ashmolean.
Phil That’s right. It couldn’t be better located for the Ashmolean Museum. So a lot of our guests spend a few hours in there looking at the wonderful exhibitions. So we’ve got a Pissarro, the father of Impressionism in there at the moment. So, yes, it’s a good time to visit.
Peter Right. Let’s move on.
Phil So walking down here, this is our this is our wall of fame. So we’re surrounded by about 30 charcoal painting or drawings of Oxford alumni of years gone past. So just to pick out a few, we’ve got Reeta Chakraborty over here – a famous journalist. And then right behind me, who we got here? We’ve got H.H. Asquith, I think he was prime minister in in the early 1900s. We’ve got Oscar Wilde down the end there, Malala who spent some time in Oxford as well. So yes, the great and the good.
Felice Are they all drawn by the same artist?
Phil That’s right. It’s an American artist. Can you name any can you can you pick anybody out, a famous chef?
Felice I’m not sure. Is it Nigella Lawson?
Phil It is. Well done. The chap of the top left there does look like Freddie Mercury. But it isn’t. We thought it was because actually Freddie Mercury did do a concert here at the Randolph many years ago in the early part of his career. But now that’s in fact the chap that’s drawn the picture in your bedroom of a beautiful landscape. It’s great you get people come down here trying to figure out who everybody is. There’s a bottle of champagne, if you could name all of them.
Peter I’d need a crate.
Phil So now we’re walking into the ballroom bar. So the ballroom is just ahead of us that fit 220 people for a banquet, and this is the reception bar that we’ve refurbished as well, with a beautiful skylight above us and the fantastic oak-panelled bar ahead as well. So a beautiful space. We have weddings, events, product launches, you name it. This is the spot.
Felice Very bright green wallpaper and upholstery.
Phil I think you’ve probably noticed that throughout the whole of the building. It’s a very bold design. We wanted to design, certainly wanted to make the hotel stand out. And a lot of the design obviously goes back to the Victorian Gothic interiors where you had a very elaborate patterned carpets and bright wallpapers to try and show off wealth, I believe.
Peter And now we’re coming into the ballroom.
Phil It divides off into two spaces. So you can have two separate functions, which is quite handy. But yes, like I say, a whole 220 in here for a banquet. We’ve got the beautiful chandeliers, there’s three of those on the ceiling there, and they’re designed from one of the chandeliers that was in the Titanic – nice feature. The beautiful antique mirrored ceilings give a feeling of space in here as well.
Felice When was that last a ball in here?
Phil We had a had a big dinner on Saturday, just gone. So a few days ago, big sort of Masons dinner. And they’ve been coming for many, many years and they love the transformation that we’ve done to it. So, yes, it’s a beautiful spot.
Felice You do feel a bit like you’re on the Titanic, actually…the decoration.
Phil Yes, indeed, as long as we’re not sinking, that’s all good. You’ve got the beautiful Alice Restaurant, the wonderful high ceilings, and we’ve got the inclusion of a brand new cocktail bar at the end to provide a bit of theatre to the diners at lunch and dinner.
Felice Who painted the Alice in Wonderland pictures?
Phil It’s a London-based artist, a London based artist that was commissioned to paint all of them.
Felice I like the pink leather sofas.
Phil Yes. It’s a bit different, isn’t it? It’s quite nice to have that kind of…it’s a bit more fun, a bit more whimsical.
Felice I really like the Alice in Wonderland pictures.
Phil You need to, with the scale of the room, you need big pictures to fill it and I think this does the perfect job.
Felice The ceiling has…is it upholstery? Is it fabric? I can’t tell.
Phil Yes, it is a fabric-lined panels again, to give it a bit of warmth .
Felice The pale blue that matches the Alice in Wonderland paintings. The paintings are mainly pale blue and pink, and the pink matches the sofas.
Peter It all blends well together.
Felice A pastel colour scheme.
Phil Here we have the wonderful snug, just tucked away, as you as you’d expect, from the Morse bar. This is the second area where you can while away the hours and have a cocktail and a few snacks and get ready for dinner. Then just ahead, we’ve got the chef’s table – a beautiful, bright space where you can have lunch or a dinner, and afternoon tea in private. Then you’ve got the six or seven chandeliers that hang down and fill it with light.
Peter Yes, it’s a remarkable room. The chandeliers are very spectacular, aren’t they?
Felice They’re amazing. Lots and lots of crystals, dangling crystals.
Peter Different colours.
Phil Almost reminds me of what they look like in a Moroccan bazaar where you’re going into a shop full of items for sale. It looks like it could be there. The big skylight gives it all the light. Interestingly, just here at the end of the chef’s table, this used to be part of the kitchen, and that’s where the infamous fire started – cooking a beef stroganoff which caught fire. That went up the extractor and the rest is history.
Peter Was the damage very extensive?
Phil Yes, it was. The hotel was closed for several weeks. That’s another part of the long history of the Randolph but, like I say, fortunately, no lasting damage was done.
Felice Did you have to rebuild or just redecorate?
Phil Redecorate, it gave an opportunity. So the kitchen was vast and that was the opportunity to turn this into a different space, for a different use.
Felice So do a lot of people come here just for the day for different events or are they mainly residents?
Phil It’s a bit of a mixture. Oxford itself attracts a lot of people just for day trips from the surrounding areas –a lot of day attractions, so we’ll find that we’ll pick up some lovely lunches and afternoon tea bookings.
Then of course there’s the college: world-famous and people come for several weeks to go to events and to go to courses that might be, parents visiting their children, people staying here and going to Blenheim Palace or Bicester Village or Silverstone. So yes, it’s a great spot, centrally located to service all of those areas.
Shall we go down into the wellness centre? Through here we’ve got four treatment rooms, quite a large relaxation area and then what people find quite surprising, we’ve got a beautifully large thermal suite. So in there we have a rock sauna, bio sauna, steam room, Jacuzzi, rainfall shower, and an ice room. So it’s a beautiful little oasis away from the hustle and bustle of Oxford. So we find our guests quite like it down here.
Felice So a lot of people come for the spa.
Phil We have more and more, and we’re all about the wellness. It’s certainly a growing market, we could be doing with having it twice the size, but we’re lucky to have it. We’re the only hotel with a facility like this in Oxford.
Peter Are your guests are very international?
Phil That’s right. Certainly historically, and now with travel opening back up, we’re seeing our friends across the pond in the US coming back more and more. We’ve got our tour groups starting as well, which come from all over the world, so it’s great to see those international travellers coming back.
Peter It must have been a very lean…well for everybody in the hospitality industry it was very lean period, wasn’t it?
Phil Yes, it certainly was.
Peter And when you started, as soon as you got settled in here as general manager and along came Covid.
Phil That’s right. So I think I had five or six months of normality, I call it. I got to see the end of…or the middle of the end of the summer and got a feel for how busy this property can be. We had a terrific Christmas that year, very busy. Then, of course, January for every time everything, everything started to change. So I think we got rather lucky with the timing of the refurbishments and that’s through no design, it was just pure luck.
Peter When did the refurbishment take place?
Phil The early part of 2020, that was of course lockdown and that was the planning stage for a lot of it. We did open back up in July 2020 and that went all the way through to October. October 2020 was the month that we closed down, we did the strip out and the project started.
Peter When did you reopen?
Phil It was August last year, August 2021.
Peter The timing worked well for you.
Phil Yes, it certainly did. So there was a lot of leisure transient business last summer. A lot of people super keen to get out and go and explore the UK and spend time with family and friends. So we benefited like most of the hospitality in the UK in filling the hotel and we opened in stages, so it was quite nice for us to be full quite quickly.
Felice What’s special about your spa? Do you have any signature massage treatments and things like that?
Phil Absolutely. We partner with a company called Made for Life; they’re based down in Cornwall as a famil- started business – very bespoke and they specialise in wellness, they specialise in mindfulness and also in cancer touch therapy and pregnancy treatments in early pregnancy stages, which are quite specialist as well. So we can cater for quite a lot here.
Peter So we’re climbing up the stairs from the wellness suite.
Felice Lots of gothic style doorways and windows…
Peter Tell us a bit about the Morse Bar here, because that’s a major feature?
Phil Then of course it’s called the Morse Bar after Colin Dexter. Colin Dexter used to come in, sit in the corner by the fire and have a few beers and a few whiskies…he did like a tipple. And then right here he’d write his wonderful stories about Inspector Morse. Quite famously at the time, there was an Irish bar manager called Eilish, and she was responsible for keeping him in check, making sure he behaved himself. So she’s almost as famous as Colin Dexter himself with the locals of Oxford.
Felice A lot of episodes were filmed here?
Phil Yes there were a few that feature certainly the front of the building and Inspector Morse having a drink himself in the Morse Bar. So now we’re quite pleased to have that connection. I hadn’t realised until I started working here quite how big Inspector Morse was in the UK and there’s a huge fan base that follow him and come here and have photos taken in the bar.
Felice What about the modern version: Endeavour?
Phil Yes, that’s kept it going. So there was Lewis after Inspector Morse and now Endeavour, of course. So yes, probably one of the longest-running detective series, if you take all those three elements together and I’m sure it will continue. That’s the ground floor done, did you want to and see a couple of bedrooms?
What we have here are four meeting spaces that I haven’t shown you yet. Three of them are in use on the first floor, which have beautiful high ceiling views over the Martyrs Memorial and the Ashmolean Museum. We plan to potentially change those into bedrooms in the future, but at the moment they make terrific meeting spaces.
Here is the library – again, another beautiful meeting space. We start our refurbishment project here on Monday and then soon after that, end of the week we’ll be able to rent this space out for four private meetings, boardrooms and so forth.
Felice The flags in the atrium, I suppose, the sort of central bit of the building?
Phil Yes, these flags, they go from the fourth floor all the way down to the ground floor, so it’s a beautiful art installation that we have here. What they are, they depict the colleges…the college emblems from around from around Oxford.
Peter A very colourful display.
Phil I just think it really warms the space. It’s a big open space so it always needed something just to give it a bit of a bit of decoration, and it works perfectly.
Felice I see two bikes down there with helmets. Are they for people to borrow?
Phil That’s right, good spot. So, we have four wonderful bikes with baskets on the front and it’s free for our guests to rent, first come – first serve. We’ve got a little map of where they can go around Oxford, beautiful canal cycles and the meadows and the botanical gardens, and you can go and see all the sites free of charge and give yourself a tour.
One of our lovely suites is called an Oxford Suite. We have three categories of suite, the Oxford Suite, the Randolph Suites and the Royal Suite. So here in one of the Oxford Suites we’ve got a beautiful view again across the front of the building on Beaumont Street to the Ashmolean, and you get to see the full grandeur of that building, which is, I believe, the first ever museum. Then behind it we’ve got a beautiful big king-size bed with Oscar Wilde above and Alice in Wonderland and the rabbit on either side of the bed.
Felice The wallpaper looks quite in keeping with the era of the hotel.
Phil Yes, that’s right. Like mentioning the Victorian Gothic interiors were very bold designs and here you’ve got this beautiful floral blue patterned wallpaper that goes from floor to ceiling, and then you’ve got the bold design on the carpets as well.
Peter The carpets throughout is spectacular. Do you have those specially made?
Phil Yes, bespoke patterned, bespoke made for the hotel. On the bed here you can see the throw that’s based on a knit of an Oxford jumper. A couple of things here: a microscope invented in Oxford, so that’s a nod to that. William Morris, a famous poet and artist based in Oxford.
Here this is this ship that used to carry when you weren’t allowed when women weren’t allowed to study. Here in Oxford, in the UK, ladies used to go across on the boat to Ireland to study in the equivalent college there, where they were allowed. So that was the mid to late 1800s.
Peter Trinity College, Dublin.
Phil That’s it.
Felice There is a touch of William Morris style to the wallpaper.
Phil So it isn’t an actual William Morris print, but it’s certainly a nod to it. There’s one more picture in here, I quite like this one. This chap here is the founding member of the Oxford Dangerous Sport Society jumping into water. He’s doing the first-ever bungee jump.
Peter With a top hat on and pipe in his mouth and tailcoat, that’s it.
Phil Rather him than me.
Peter Well, especially if you’re not quite sure the rope is going to work.
Phil Yes, that’s right. Did you notice on your key card that you might have a famous person?
Felice Yes, we have Oscar Wilde on one.
Phil I’ve got Lewis Carroll here, and one of them was Margaret Thatcher.
Felice Who’ve we got? Oscar Wilde and J.R.R. Tolkien, both students at Oxford.
Phil Famously Tolkien would drink at the Lamb & Flag pub just around the corner here.
Felice There’s just so much history. They seem to be mainly writers and artists, the people you’ve mentioned, you know: Oscar Wilde, Tolkien.
Peter It’s more sensible to mention them than politicians on the whole, at the moment.
Phil Yes, absolutely. We had a few mathematicians and of course Stephen Hawking went to Cambridge but then came here to follow on his studies. So yes, there’s certainly plenty of influential, intelligent, clever people across the years that have come through Oxfordshire.
Peter Excluding politicians.
Peter So Felice, what do you think of the hotel overall?
Felice It’s very traditional, but the best thing about it is its position, which is so central, really, really good for that. And they have valet parking, so they take your car away and you don’t see it again til it’s time to go, which is good, because I think parking wouldn’t be that easy. Our bedroom was huge, absolutely enormous. It was a suite but even so, the bedrooms are big as well. The bathroom had amazing views, a great big gothic window with views out onto Oxford. But as I said, traditionally decorated, they have redecorated it. But in keeping with the original style.
Peter Yes, overall I think it’s a pretty fine hotel. I actually stayed here once, but I think about 40 years ago and I can remember it quite well in those days. It was a little bit run down, but still an important part of the Oxford scene. And the makeover has been very traditional, they’ve maintained the same spirit of the hotel. You wouldn’t call it cutting edge, but it’s certainly a comfortable place to stay.
Oxford’s history, and the spirit of the past, is everywhere, and as you say, the convenience is fantastic. I particularly like the little touches, like the free bikes with baskets. If you’ve never been to Oxford, you’ll discover when you get there that this is a town of bicycles. Every undergraduate and indeed every graduate is out there on a bike. Bikes actually have priority over cars on some roads. It’s the best way, unquestionably, to get around. I’d definitely come back here.
Felice If you want to find out more about the hotel or make a booking, go to GraduateHotels.com
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