There is something of a fairytale about Magdalen (pronounced Maudlin) College. On a misty morning when the medieval belltower looms above the trees and river, the sound of choristers singing Latin grace melts through the air and the whole place seems otherworldly.
For my mind, it is a toss-up between Magdalen and Merton for the title of most enchanting -Magdalen may just pip it - after all, Merton can't compete with it's Cherwell setting and very English deer park set at the rear. It is also one of the most popular colleges, and catches everyone's attention as they enter Oxford from the east across the Magdalen Bridge.
As an Oxford College it is abit of a newcomer - founded only in 1488 by William Waynflete, Bishop of Winchester. It was he who mispelt the name of the college on the founder''s statues as "Maudelyne," and today it is pronouced "Maudlin" instead of "Magdalen."
The makeup of the college still attests to those times--a President, seventy scholars, sixteen choristers, and twelve ordinary men. There are a mere 600 students and gaining a place at the college is a minor miracle--such is the demand. Undergraduates are taught in tutorials, often one-on-one, and the yellow stone buildings contain five ancient libraries some with books going back to 1493.
You can't miss Magdalen. It stands at the far eastern end of "the High" and its belltower (see photo) is a Oxford landmark. Originally built in 1492 and completed in 1509, it houses one of Oxford's most popular celebrations - the Mayday early morning Latin mass. "Te Deum" is sung in the tower on what is usually a chilly Mayday morning in a tradition that goes back to 1620s. It was discontinued in the 18th century as the students and populace got out of hand and threw rotting fruit at each other.
During the 1642-45 Civil War, Oxford was the Royalist stronghold and Magdalen, the front line. Its belltower was used for spotting approaching Parliamentarian troops. However, the city was never attacked.
Entrance to Magdalen is about £3.00 and is at the discretion of the college authorities. Often it is closed in the mornings and visitors are not allowed in until 1pm. But take heart--this is one college you should make the effort to see. Once through, you are given a map and pamphlet and let into the magnificent St. John''s Quadrangle (see photo). Honey-colored stone buildings surrounding a cobbled courtyard greet you along with leering gargoyles.
Statues of kings guard the passages into the colleges and all around you is the whoosh of students rushing to tutorials. Up high on the ivy-covered walls of the college is an outdoor pulpit where a sermon is preached on the nearest Sunday to the feast of St. John the Baptist.
While to the left is the usually out-of-bounds St. Swithins Halls and Presidents buildings, the green lawns of the quadrangle are worth a peek. But most people backtrack to the turning near the entrance and the chaplain''s quadrangle. This is surrounded by ancient carved gothic stone tracery and statues of Christ looking down at you--but more importantly is the entrance to the esteemed chapel.
Most visitors lose their breath when entering here as there is too much detail to really take in. The chapel itself is protected behind a rood screen, so visitors can''t get near the altar, carvings, or choir stalls, but there is so much to see in the stone ante-chapel. The West window is made of magnificent stained glass dating back to 1637. To its left is a copy of The Last Supper by Giampetrino. By the door is a beautiful painted box dating from the 15th century--and who doesn''t love a good tomb? Here lies the founder of the cathedral, Richard Patten, who lies with arms crossed and looking up with a vacant expression, permanently bemused by all the tourists looking at him.
The passage to the right of St. John's Quadrangle, leading to the Cloister Quadrangle, this is one of the loveliest in Oxford. A beautifully kept green lawn is surrounded by a medieval cloister and ivy-clad cream buildings. Statues of kings and gargoyles watch the students lazing on the lawns whilst the cloisters echo with the sound of tourists.
The ever-creeping growth of the wisteria plant clambers over everything--holy statues of the saints glare down on the sinners. And numerous sinners have attended Magdalen--most famously Edward VIII (Bertie the Bounder) and Oscar Wilde, and as well as such paragons of virtue such as Cardinal Wolsey, Dudley Moore, and Sir John Betjeman. Here lie many tutorial rooms and if it is not in use, the dining room is worth a look with huge portraits on the walls and the smell of roast beef and gravy lingering in the air.
By this time you may need some fresh air and if you leave the cloisters via the eastern exit, the gardens follow the river Cherwell and upstream a small bridge takes you to Addison Walk and the college watermeadows. But most people head for the baroque New College buildings - "new" meaning" built in 1733. The vast lawn is usually strewn with students with their heads in books and the building itself was the workplace for Edward Gibbon and CS Lewis as well as seven Nobel Prize winners.
I like the tree on the edge of the green planted in 1801 to celebrate the peace of Amiens. The tree is withered and gnarled and reeks of ancient Oxford. When I first came here in 1989 I remember getting shouted at by one of the porters as I swung on one of its branches.
My memories of seeing the deer park a little further on are still fresh. Back then it was rutting season and the meadow rang to the sounds of clashing stags. The harts are still there from July to September, and the herd numbers around sixty. While Bambi may look cute peacefully grazing beneath the elm trees, they have their uses to the college--notably serving as the main course at the dinner table.
Ummmmmm...now where''s my knife and fork?