Oxford Stories and Tips

Christchurch College--Tom Quad and the Thames watermeadows

This honey-colored sprawl is a world to itself -a world of towers, cloisters, morning choirs, and stained-glassed windows. It is the biggest, richest, and most pretentious college and has been producing scholars, clergymen, and prime ministers for hundreds of years as well as the hiding place for a king in its magnificent cathedral -which doubles as the city's cathedral.

It also has to be the biggest college and needs at least an hour to do it justice. Situated south of the 'High,' it occupies the ground above, where the two rivers--Cherwell and Isis (the Isis comes from the Latin name for the Thames, Tamesis)--meet, and so is laid out in beautiful watermeadows, making it one of the most idyllic and rural-looking of the colleges.

It's hard to mention which is the better approach to Christchurch. If you can manage it, then come from the south across the playing fields and watermeadows along Broad Walk, which will bring you directly to the entrance at Meadow buildings. Most people, however, come from the north, from 'the High.' Here any alley will bring you into the oldest part of Oxford and the area containing its most prestigious colleges, i.e., Christchurch, Oriel, and Merton.

The alleys themselves are very pretty and used as racetracks by the city's student population; each leads to Blue Boar Street (named after a long-gone pub) and Merton Street, both of which head to Christchurch College. If it is open, then poke your head into Merton College. This one claims to be the oldest--founded in 1264 by Walter de Merton with statues of him and King Henry III glaring at you from the gate tower.

The quad is particularly impressive here, and the Gothic chapel is one of the landmarks of the south skyline of Oxford. Although I have not seen it, the east window in particular is meant to be one of the best in Europe. Merton enjoys the best of academic reputations with T. S. Eliot, Robert Morley, and Kris Kristofferson (eh?) among its past graduates.

Although there are entrances to Tom Tower on St. Aldates and Peckwater Quad on Merton Street, you will probably be directed to the main entrance to the south on the Board Walk. Bowler-hatted porters are in charge of all entrances to the college and are part of college life. The colleges used to have curfews in days gone by, and these beadles would man the gates embarrassing any drunken student who rolled in after hours. Now they just help tourists and keep an eye on the students - they are part of some of the few Oxford traditions that remain.

The advantage of the entrance via the Meadow buildings is that you get a chance to have a look at the green expanses that roll down to the river. On a sunny day, these are covered with students, and there used to be dairy cows penned up at the far end in sight of students scribbling away at late essays.

Entrance is £3 and gives you admittance to the cathedral and dining room. At any time, these might be closed, and especially so in June/July (examination time). You'll be given a small pamphlet that explains the history of the college.

And what a history it has been! It was built on the site of the tomb of Oxford's patron saint, Frideswilde. Who? Yes, she who lived in 680 A.D. and was perceived to have miraculous powers. Something for the feminists--she cured scrofula and defects in babies, but when when her husband pursued her to Oxford, he was suddenly struck blind by a word from God.

A monastery was constructed around her tomb. Lady Montacute, in 1488, left the surrounding farmland to the college and chapel and so saved the watermeadows we see around us today. There was relative peace until Henry VIII performed the dissolution of the monasteries and kicked all the monks out. His sidekick, the powerful Cardinal Wolsely, took an active interest in the college, which he named Cardinal after himself. After his fall from grace, it was called Christchurch College, but both cathedral and college were separated and the diocese of Oxford created.

In the civil war, Oxford threw in with the royalists, and the current dean's buildings were the royal quarters for the awful Charles I and his Catholic queen, Henrietta Maria. Oxford eventually fell to the Parliamentarians and the king fled northwards. In revenge for supporting the royalists, Cromwell kicked out the dean and replaced him with his own man. Interestingly enough, during the civil war the colleges supported the king, but the ordinary people supported the Parliamentarians--a division that still persists today.

As you enter through the Meadow building, you are directed left into the great hall. Here a sandstone grand staircase leads up to the college dining rooms. The 500 students who live here also dine here amongst the wood beam roof and stuffy portraits. The staircase leading up to it - according to a notice at the entrance - has been featured as Hogwarts in the last three Harry Potter films.

As you leave, you open into the great set piece of Christchurch - the Tom Quad. This expanse is colossal, about the size of a football pitch, and covered in rolling green lawn. A fountain and statue of Mercury stand in the middle. Its name, Tom Quad, is due to the enormous bell in the looming Tom Tower, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. More important for the students is that it also signals lunch and dinner. A small doorway on the southern side leads to the magnificent Christchurch Cathedral.

It's difficult to describe how spectacular this is. The first time I saw it in 1989 was also the year I first visited Paris, and looking at the ceiling of Notre Dame, I thought France's national cathedral had a ceiling far inferior to Christchurch.

You need at least half an hour to do this church justice, and as you slowly walk around its edges, more and more becomes apparent. The original church has been expanded and is now built in the shape of a cross. The vast nave is mainly compiled of choir stalls, while seating for Oxford residents is around the side. Beside the entrance is a stained-glass window of Jonah with the city of Ninevah depicted as a sort of Old Testament timeshare community. The church has four areas for praying; one of these is for St. Frideswilde, whose adventures are depicted in bright stained glass in the Latin chapel.

The Bell altar stands nearby and was created to commemorate the memory of Bishop Bell, who was against the bombing of German cities in WWII. The main altar is rather golden and Catholic. But it is here that you look up at the ceiling, laced by remarkable vaulted chancel made up of hundreds of intricate star-shaped patterns to create the image of heaven. The vault stretches all the way along the nave and is enhanced by 60 beautiful stone pendants hanging gracefully over the congregation.

The Catherine window is worth a look, as the woman depicted was Edith Liddell--the sister of Alice Liddell, who was Lewis Carroll's inspiration for Alice in Wonderland. Outside in the quad, there's a over-long video showing the history of the college, but most people head along to Peckwater Quad and the Portrait Gallery.

This costs a further £2 and contains a number of Italian masters along with Holbein's famous portrait of King Henry VIII. There is plenty of space for Christchurch's own famous alumni--Sir Robert Peel, John Wesley, W. H. Auden, Auberon Waugh, and two prime ministers (Anthony Eden and Gladstone). Christchurch is probably the most conservative and "establishment" of the colleges and can be a little intimidating.

But just remember as you are ambling along -those potential MPs and bishops all around you are off to boring lectures, whilst you, dear tourist, are probably off to the pub. Ain't that a crying shame . . .

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