This account is a part of the Summer Adventures ‘17 project, my attempt to try something new every day from June 1st to August 31st, while keeping a record of those experiences. Started as a way to commit the summer to memory, the project has quickly evolved into a visual diary, with a side of research and poorly executed jokes. Knock knock.
Climbing the University Church tower has been on my list of adventures (the term is used here loosely) for a while. Although something of a tourist trap, the top of the tower is supposed to provide the most breathtaking views of Oxford, with all four cardinal directions visible. Finally, I had arranged to meet a friend — hello, Becky! — at the bottom of the building this afternoon, and we ascended the stairs all the way up, until there were no more stairs left.
Once at the top, you are greeted by the statues and the gargoyles — my favourite is the nun gleefully holding her breasts, lest they fall out of the habit.
The University Church of St Mary the Virgin as a concept dates to at least 1252, when the building was adopted for not just sermon, but also university meetings. The oldest remaining part of the church is, in fact, its tower, built around 1270. The steeple’s relative architectural simplicity serves as a marker: the main body of the church is significantly more ornate, having been rebuilt in the 15th and 16th centuries in the Perpendicular style. (The Perpendicular style is a fine example of the High Gothic and has buildings look as if they were beautiful mushrooms with exquisitely formed gills.) In addition to the Gothic parts of building, there is also, of course, the south porch of St Mary’s, designed by Nicholas Stone in 1637 and resembling the Trevi Fountain — minus the fountain.
The way up is via a narrow spiral staircase that ends with a door opening in the northwest corner of the rooftop. That is just above the level of the church clock and significantly lower than the uppermost point of the spire, decorated with a figure of a rooster. Once at the top, you are greeted by the statues and the gargoyles — my favourite is the nun gleefully holding her breasts, lest they fall out of the habit. All but one of the statues date to 1894 and are work of George Frampton, the same artist who designed the sculpture of Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens and the lions before the the British Museum. He was a man of diverse legacy.
The views from St Mary’s, as expected, are spectacular. High Street lies directly beneath, in its pastel-coloured glory, and the famous dreaming spires can be counted one by one: the onion head of Tom Tower on Christ Church grounds (far left in the picture above), the colonnade of the Lincoln College library (on the right in the picture above), Nuffield College and the green pyramid of Saïd Business School, spikes of All Souls College, Magdalen and Merton towers, Christ Church Cathedral – all of these landmarks are within view, forming the architectural ensemble that is Oxford skyline.
Another thing to spot while at the top of the University Church is the graffiti. Left by previous students over the course of centuries, the inscriptions consist of names, dates, and — sometimes — colleges. You come across mentions of now defunct parts of the University, such as Charsley’s Hall or Gloucester College. While the tradition of defacing the stones of St Mary’s has continued to this day, modern tourists, sadly, put much less effort into their graffiti. A blue-ink pen scribble is inferior to a signature carved in Baskerville typeface with a knife. I loathe to think what this change might mean for the state of British education.
High Street lies directly beneath, in its pastel-coloured glory, and the famous dreaming spires can be counted one by one.
A visit to the University Church tower costs £3 and is, in my mind, worth every penny. Be aware though that it is narrow at the top and you might have to squeeze into the walls to let other people pass. That previous sentence was not a metaphor, but if you are fond of metaphors, St Mary’s tower is not unlike the belfry from In Bruges, and, my, that scenery was to die for.
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