(If you missed Part 1, click HERE. Sadly, the weather was still grey on our second day so the photos are still a bit dark and dreary – but I hope you’ll still enjoy them! 🙂 )
One of the things I was most excited about, on my recent visit back to Oxford, was seeing my old college again. I hadn’t been back to visit Christ Church in the 15 years since we left England and it had been such a huge part of my life for so long, with so many happy memories…
Just like the rest of Oxford, Christ Church seemed hardly to have changed much from my student days. Well, except that there seemed to be a lot more barriers and signs directing tourists – a side effect of the Harry Potter movies being filmed in many parts of the college!
Christ Church has always had more tourists than most other colleges – as students, we’d got used to seeing strangers wandering through our dining hall, past our dorm staircases, peering at us through the library windows as we studied, and taking photos of us as we went about our day…
…but now that number seemed to have doubled, tripled, as every Harry Potter fan on the planet makes this one of their top stops on their pilgrimage.
In particular, every fan wants to see the Hall – our dining hall which provided the inspiration for the movies, where Harry and his friends met the Sorting Hat, ate their meals and watched the tutors at High Table… just like students do in real life at Christ Church. Well, except that we don’t have an enchanted ceiling nor owls to deliver our morning mail. 😉
But even without the magical embellishments, the Hall is still pretty spectacular. It was weird walking in and looking around – at 19, I had never really appreciated it properly. It was just the place I ate dinner and sometimes lunch and did Collections (exams) at the beginning of term – whereas this time, I stood there and thought, “Wow.”
Christ Church has both Informal Hall and Formal Hall each night – I usually went to the latter, mainly because it was a later sitting so not such a rush if I was late back from the labs, but also because – to be honest – I quite enjoyed having to “dress for dinner”. 😉 Formal Hall requires that men wear a jacket & tie and women something “decent” (no jeans), plus we had to wear our academic gowns on top. If you didn’t have your gown, you couldn’t go in to eat.
The meal was always preceded by Grace said in Latin and was a formal three-course affair served by uniformed staff. It’s a real experience and we were thinking of reliving it on our one night in Oxford but in the end decided that it would probably be weird sitting there surrounded by students we didn’t know – so we went to have dinner in our favourite Indian restaurant instead!
They didn’t actually film the Harry Potter movies in the real Hall as it would have been too disruptive so they built a replica on set – but they did film some scenes on the grand staircase leading up to the Hall. In fact, they were filming the first movie in our last year in Oxford and we happened to see Dame Maggie Smith in her witch costume going up the staircase – it was quite thrilling! 🙂
Even without the associated fame of Harry Potter, Christ Church is a must-see for every visitor to Oxford. It is probably one of the grandest colleges – it certainly has the largest main quadrangle, affectionately known as “Tom Quad” – after Tom Tower, which guards the main gate of the college.
There is a huge bell inside Tom Tower which tolls 101 times at 9:05pm every night – to recall in the 101 students who were the original members of Christ Church. (And if you’re wondering why 9:05 – that’s because it follows “Oxford Time” which is 5 minutes behind GMT. Yes, it’s one of those idiosyncrasies of Oxford!) It also tolls every hour and the deep sound of that great bell is one of my most vivid memories of life at Oxford.
Christ Church is quite an austere college – unlike many of the smaller colleges, the quads are quite bare and there aren’t pretty flower displays or elegant landscaped trees and shrubbery to soften the formal spaces. Still, you can’t beat it for sheer majestic grandeur.
Again, it’s one of those things I took for granted at 19 – if anything, it was slightly annoying how big it was because if you were late for a lecture, it took ages to walk across it! – but now I understand better why tourists would come in and stand staring. It is quite breathtaking.
Christ Church is unique amongst the Oxford colleges in that its chapel is also the cathedral for the diocese of Oxford and members of the community are often seen coming to choral Evensong and to services on Sunday. We decided that since we were skipping dinner in Hall, we’d at least attend Evensong and although I’m not religious, it was quite a magical experience – sitting in the beautiful candlelit interior of the cathedral, listening to the harmony between the voices of the college choir and the notes of the organ.
The cathedral is surrounded by ancient cloisters and I used to have to walk through them every day to get to my room – they could get very spooky, especially at night. The murder scene in Two Down, Bun To Go, the third book in my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries is inspired by my memories of walking through the cloisters! 😉
Some parts of the college have been modernised – such as the “Plodge” (Porter’s Lodge) and I found that a bit disturbing, which is silly really – the new modern porter’s lodge is so much nicer but I guess you like to hold on to your memories!
The other thing that was a bit sad was that none of the custodians I knew were there anymore. They had all retired and been replaced with “strangers”. They were still lovely and friendly, though, and we got chatting to several of them.
Custodians are another thing that’s unique about Christ Church. Also known as “bulldogs”, they are a distinctive sight in their bowler hats and black coats and suits. They guard the entrances to the college and direct the tourists around – but for me at the time, a young student away from home for the first time, they also provided a friendly, fatherly presence around the college.
Two Down, Bun To Go is dedicated to the custodians who were at Christ Church during my time there, as well as my scout, Jean. 🙂
Of course, no visit to Christ Church would be complete without seeing my old room. I didn’t actually get to see inside my old room (as I didn’t think the current student living there would appreciate me knocking on the door and asking to look around! And actually, I don’t think I would have wanted to see my room filled with someone else’s things!) – but I did get to see it from the outside and pick out my old window.
My room was on the top floor of the Meadow Building, up eight flights of stairs, and I kept the same room the whole time I was at Christ Church, so it has a special place in my heart.
I had a view of Christ Church Meadow from my window and I loved it. It was so beautiful and serene to look out and see how the meadow changed with the seasons, from the daffodils in spring to the misty floods in winter.
I often used to walk around the Meadow by myself, early on Sunday mornings, when I was a student… and I was delighted to see that the herd of English Longhorn cattle was still there 🙂 – although I think my special favourite, Hercules the bull, is long gone.
The Poplar Walk (above) leads from Christ Church down to the River Thames at the bottom of the Meadow, where it joins the Christ Church Meadow Walk – my favourite walk in Oxford. Those of you who’ve read Muffins and Mourning Tea (Book 5 in my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries) will know the important role that path plays in the story…!
We were excited to see a squirrel collecting some autumn nuts. Yes, I know – British readers are probably rolling their eyes 😉 but hey, after 15 years Down Under, where we only ever see possums and fruit bats and kookaburras, a squirrel is a real novelty!
After the brisk walk, it was time for some tea – and we decided to treat ourselves to a posh Afternoon Tea at the Randolph Hotel…
It was a lovely way to end a lovely day!
To be continued…
Coming Soon: Visit to the Cotswolds!
Following my time in Oxford, I spent a morning in Burford, one of the nearby Cotswolds villages – and part of the inspiration for the quaint little village of Meadowford-on-Smythe in my Oxford Tearoom Mysteries.
Story & pictures coming up next on the blog!