This September, I had the privilege of spending a week in Oxford, England, while taking a course on the history of the British/American relationship. The program was a collaboration between the University of Virginia and Oxford University.
Oxford, a city in Oxfordshire, located about 56 miles northwest of London, is of course home to Oxford University, one of the oldest and most esteemed universities in the world. While there, I heard several claims about which college within the university (there are approximately 38) is the oldest. It seems to be a close toss up between University College, Balliol College and Merton College, all with founding dates in the mid 13th century.
One of the attractions for me in attending my seminar was the opportunity to stay and take meals in student lodgings and dining halls. Turns out, during certain vacation weeks of the year, and at select colleges, when regular, enrolled students are not in classes, members of the public (and groups like the one I was with) can book these lodgings on a “Bed and Breakfast” basis. While my week-long program was based at Trinity College, I arrived a day early, and managed to book a room at Christ Church College. I stayed one night at Christ Church College, on my own, before joining up with the group at nearby Trinity College the next day.
To book a B&B room at Oxford, as well as at other universities, go to universityrooms.com and see what’s available. Be aware that there may be stairs, and unless the booking specifies “en suite” bathroom, you’ll need to literally relive your college days and head down the hall.
I chose to stay my first night at Christ Church College for several reasons. First, Christ Church College, founded by Cardinal Wolsey in 1526, also serves as the cathedral seat for the Oxford Diocese of the Church of England, and I wished to stay nearby to easily tour the church and attend Evensong services there. (Not to mention to walk in the steps of famous Christ Church College alumni like William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, and John Locke.) Second, Christ Church College was the filming location of some of the pivotal scenes in the Harry Potter films, and its dining hall was essentially recreated in a movie studio to serve as the Hogwarts dining hall (yes, the one with the floating candles!). Finally, Charles Dodgson (pen name, Lewis Carroll), resided and taught at Christ Church College, and wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland for Alice Liddle, the dean’s daughter, and there are many things to see to connect the visitor with him and his imagination.
My first night at Christ Church College, after attending Evensong at the Cathedral with music sung by the exquisitely prepared Cathedral Choir (men and boys), founded nearly 500 years ago, then wandering alone around the dimly lit corridors, medieval cloisters, stone stairwells and the central green of the college, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. The main entrance to the college is through Tom Gate, at the base of Tom Tower, a striking structure designed by Christopher Wren (more famous for designing St. Paul’s Cathedral in London), built in 1681-2. The bell in Tom Tower rings 101 times each night shortly after 9 pm, to represent the original scholars of the college. I happened to be sitting in the quad when the bell tolled. Utterly magical.
In the center of Tom Quad is a fountain featuring a statue of Mercury. If you watch the video, you can hear the splashing water of the fountain.
For most non-student visitors to Christ Church College, however, the biggest attractions involve the Harry Potter films. The Great Hall, or dining hall, was recreated in a studio to serve as the dining hall for the wizard school, Hogwarts. There were many logistical reasons for not using the real Great Hall for filming. Astute observers will note that in the Harry Potter films, there four long tables in the dining hall, representing the four houses of Hogwarts, but in the real Great Hall, which is narrower than the recreated one, there are three tables.
If you stay at Christ Church on a B&B basis, you get the otherworldly experience of taking breakfast in the Great Hall. Here’s the menu, below.
Another famous Harry Potter film location is the Bodley Tower staircase, which leads up to the Great Hall. Several scenes were filmed here, including when Harry and the other first years first encounter Professor McGonagall (played by Maggie Smith).
Other scenes in various Harry Potter films were filmed in Christ Church College’s Cloisters, including this area, below,.
Filming locations are found at other colleges in Oxford. You can purchase a book that describes them.
Charles Dodgson, who wrote under the pen name Lewis Carroll, taught maths at the college, and lived on the grounds. It is said that many features of Christ Church College fueled his imagination when he wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865. The original brass andirons in the Great Hall, which presumably depict Cardinal Wolsey (note the hat), are believed to have inspired the idea that Alice’s neck grew preposterously long.
A portrait of Charles Dodgson hangs at the rear of the Great Hall.
The view out of my room at Christ Church College looked into the private Dean’s garden, and it is believed that the tree the Cheshire Cat (Alice Liddle’s cat) inhabited still stands within. I believe it is one of the trees to the left of the photo.
It is said that Charles Dodgson spent a lot of time with Alice Liddell in Christ Church Meadow, an area that houses cattle as well as playing fields, bordering two branches of the Thames River, the Rivers Cherwell and Isis. These rivers are known for the use of flat bottomed boats steered with a long pole, called “punting.”
And as someone who treasures Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, I must share this poster that I spotted on the wall of the Oxford University Press bookstore.
A word on my accommodations at Christ Church College:
My room was on the third floor (which in America, would be considered the fourth floor) of the Meadow Building, below, a Venetian Gothic structure that borders the Meadow. My room faced into the college grounds. The arch in the photo below is where tourists enter at times when the college is open for visitors (there is a fee). Students, non-tourists (including B&B guests), and people attending services at the Cathedral enter through the Tom Gate (see top of post). B&B guests check in at the Porters’ Lodge, just inside Tom Gate.
I had my choice of several buildings when I booked my room. Another choice was Peckwater Quad, pictured below.
If you venture out at night, be prepared to be greeted by a massive, wooden door when you return. It was a bit tricky to figure out how to use my key card to get this door to open!
There are many other nooks and crannies to explore within Christ Church College.
B&B accommodations at Christ Church are offered only during limited time periods, around Easter and in the summer, which includes September, when school is not in session. The fall semester at English colleges begins in early October. Click here for more information or here. And I can attest that September is a lovely time to visit.