The Sheldonian Theatre

The Sheldonian Theatre

One of the most classically-inspired buildings in Oxford is Sir Christopher Wren’s Sheldonian Theatre. It was built as a ceremonial and assembly hall for the University of Oxford. Previously, the University Church had been used for large University gatherings and ceremonies. Archbishop Sheldon, former student of Trinity College and Chancellor of the University from 1667 to 1669, decided that the University had outgrown the church and pledged some of his own money for a new building. He ended up paying for the entire project, around 12x what he had anticipated. On this basis, it seemed reasonable for it to be named after him.

Sheldon approached Christopher Wren, who was the Savilian Professor of Astronomy and was just at the beginning of his architectural career. Wren’s only big project to date had been the chapel of Pembroke College, Cambridge. So, he looked around for inspiration and found the Theatre of Marcellus in Rome. As you can see, he didn’t copy it exactly. His main addition, of course, was a roof. Given the notoriously unpredictable and frequently rainy British weather, he decided that building it without one was not an option.

This (below) was how the Sheldonian originally looked. As you can see, the roof was surrounded by oval windows. This was partly because it was to house the Oxford University Press, but the windows proved impractical and leaky and were removed in the 19th century. The cupola was also later re-designed by Edward Blore. However, the original roof was an impressive structure, all the more so because it spanned 70 foot without using any columns at all.

Photo: Wikimedia commons. From Wellcome Images, Fae 2014

Photo: Wikimedia commons. From Wellcome Images, Fae 2014

This (below) is what the Sheldonian Theatre looks like today. It serves for large University gatherings: matriculation and graduation ceremonies and meetings of Congregation, the sovereign body of the University consisting of about 5,500 members – unfortunately, they can’t all come at once, since the Sheldonian today has a capacity of 750 people. This also means that the University of Oxford doesn’t just have one ‘Graduation Day’ but has around 20 per year.

Photo  © Victoria Bentata 2020

Inside, the theatre is as impressive as it is outside, in particular because of its extraordinary ceiling. This consists of 32 panels, painted by Robert Streater, who was the court painter to Charles II. Take a look at it. It may not be immediately obvious, but you are looking at a cloud on the background of a blue sky with a red cloth rolled back around it. Criss-crossing the ceiling are golden ropes. In Roman theatres, the lack of a roof was compensated by such a cloth, which was pulled across the open roof in inclement weather. Christopher Wren was clearly at pains to pretend that there wasn’t really a roof to his building. However, the advantage of the painted ceiling was that the sky could be populated with all the representatives of the arts and sciences seated around a cherub representing truth. The ceiling was teaching a lesson about the supremacy of truth over the University disciplines and, unfortunately not visible here, it also shows ignorance being expelled. Ignorance is a man with snake for hair, who appears below the bottom of this picture. If you want to see him, come to Oxford and let us show you the Sheldonian Theatre. The ceiling was also apparently an allegory celebrating the Restoration of the British Monarchy under Charles II after the years under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritans.

Photo Wikimedia commons by DeFacto

Have a look at the following picture to see the interior of the Sheldonian during a Matriculation Ceremony. Matriculation is when new students are officially added to the ‘Matricula’ or University membership roll and become full members of the University. The students have to wear the University of Oxford’s uniform, the ‘Sub Fusc’ – white shirt, black trousers/skirt, black gown and mortar board hat. You can see them all here.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Toby Ord 2003

Photo: Wikimedia Commons Toby Ord 2003

Here you can see a photo from a Graduation Ceremony. The Pro-Vice Chancellor presiding is wearing an MA gown, whilst the graduate bowing to her is just being awarded his DPhil, which is the Oxford equivalent of a PhD.

Photo:  © Victoria Bentata

At Walking Tours of Oxford, we would be delighted to take you to the Sheldonian Theatre and point out some of the fascinating features of the building. You can even climb up to the Cupola for a fabulous view of central Oxford.

 © Victoria Bentata 2020 for Walking Tours of Oxford

The Perfect Oxford Visit

The Perfect Oxford Visit

‘I want to see Oxford University…. and I only have one day in my schedule. What should I do?’
At Walking Tours of Oxford, we are used to answering this question.

We have lots of ideas, but one of our favourites is to combine our own ‘Simply Oxford Tour’ with a visit to Oxford’s most magnificent college – Christ Church – or one of our fine museums (see previous blogs).

Getting here
Perhaps you are staying in London? If so, you can have a leisurely breakfast and still make it to Oxford in time for our Simply Oxford Tour at 11.30 a.m. Take the train from either Paddington or Marylebone Station and arrive for 11am.
We meet at Christ Church, which is to the south of the city, so from the Train Station, head for Carfax Tower in the very centre of Oxford. Then walk down the hill on St Aldate’s street, staying on the left hand side of the road. First, you will see a very imposing 17th century tower. This is ‘Tom Tower’ and it is the everyday entrance to the college for students and academics. Continue down the road to a large set of gates with a shield above it which leads into the beautiful War Memorial garden. This is where your Walking Tours of Oxford guide will meet you.

The Simply Oxford Tour
Click here for further information
This is led by our Institute of Tourist Guiding qualified guides, which makes all the difference!
We will give you the perfect introduction to the City and the University of Oxford and answer all your questions. Where is the University? (Answer: everywhere (!) but we will explain….) What is the relationship between the colleges and the University? (complicated, but interesting…) How do you apply? How do you get a place? What can you study? What is student life like? Can you tell us about Oxford’s history and traditions? Where did they film Inspector Morse/Lewis/Endeavour/Harry Potter?….
We will also show you the iconic buildings which make our city such a special place. Come with us to see the Bodleian Library, the Radcliffe Camera, the Sheldonian Theatre and a few of our 38 colleges.
Our tour will also equip you to make the most of your visit to Christ Church or the museums in your free afternoon.

Merton Street, Oxford. We will pass through on our Simply Oxford Tour

But first…. Lunch!

Lunch
We recommend lunch in a local pub after your Simply Oxford Tour. There are lots of traditional pubs in Oxford, but The Turf Tavern, down a secret passage under our beautiful Bridge of Sighs, is one of the oldest. It has lots of outdoor seating and serves traditional fare and good beer! If you are an Inspector Morse fan, you might like to try the White Horse on Broad Street, where Morse and Lewis liked to down a pint. For a student vibe, try the nearby Kings Arms. Or for something more sedate and academic, with the possibility of a free exhibition thrown in, head for the Weston Library café.

To the Turf Tavern!
Another one of our favourite pubs!

Why visit Christ Church?
Because… 1) it is huge, beautiful and old (founded 16th century by Cardinal Wolsey and re-founded by Henry VIII). 2) it has its own Cathedral. 3) It is where Alice in Wonderland was written. 4) It is a film location and you might recognise some Harry Potter scenes.
(To avoid queues, we recommend that you book tickets to Christ Church online, though you can only do this from the Thursday before your visit. Go to the college website and choose your time: Christ Church tickets
So, after lunch, head back to Carfax and follow our directions down to Christ Church again. This time, go through the Christ Church War Memorial Garden until you find the new Visitor Centre. It is in the style of a traditionally thatched cottage. Inside you will find a shop and restrooms and this is where you pick up your multimedia guide.
Christ Church multi-media guide is a real gem. It provides clear, concise explanations of the college’s history and architecture and it also has all sorts of extras – footage of the private parts of the college and interviews with students and academics. However, if you are a Harry Potter fan, you may want more information – which is where Walking Tours of Oxford can fill you in beforehand.

Tom Tower at Christ Church

Museum Visit
If you are still full of energy, you could squeeze in a visit to one of Oxford’s world-class museums. See previous Walking Tours of Oxford blogs for more about the Ashmolean Museum, the Oxford Museum of Natural History, the Museum of the History of Science and the Pitt Rivers Museum. Enjoy!

 © Victoria Bentata 2020 for Walking Tours of Oxford

VE Day celebrations in the UK

8th May 2020

On Friday 8th May, we celebrated VE Day here in the UK and I imagine all over Europe. It marked 75 years when World War 2 finally came to an end in Europe. It was to be another 3 months before the world was at peace.

In usual times, the celebrations would have involved large gatherings and parties all across the land. Here is my hometown, there was a Tea Dance planned. Of course, due to the Coronovirus pandemic, all events had to be cancelled.

Nonetheless, the British people still found a way to mark the occassion. We decorated our houses with anything we could find in red, white and blue. Initially I did not have any bunting so my talented daughter threw together some homemade bunting from off cuts.

We listend, not as in days gone by, on the wireless but with the benefit of being able to see on television, the address made all those years ago by Sir Winston Churchill. The birthplace of Churchill is located just 30 mins outside of Oxford near Woodstock – Blenheim palace which is the only non-royal, non-episcopal country house in England to hold the title of palace! It makes a great day out from Oxford and more details can be found here

Located nearby you can also visit the grave of Sir Winston Churchill in the graveyard of St Martin’s Church, Blandon. For more details See here

We then listened to the Queen speech before taking to our front gardens and driveways for a traditional afternoon tea!

Traditional afternoon tea

In my household, we hooked up with my sisters and parents via Zoom so that we could enjoy together whilst being apart.

After dinner and some family games, we watched more on television including listening to ‘We’ll Meet again’. The words more poignant than ever and I for one, cannot wait ‘to meet again’.

Our local pub might be closed but was still decorated!

We hope that tours will be up and running by September and look forward to welcoming you to Oxford. Stay safe.

Museum of The History of Science

When Albert Einstein lectured in Oxford in 1931, little did he know that 90 years later Oxford’s visitors would still be puzzling over his calculations. Einstein’s handwriting is clear though his equations are for most people – unfathomable. Nevertheless, the ‘Einstein Blackboard’ is today the most famous exhibit in Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science. See it here: Blackboard

Einstein himself grumbled about the Blackboard’s preservation. At the time he said it smacked of personality cult and in 1933 he objected that he had since discovered that everything he had said in the lecture was untrue (!). Needless to say, in the interests of tourism, the protests of the most famous scientist in history went unheeded.

In fact, as with all our University of Oxford museums, you can spend several days visiting virtually during lockdown. We thought we should just give you some history before you get started:

Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science was not the first occupant of the rather lovely limestone building on Broad Street that you can see in the photo. Opened in 1925, it grew from a much older Museum (discussed in a previous blog), the 17th century Ashmolean Museum. But right from the start, science featured. The original Ashmolean housed a lecture theatre, exhibition room and, in the basement, the University’s chemistry and anatomy laboratory.

Arguably the most interesting work took place in the basement, hidden from view, where the Tomlins Reader in Anatomy and his students would dissect people (!). By royal decree of Charles I in 1636, the body of anyone hanged within 21 miles of Oxford belonged to the University. Later medical students had to watch two dissections before qualifying. In today’s basement, you can still see some human bones and a skull (which someone should probably have buried).

Museum to The History of Science, Broad Street

You can also visit the largest collection of astrolabes in the world. What is an astrolabe? It is an instrument which helps in navigation and astronomy, in estimating the position of the sun and the stars. Many of our astrolabes come from the Islamic world and helped to ascertain prayer times and the direction of Mecca. Recently, the Museum of the History of Science collaborated with Syrian refugees in Oxford to put together an exhibition. Read their blog and see some astrolabes here: click here

Take the virtual tour Click here and don’t miss: The Penicillin exhibit in the basement. Penicillin was developed in Oxford in the 1940s by Professor Florey and his team. Here you can see not only the original bedpans and biscuit tins used to grow the mould (yes, they were short of research funding!), but even Professor Florey’s Nobel Prize medal.

For fans of Alice in Wonderland, see if you can find Lewis Carroll’s camera. Charles Dodgson (alias Lewis Carroll) was an accomplished photographer and even took some photos of the real Alice Liddell.

George III’s silver microscope is also stunning. But don’t take our word for it – browse the Museum Director’s top tips at Click here Stay well and enjoy!

When you come to Oxford, we recommend a trip to the museum either before or after a Walking Tours of Oxford tour. If you are particularly interested in Science and Medicine, we can even offer you a specialist Oxford Science and Medicine tour.
Private Tours

 © Victoria Bentata 2020 for Walking Tours of Oxford

Oxford’s Libraries – The Bodleian

Oxford’s Libraries – The Bodleian

Home to more than 100 libraries, Oxford is one of the most bookish cities in the world. Each of its 38 colleges has at least one library, some have two or three and Magdalen college has five! Every faculty has a specialised subject library and the mother of them all is the great Bodleian library.

The University’s first library (the Cobham Library) was in an upstairs room of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin and opened in 1320. In the days before damp proofing, keeping books as far as possible from the ground was the only way to save them from mouldering. Still today, a large number of our Oxford libraries are on upper floors.

However, Merton College breaks all records as the oldest ‘continuously functioning’ academic library in the world, dating from 1373. Merton’s books weren’t originally kept on shelves, but in a locked chest and only Masters of Arts could access them. Later, owing to their great value in the pre-printing world, they were chained to the shelves. You can visit the Merton College website for a virtual tour of this stunning library. Merton College . Notice the beautiful ‘waggon’ ceiling and take a look at some of the stained glass.

The Bodleian Library is positively modern by comparison, founded at the beginning of the 17th century. However, it is now one of the most important libraries in the world and in the UK is second only to London’s British Library.

It is named after Sir Thomas Bodley, who studied at Merton and there developed a love for books. He was a lucky man and his first piece of luck was finding a rich widow willing to marry him. Mrs Bodley’s first husband had been a successful pilchard merchant, so some say that the Bodleian was ‘built on fish’.

However, there was nothing fishy about the deal Bodley made with the Stationers Company of London in 1610. Sharing his vision and keen to promote their books, the Company promised him a ‘free and perfect’ copy of every book ever published in this country. The deal they signed is still in force today and UK publishers still have to send their books. So the Library has quite a collection! Around 13 million books at last count. You can see the original agreement here: Click here

The second most important rule in the Bodleian is that nobody is allowed to take out books. You want to read? You sit in the library. This rule applies to royalty too. During the English Civil War, King Charles I was holed up at Christ Church, having lost London to the Parliamentarians. Desperately needing advice, he decided to consult the Seigneur d’Aubigny’s book on military strategy. So he sent a note to the Bodleian asking to borrow it and the librarian …turned him down. The Bodleian still has the note. The King of England had to come sit in the library. (Not that the book helped, obviously – he still lost the war and, ultimately, his head…)

As observed, books and water don’t mix, but books and fire are an equally major disaster. So rule no. 1 is that anyone who wants to become a ‘reader’ in the library has to take an oath. You swear ‘not to bring into the Library or kindle therein any fire or flame’. This may seem a tame method of fire prevention, but the Bodleian has been as lucky as its founder: it has never had a fire.

As for the Bodleian’s collections… this period of lockdown is the perfect time to investigate and admire them at your leisure. The Marks of Genius Exhibition of 2015 was truly extraordinary for both its range and its depth. It contained everything from the Magna Carta to the Audubon Book of American Birds, from The Wind in the Willows and Tolkien’s Hobbit dust jacket, to 15 century maps, Newton’s Principia and the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. Access it here: http://genius.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/about/marks-of-genius/ In fact, you’ll get a better view and more information online than had you visited the original exhibition.
If you are interested in Women’s history, try this: Click here for the ‘Women Who Dared’ Exhibition 2016. You can click on each exhibit for more information and for access to a whole world of related exhibits.

The Tower of The Five Orders

In normal times, a tour of the Bodleian Library (https://visit.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/plan-your-visit ) is ideal for bookish people who have already enjoyed a Simply Oxford Tour with Walking Tours of Oxford. Simply Oxford Tour informationWalking Tours of Oxford also offer a wide-ranging and thoroughly entertaining Literary Tour of Oxford and specialist tours on C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien

©Victoria Bentata 2020 for Walking Tours of Oxford

Ashmolean Museum

Ashmolean Musuem

Had a certain widow not been found tragically (and some thought suspiciously) drowned in her garden pond, then Oxford’s oldest and largest museum might never have come to be.

The unfortunate victim was the former wife of John Tradescant the Younger. Her recently deceased husband had left his collection of ‘rareities’ to his friend Elias Ashmole, who had helped him to catalogue it in 1656. However, Mrs Tradescant was unimpressed and was in the process of contesting the will, when Ashmole moved in next door to her (!) A hop over the fence, a little push… we shall never know, but the consequence was that Ashmole secured the collection and Oxford, England and the World its first public museum.

You can see portraits of the John Tradescants in the Ashmolean Museum today, the Elder framed by vegetables, fruit and flowers and the Younger proudly wielding a spade. Both were royal gardeners to Charles I, a role which (unusually) involved international travel on a grand scale. Their job was to collect plants, but their hobby was collecting anything they found interesting, the aforementioned ‘rareities’ or ‘curiosities’.

Elias Ashmole was a well-connected lawyer, scholar and antiquarian collector. He eventually gave his and the Tradescants’ collection to the University of Oxford in 1677 on the proviso that it be housed it in a building dedicated to the ‘advancement of knowledge’.

The Ashmolean Museum opened in 1683 but it was considerably smaller than today and was located in the building of what is now Oxford’s Museum of the History of Science on Broad Street. The collections were on the top floor, the ground floor was a lecture theatre and in the basement was the University’s first Chemistry and Anatomy Laboratory. It was here that the University’s first Reader in Anatomy dissected the remains of any criminals hanged within 21 miles of Oxford. (You can see the building here with the famous Oxford heads outside – no, nobody is entirely sure whose heads they are – herms, Roman emperors… the original sculptor left no notes!)

Today’s Ashmolean Museum (see photo) is a short walk from the original museum in a classical building built in the 19th century to the designs of Charles Cockerell and is on a much larger scale. The original collections have been added to over the centuries, there was a redevelopment in 2009 and in 2011 its new Nubian and Egyptian galleries opened. The Ashmolean Museum is primarily dedicated to Art and Archaeology. It houses the largest collection of Raphael drawings in the world, it has a stunning Pre-Raphaelite gallery and an extensive collection of everything from casts, ceramics and coins to sculpture and tapestries. It also has important artefacts from Oxford’s history, such as the coins minted here by Charles I during the Civil War.

Whilst the museum is currently closed due to the Coronavirus pandemic, it is still visitable online. And don’t think it will be a quick visit! – There are 112,500 objects in the online collection, so that’s around 625 objects every day for the next six months!

Top Tip:
Start with the Treasures Click here.
In particular at this difficult time, look for Walter Sickert’s painting ‘Ennui’ – this may chime with your mood – or remind you how well you are doing… Or look at the Messiah violin by Stradivarius ‘Like the Messiah, worth waiting for’ 😊

Once we are up and running again, a perfect day in Oxford features our Simply Oxford Walking Tour at 11.30am which ends around the Broad Street area, perfect timing for lunch and then afternoon at The Ashmolean Museum.

[For more information about the Tradescants, visit The Garden Museum in Lambeth Click here

©Victoria Bentata 2020 for Walking Tours of Oxford

Colin Dexter

Meeting Colin

When I was 18 years old Morse was first aired on TV.  It was the 6th January 1987.

Fast forward 30 years and I am now an avid ‘fan’.  More than that, I get to share my stories and findings with my guests on my tours that I conduct in Oxford. I certainly would not mind going to the pub with young Endeavour any day!

The family home that I talk about was in Buckinghamshire. When I started a family of my own, I settled in Oxfordshire.  As time passed and the family grew up, I decided to re-train as a Green Badge guide for Oxford.  It was a challenging time but I loved learning all about this stunning city.  When you first qualify, you do so as a ‘University and City’ guide only.

Brief thoughts flickered through my mind about becoming a Morse guide but did I really want to do more training after such an intense 9 months*?  The work I was receiving was sufficient and I had my family which kept me pretty busy!

So what changed my mind?  I think it was meeting Colin Dexter that was the turning point.

It was a bitterly cold winter day and I was in The Morse Bar at The Randolph.  I am sure many of you have already been but if not, you must add to your list!  Anyway, I digress.

There I was looking at the photos of John Thaw and perhaps reflecting quietly on my youth and watching Morse with my parents.  I glanced down and thought ‘hang on a minute’.  There was Colin.  He had some signed Morse books (how I wish I had brought one).  Colin kindly allowed me to sit down and chat for a few minutes.  What a delightful and amusing gentleman he was.  We chatted about Morse and had a giggle.  He was fun and a little flirtatious but I did not mind at all – rather made my day!  Our time was all too brief as I had to start my tour.  I bid him farewell with a kiss on each cheek and in hopefulness that our paths would cross again. Sadly, it was not to be. Colin’s health was detoriating and he died a few years later – 21st March 2017.

I had my photo taken with Colin and would proudly show anyone that displayed a flicker of interest.

It is perhaps with poignancy but pleasure and privilege too, that I have recently been invited and accepted an invitation to Colin’s memorial service. I have no idea as yet who will be there but I am just looking forward to adding my personal thanks to this wonderful man and without whom, I would be unable to conduct these tours and pass on the stories.

There are plans to erect a statue to Colin in Summertown, just outside the centre of Oxford and you can read more about that here:-

http://www.oxfordmail.co.uk/news/15571071.Plans_for_Colin_Dexter_statue_take_shape_as_design_is_revealed/

Thank you Colin.

Qualifications

  • Heidi, like all guides working for Walking Tours of Oxford is a fully qualified green badge guide – member of The Institute of Tourist Guiding and The Oxford Guild of Tour Guides and that is what stands us apart from some of the other Operators in Oxford.