Oxford Open Doors

Once a year the less-privileged get the chance to look inside some of the Oxford buildings closed to them for the rest of the year. This is the Oxford Open Doors scheme sponsored by the Oxford Preservation Trust and the University of Oxford. There’s a huge list to choose from, though sadly not all the Colleges and other University institutions take part – although some have good reasons such as major building projects.

Working down the list we chose the Old Indian Institute on the corner of Catte Street and Holywell Street, Rhodes House on South Parks Road, Blackfriars (the Dominican Priory on St Giles) and for Sunday, All Souls’ College.

The Old Indian Institute (so called because it used to be the Indian Institute, so nothing to do with ancient Indians) is now the home of the James Martin 21st Century School. The building dates back to the 1880s and was the place where young men were trained for the Indian Civil Service. There’s not a lot to see these days, though there are some splendid carved wooden decorative panels and doors. And they were giving away a few corporate 1Gb USB memory sticks because the School is about to rebrand itself, so their current freebies are out of date. Which can only be good news for us early casual visitors.

Rhodes House was interesting, with very attractive gardens. Built in the 1920s with money from the Rhodes/de Beers diamond fortune it is the Oxford base for the Rhodes scholars. It’s not used much but these days, espacially since the American part of its extensive library of American and Commonwealth material was transferred to the new Rothermere American Institute just down the road. They were doing coffee and cakes, both of which were good. You can hire out their dining and other rooms for your private functions.

Rhodes House gardens

Then it was over to St Giles for Blackfriars. We joined a guided tour led by a delightful Irish friar who was completely happy to talk about the religious life of the ‘Community’ with sympathy and humour. We saw the chapel (bigger than many churches), the refectory, library, common rooms, in fact almost all of the establishment. We didn’t get his name, but our guide was one of the people who gives the religious life a good name.

Blackfriars Church

After lunch we walked down through Southfield Park flats to the Cowley Road and back up the lane that leads to Bartlemas Chapel, House and Farm. Bartlemas Chapel is a 14C chapel built originally as part of a leper hospital site well outside the city boundary. It’s dedicated to St Bartholomew (Bartlemas). Inside it’s small, plain, tranquil – a little gem. The house, now private, was earlier a set of almhouses.

Bartlemas Chapel

We had only one visit planned for Sunday – All Souls College, open from 2 to 5pm. We arrived about 2.30, directed around the corner by a notice on the High Street door, to find a queue outside the iron gates on Radcliffe Square. Inside access was restricted to the 18C rear quad, the Chapel, and the Codlington Library. The Chalgrove brass band playing in a corner of the quad made an incongruous contribution to afternoon’s atmosphere. It was impossible to enjoy the experience through the noise and the throng, though we did spend a few minutes in the chapel among the flashing cameras. We declined the long queue for the library.

All Souls Chapel

As a respite we headed down Brasenose Lane to Jesus College, a haven of tranquillity after All Souls. Two quads, dining hall, chapel, and a new building tucked away at the back. A pleasant end to the weekend.