Blenheim Palace is a prime example of what one might receive for helping the King of England in the 18th century. It was a gift by the Crown to John Churchill, the First Duke of Marlborough, following its construction (1705-1724). Its hundreds of rooms in the English Baroque style are a testament to a bygone era, preserved (oddly enough) by American fortunes. Blenheim was also the birthplace of Winston Churchill.
The centre of spiritual life for the University of Oxford for centuries, the University Church of St. Mary the Virgin is the sort of place where you can walk in and feel both at peace with oneself and in communion with the history that has taken place there. It is a remarkable space. The tower affords some of the best views of Oxford. (I have not yet gone up the tower, but I will on a clear day, after which I will update this post and the attached gallery.)
It may only be mine to enjoy for a short while, but so far University College (“Univ” for short) has been a fantastic backdrop to the majority of my trip. As the oldest of the colleges of Oxford (founded 1249), it has a fascinating story to tell. Interestingly enough, the buildings that make up the college are not terribly old, relatively speaking. They were, rather, built to look as though they were. Make no mistake, these buildings are quite old. Most were built in or around the 17th and 18th centuries. But the architecture would imply that there were several centuries older than that.
The ground of the college wind around considerably, requiring one to take a long route to get to many facilities. The library, for example, though it is in its own building, must be accessed through the dining hall. The chapel is interesting only for its windows. They are painted, rather than stained, and collectively are the item of greatest value in the college. The organ, however, is pitiful. The chancel area (loosely defined though it is) has been covered with heavy red curtains, blocking the original walls, and the clutter that now sits in front of them.
All in all, this is a lovely place to call home for a little more than a month! It is relaxing and peaceful most of the time as tourists are only allowed in for two hours a day during the week.
Unique in the world insofar as it is both a collegiate chapel and a diocesan cathedral, Christ Church Cathedral is certainly one of the must see-sights in Oxford. I only wish that one could say the same of hearing it. Although the choir is quite solid under Dr. Stephen Darlington, and the organ (1978 Rieger) is charming, the acoustic and the layout of the space make it an auditory nightmare. It is as though the space was designed to serve both of its functions, but each in its traditional form. The nave is essentially a self-contained, hall-style collegiate chapel. The choir stalls are just beneath the organ, with the precentor’s desk behind them. The daily offices are, in fact, led from the west end. This is perfectly sensible in itself. But the Eucharist is celebrated at the east end (where it belongs). Although in its proper place, the choir and organ are now substantially separated. The chancel, for reasons unknown, is actually longer than the nave, making the space supremely awkward as worshipers torn back and forth from left to right in order to face whatever is happening at the time. The pulpit only complicates matters as it faces northeast diagonally across the crossing in the direction of the chancel. The lectern, a modern movable piece of furniture, is perched dead center in the aisle at the top of the chancel steps.
I also must lament the use of Common Worship in place of the Book of Common Prayer for the celebration of the Eucharist. For a cathedral church, it is simply not appropriate. The contemporary language is awkward, and it is totally lost against the backdrop of the Latin mass settings sung by the choir. In short, this space is well worth seeing, but I would suggest attending either matins or evensong rather than one of the Eucharist services.
The chapel of Keble College is arguably the most distinctive in Oxford. Even from the exterior, one is immediately struck by its red brick and contrasting banding patterns. And once one steps inside, the level of detail is almost overwhelming. The chapel, like the rest of the original college facilities, was the brainchild of architect William Butterfield. Construction on the chapel was begun in 1873 thanks to the patronage of William Gibbs (the chapel being the first of three buildings at Keble funded by his family). It was then dedicated three years later on St. Mark’s Day (also John Keble’s birthday) 1876.
The inside of Butterfield’s masterpiece is a whirlwind of color and geometry, but certainly not at the expense of religious artistry (it is Anglican, after all, not Calvinist). Repeated patterns are everywhere, and mosaic details below the clerestory level and around the reredos are stunning. It is easy to see how one might be distracted by all of the artistic interest surrounding worshipers.
Perhaps one of the greatest architectural details of the chapel is not the visual element, but the acoustic. The space envelops the congregation in a wash of lush, warm tones. The choir and organ certainly do their fair share to help with this. The choir is often regarded as one of the best non-professional choirs of Oxford.
The organ at Keble is, despite its appearance, is the newest at the university. It was built by Kenneth Tickell and Company of Northampton and installed in 2011. The façade of the organ remains from the previous instrument installed when the chapel was built. The style of the instrument is decidedly English, and it speaks with a warm clarity into the space which mesmerizes the senses. The Great principal chorus, grounded by two Open Diapason ranks, is lush and strong; the solo Posaune, powerful and piercing enough to recapture people wantering attention.
Whilst in Oxford, it appears I will have the pleasure of worshiping in this glorious space (among many others). Construction was begun on the chapel in 1639, but it was not until 20 March 1666 that is was finally dedicated, thanks in large part to the English Civil War. Surprisingly the chapel had no organ until 1863. The current instrument by Walker dates to 1955. Sadly, the organ is not used nearly as often as its cousins in the other collegiate chapels of Oxford as the chapel only plays host to one sung service per week. Nonetheless, this will be my first stop on my tour of sacred spaces in Oxford.