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Church of St Mary the Virgin (Oxford)

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Address: University Church of St. Mary the Virgin, High Street, Oxford OX1 4BJ

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      22.06.2012 10:55
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      Historically significant church in Oxford

      This church is situated in the heart of Oxford town centre, one side on the High Street, the other (where I went in) on Radcliffe Square, opposite the Radcliffe Camera and Bodleian Library. It is a Church of England parish church as well as the official church for Oxford University and as such is steeped in a lot of unique history.

      The earliest part of the current church is the tower which is 13th century, although much of the rest of the building is late 15th Century and later. When the University was first founded in the 13th Century, there was no official central part, so the Church became its administrative centre and very first library. As the university expanded and various colleges were formed, the role of the Church as central to the university diminished and now it just holds six special university services each year.

      As a bit of a Tudor geek, this church was key during that period. It was the location for some of the trials for heresy during the reign of Mary I. Mary was a Catholic and the Anglican bishops such as Archbishop Thomas Cranmer were put on trial here. There is a plaque marking a spot on one of the church's pillars that held a platform that Cranmer stood on when withdrawing his claims against Protestantism, before being taken from the church and burnt at the stake. Celebrated persons to have preached here include the founder of the Methodist church John Wesley.

      Although a university church, anyone can attend services, of which music seems to play an important part. Indeed when I visited, late one Sunday morning, a service had just finished (10.30am Eucharist) and much of the congregation seemed to be tourists with cameras. Coffee is served afterwards in the Chancel. The church is open daily 9am-5pm excluding while services are on. It is free to visit, but if you wish to climb the tower then there is a charge of £3. I have to say from a visitor's perspective, whilst quite a pretty church, it isn't anthing exceptional. Obviously, as the church has grown and been re-built in parts, over time there is a bit of a mish-mash of architectural styles, generally I found it quite Gothic. The stained glass windows are relatively modern and uninspiring. Other than its place in history, I found the church quite uninspiring.

      However, if you are fit and able to climb the 127 narrow, twisting steps of the tower, this is well worth doing. There is only room for people to ascend or descend at any one time into the top part of the tower, you wouldn't be able to pass on the stairs, and there are not any passing places within the upper tower and it is quite claustrophobic near the top. Once you reach the final narrow door into the tower proper, you will have to listen out for people coming down or give a shout up to check if it is clear. I was fortunate that it was a quiet time, so there were not many people around, it could potentially be a logistical nightmare in peak season so you would need to be patient and not in a rush. Once you have reached the top of the tower, your heart will be pounding and you will need to catch your breath. You may also need to breathe in to enable anyone coming down to get past you. Whilst you can walk all around the sides of the tower (the spire is in the middle), they do not connect up, and so you will need to retrace your steps back round the narrow path to the door you came up through. You will find that you will have to squeeze past a few people and them you. The corners are the best places to wait to pass, and you may find yourself waiting a while as the gaps are just too narrow to comfortably pass another adult, especially one with a camera and a day-pack for example. Again, patience is required as you wait for a fellow tourists to take their photos and move on before you can continue. Saying that the view is fantastic across Oxford and this is one of the highest vantage points in the city.

      Next door to the church is its own café which seemed popular. I checked the breakfast menu and thought it reasonably priced, with a good selection.

      Whilst the inside of the church is nothing exceptional compared to some tourist churches in the UK it is worth visiting from a historical perspective and for the views from the tower.

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