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Three Oxford Colleges


1000+ Posts
I spent four hours in Oxford as part of a mystery trip in June 2019. It is a city I’ve visited many times. The last visit a couple of years ago, I concentrated on the Churches and some of the less well known colleges. This time I decided to do some of the better known colleges. I debated Christ Church which is the best known and busiest of the colleges and also the most expensive to visit. Knowing it shut for a couple of hours at lunchtime, and it was already 11.30, I reluctantly decided I’d have to give it a miss again this time. I also ruled at Magdalene College as well, deciding to concentrate on Balliol and Trinity which are next to each other on Broad Street. After lunch I decided on Worcester which is on the western edge of the city centre and gets few visitors. It also has the advantage of being free and has some wonderful gardens.

They were three very different colleges with three very different college chapels, but made a good mix.


Balliol college is the oldest college in Oxford. On Broad Street opposite the Tourist Information Office, the outside is always busy, usually with large guided groups who try and take selfies or pictures of the quadrangle without paying... The porter's office is just inside the entrance gateway and there is a charge of £3 to enter. This includes a small leaflet with a map and basic information.

In 1260 there was a dispute between the Bishop of Durham and John de Balliol, who was one of the most loyal supporters of Henry III. A penance was placed on Balliol and in 1263 he rented house just outside the town walls and paid for 16 poor scholars to live in it. After his death, his widow Dervorguilla established a permanent endowment and founded a college here.

Balliol's other claom to fame is that it was one of the first colleges to allow women to attend classes in 1884 - as long as they were ‘attended by some elder person’. Now women are welcome and it has a woman master.

Balliol College is a splendid C19th building with a gateway and tower fronting onto Broad Street.

The porter’s lodge is in the entrance. Beyond is the Front Quad, an oval area of grass, which is surrounded by older buildings, dating from the C15th. These contained teh old library on the first floor which was for Fellow's use.

To the left is the new library building. The lovely oriel window is part of the Master’s Lodgings.

The chapel with its characteristic dark and pale stripes, is in the north east corner of the quad.

The Library Passageway leads into the Garden Quad. The large wooden doors at the end of the passage were the main college doors until they were replaced in the C19th. The College sold them for firewood, but were saved by one of the alumni and eventually returned to Balliol.

Also in the passageway is a list of Benefactors beginning with John Balliol.

Immediately facing the passageway is a modern sundial in the Garden Quad, erected in 2009 to commemorate 30 years of female students at Balliol.

The Garden Quad is large grassy area with mature trees. The Master’s Lodgings are in the south east corner, abutting the New library.

The student accommodation running the length of the south side of the quad is C19th to accommodate the increasing number of students.

At the far end is the splendid Hall which is was built in 1877, replacing a smaller hall.

The ground floor contains the college bar and buttery, which serves drinks and light refreshments to visitors as well as students. The dining room on the first floor is reached by a steep flight of steps. It is an impressive room with panelling around the walls, wood beamed ceiling and and pictures of past masters. Students still sit on benches at the long highly polished tables.

Above the door is an organ and there is a splendid stone fireplace.

To the right of the Hall is the Senior Common room in a mid C20th building.

The Fellow’s Garden is a small enclosed garden behind the Old Library and reached through iron gates. It is a quiet secluded spot with flower borders. The stone feature is a collection of pieces of masonry form old Broad street buildings.


1000+ Posts
Balliol College Chapel

Built in 1857, this is the third chapel on the site. Designed by William Butterfield who also designed Keeble College, it is immediately recognisable by its bands of deep red and pale beige stone. The design wasn’t popular and there was a serious offer to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt. The college rejected it as a waste of money.

The inside is almost boring in comparison and much of Butterfield’s work has been replaced. The small antechapel contains a few memorials from the earlier chapel. A splendid wood screen separates it from the chapel. Above is the organ

Walls are cream coloured plaster covering the original bands of coloured stone, although these can still be seen in the window surrounds. There is wood panelling round the bottom of the walls. The ceiling is plaster, cream in the nave and pale grey in the chancel, with wood ribs across. Chandeliers hang from the ceiling. The floor is black and white tiles.

To the left of the altar is a miniature monument to Benjamin Jowett, who was a C19th Master of Balliol.

The most unusual silver gilt altar front, and possibly the most impressive bit of the chapel, dates from 1927.

The east window dates from the C16th although the glass has been reset. At the centre is the Crucifixion. It is in marked contrast to the rest of the stained glass windows which were designed by Butterfield.

The outside of the chapel is probably a bit like marmite - you either love it or hate it. The interior is safe but bland. There are other college chapels that are better.


1000+ Posts

This is next to Balliol College and again there is a £3 charge to enter. The comprehensive guide book is another 50p although there are information boards with similar information in the college.

Most of the buildings are set well back from Broad Street and many people just take the classic picture through the iron gates. It lacks the immediate impact of Balliol College next to it.

Before Trinity College was founded, there had been a college here built by Benedictine Monks from Durham Cathedral. After the Dissolution of the Monasteries, Durham College was surrendered to the Crown. The buildings were bought by Sir Thomas Pope and his wife Lady Elizabeth. They were both devote Roman Catholics with no surviving children. The college was originally intended to train Catholic priests who would remember and pray for the souls of Sir Thomas and Lady Mary. The college had a President, twelve fellows and twelve scholars supported by income form Sir Thomas’s endowment of lands. There were also up to twenty undergraduates who paid for their tuition and lodgings. All members were expected to live a strict monastic life of study and prayer.

After the Civil War, a staunch Protestant was appointed and Trinity became a pillar of the Anglican Establishment. Social change in the C19th led to an increase in the need for administrators, academics and lawyers. New subjects and examinations were introduced and Trinity was one of the first colleges to build an engineering laboratory.

Trinity College is unusual in that most of the buildings are set well back from Broad Street and viewed though ornamental iron gates.

The row of C17th cottages facing onto Broad Street were originally worker’s cottages and were bought by the university in the mid C19th when student numbers were increasing. They were almost entirely reconstructed in the 1960s and still house students.

Just beyond them is Kettell hall, an imposing Jacobean building which was built as a private investment in 1615 by the then President, Ralph Kettell, to provide accommodation for more wealthy students. This was a private house for many years before being bought by the college. It is now used by postgraduate students.

Entry to the college is through the small passageway next to the formal gates. This leads into the Front Quadrangle, with views down to the chapel. Balliol College Chapel with its very characteristic dark and white stripes abut the wall of the quad.

This is late C17th and replaced an earlier chapel used by Durham College which, by now, was in poor condition. It is a wonderful example of Baroque architecture with particularly fine wood carvings. It rapidly became a ‘must see’ for visitors to Oxford. The four carved figures on top of the tower represent Astronomy, Geometry, Medicine, and Theology.

Just before the chapel, iron gates guard entry into a small, secluded Fellows’ Garden with a pond.

The impressive late C19th neo-Gothic President’s building is adjacent to the chapel, and is a popular place for selfie photoshots.

An archway beneath the chapel leads into the Durham Quadrangle. which is the oldest part of the college.

On the left is the Hall, dating from the early C17th. The president, Ralph Kettell, ordered the construction of a cellar to brew good quality beer in an attempt to control the drinking of college members. Unfortunately the building above collapsed and a new hall had to be built. The statue of the Founder, Sir Thomas Pope above the doorway is a modern copy.

It is an impressive building with portraits of Sir Thomas Pope and Lady Elizabeth behind the high table. The bottom of the walls and window surrounds are painted to resemble marble. Above the fireplace are the Royal Coat of Arms of Mary I and her husband Philip of Spain.

There is an impressive plaster ceiling with a crystal chandelier.

The Hall is in use daily for breakfast and diner. A formal dinner is served four times a week.

Beyond the Durham Quadrangle is the Garden Quadrangle, lined with more accommodation designed by the then up and coming architect, Christopher Wren. The names and shields painted round the doorways commemorate the feats of victorious rowing eights.

An iron gateway leads from the garden Quadrangle to the Gardens.

This is a large grassed area with flower borders. At the far end are iron gates leading onto Parks Road.

To the south of the gardens is an area of mature trees known as the Wilderness.

This is a most attractive college with its quadrangles lined with neo-classical buildings. There's more to it than the quick glimpse through the iron gates and it worth paying to enter.


1000+ Posts
Trinity College Chapel

Trinity Chapel is the first building visitors see when they enter the college. The chapel was built at the end of the C17th to replace an earlier chapel which not only was was getting very dilapidated, but was regarded as old fashioned. It was funded by the then president, Ralph Bathhurst, and advice on the building was sought from Christopher Wren. It is the first chapel in Oxford to be designed on purely classical lines. As soon as it was finished it attracted visitors to Oxford and is still regarded as a masterpiece of English baroque architecture. It is a very elegant building .The four carved figures on top of the tower represent Astronomy, Geometry, Medicine, and Theology.

Inside the doorway is an antechapel with an impressive wooden screen. On the back wall is a large painting of the women tending the body of the crucified Christ. Above is the organ.

The woodwork is impressive with a massive reredos across the east wall and panneling around the bottom of the walls. Five different kinds of wood were used; walnut, oak, lime, pear and Bermuda cedar. The stalls are still lit by candles.

The wonderful carving is by Grinling Gibbons and is regarded as some of his finest work.

The four carved figures above the reredos and on top of the antechapel screen represent the four evangelists.

Trinity College Chapel is the only chapel in Oxford to have a founder’s tomb. The ‘cupboard’ to the left of the altar contains the effigy of St Thomas Pope and his wife Lady Elizabeth. They are still remembered in college prayers. Opposite is the concealed pew where the President’ wife could hear the service and receive communion without being seen by the all male college.

The chapel has a lovely plaster ceiling with a painting of Christ ascending to Heaven.

The stained glass windows are C19th glass and have images of northern saints.

The college chapel is still as popular with visitors now as when it was first built. It repays visiting.


1000+ Posts

On Walton Street, this is to the west of the city centre and away from the central colleges. It is also quieter than the other colleges as few visitors bother to find it. A bonus is there is no charge to go into the grounds and chapel. The college is open 2-4 in the afternoon. Just report to the Porter's loge onside the main entrance. There are some information panels on the wall near by.

A college for Benedictine monks was founded here in the late C13th. Originally housing 13 monks, numbers grew and they were housed in small cottages around the grounds. The college was dissolved at the Reformation and the buildings were granted to the Bishop of Oxford.

In 1714, the college was refounded as Worcester College when a Worcestershire baronet left money for a new college in Oxford. Nicholas Hawksmoor was employed to design the new buildings. Work began on U shaped entrance building with the dining room and chapel joined by the first floor library.

A row of monks cottages survive along the side of the main quad, and are some of the oldest residential buildings in Oxford.

The very elegant Georgian north range was built in built 1753-9.

Several new accommodation blocks for students added in C20th.

The chapel next to the main entrance dates from 1720. It had a comprehensive makeover by William Burgess in the 1860s and he is responsible for the richly painted walls, mosaic floor, stained glass windows and statues of the four evangelists.

The college buildings are surrounded by 26 acres of grounds, including woodland, lake, orchards and sports fields.

There are attractive flower borders running along the length of the Nuffield lawn and backing onto the old cottages.

The college is missed by many tourists unless they have read about the gardens and chapel. It is a delightful place and well worth visiting.


1000+ Posts
Worcester College Chapel

The interior must be one of the most dramatic of any Oxford College. From the road it is a plain rectangular box with and arched window with pillars.

The college is entered through a small courtyard and passageway leading to the neoclassical back of the building. The chapel is reached along the arcade to the right. From the quadrangle it isn't obvious there is a chapel building.

Outside the door of the chapel is a memorial to the dead for the First World War. The memorial for the Second World War is along the corridor outside the Hall.

The chapel seems quite dark inside until eyes get adjusted to the low light levels. It was originally understated Georgian architecture with a dome and classical pillars. The interior had a complete makeover in the 1860s by William Burgess and is one of the best examples of his work. Opulent hardly begins to describe it.

Standing in the nave and looking back at the entrance is like looking at a Byzantine basilica.

This impression is continued to the ceiling with its small dome and plenty of gilt paint.

Every surface is covered with paintings and a decorative panel runs round the walls and round the back of the high altar. In the corners are statues of the four evangelists.

The floor is covered with a geometric mosaic pattern with panels depicting early saints.

In front of the high altar is a mosaic of a sower of seeds.

The Byzantine theme is continued with small icons of Christ and Mary the Mother of God in the corners of the chancel.

The stained glass windows depict scenes from the life of Christ and are the only incongruous part of the decoration.

This is a wonderful chapel, a real hidden gem and well worth finding.
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100+ Posts
Having studied at The Other Place, I have to say (through gritted teeth) that Oxford colleges are not too dissimilar and no less attractive: thanks for such a thorough guide and great photos. I do recall finding it somehow more difficult to "read" how Oxford colleges were laid out, when I visited friends there as a student far too long ago (as it happens, in the days before mixed-sex colleges, when Oxford was rather behind the times on visiting rules). On one occasion, I went with a friend whose girlfriend was at Somerville in Oxford; we arrived in the mid-morning and somehow managed to find a side entrance of some sort, only to be challenged by a rather stern female don. We explained who we were looking for, but she simply put up her hand and said "You can't come in, we don't have men in the mornings".

And on Professor Jowett: there is a tale that some other don, who didn't much care for him, was showing a party of people around the college; he pointed out "the window of the rooms of the famous Professor Jowett", then bent down to pick up a handful of gravel to throw at the window, and, when a startled and annoyed face poked out of the window, said "And there, ladies and gentlemen, is Professor Jowett himself!"


1000+ Posts
I loved your stories Patrick.

I was at Durham in the 60s and gentlemen were NOT allowed in the college before 2pm. They also had to leave rooms by 6.45 as “ladies might wish to change for formal dinner.’ This was later relaxed to 7pm to ‘allow ladies to share a glass of sherry with their gentleman friends before diner’. By the time I left, this had relaxed even more but gentlemen still had to be out by 9pm. In those days we had communal bathrooms and obviously the thought of gentlemen seeing ladies on their way to the bathroom (or perhaps more important ladies not being overcome by the sight of gentlemen as they went to the bathroom clutching towel etc) just wasn’t on!

Happy days... Now of course all colleges are mixed. St Mary’s was the last to admit men in 2005.


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