September: Oxford Open Doors - Reflections

September: Oxford Open Doors - Reflections

As I begin to write, we are halfway through the Oxford Open Doors weekend and I can report at first hand the extraordinary numbers that, once again, have come to get behind closed doors to enjoy  the City’s treasures.  I’ve just returned from Exeter College Chapel where, with standing room only, the Pavlova Wind Quintet and Radcliffe Strings entertained, rewarded by rapturous applause. I return to write this 24 hours later when on late Sunday afternoon, I’d seen at first hand the queues at the Painted Room, where over 2,000 visitors had waited patiently on the stairs to stand in the steps of Shakespeare and Betjeman, and experienced what it feels like to see 3,000 visitors in 3 hours come to walk on the lawns in the Great Quad at All Souls, visiting the chapel and library whilst listening to The Oxford Cherwell Brass Band.  

On an altogether smaller scale, though no less enjoyable, I had recently spent an entertaining morning with the charming family who had supported the Oxford Playhouse 80th Anniversary by buying a tour of Hidden Oxford with me.  I was delighted that they had brought my friend Lou Chantal, the Playhouse Director along too.   We started with Saxon remains at the Castle going underground into the Crypt.  With the Norman Castle built for Robert D’Oilly, friend of William the Conqueror, we walked forward in time following the line of the Saxon town wall through the Westgate and Turn Again Lane.  I’d brought an early Oxford map with me that showed the tightly knit Medieval streets, and as we walked up St. Ebbe’s Street I pointed out Beef Lane, now part of Pembroke College, Pennyfarthing Lane and Butchers Row, what we now know as Queen Street.   At Carfax we stood in the place where the nave of the City’s church St. Martin’s once stood, and the place where William Davenant, a godson of Shakespeare was christened.  It was knocked down for a road improvement scheme, so the Church of All Saints in Turl Street took on the role of city church and the font moved with it.  As this is now Lincoln College Library,  the city church and its font are at St. Michael’s at the Northgate.  A memorial to the Davenant family, Lord Mayor of Oxford, led us back via our wonderful 18th century Covered Market built to take the stalls and traders out of the street to the Painted Rooms at 3 Cornmarket where we ended with me telling the stories of John Davenant who with his wife Jane, had moved to Oxford from London where he was friends with one William Shakespeare.  Jane is the only name linked romantically to Shakespeare other than Ann Hathaway, and is the mother of William, who I spoke of earlier, and who was Shakespeare’s godson or perhaps something more, a myth he himself liked to perpetuate. 

A busy few weeks brought the much-anticipated publication of the ‘Excavations at Oxford Castle 1999- 2009’ to our doorstep at the end of August. With Oxford Open Doors fast approaching arranging a party was not easy but party we did, the guest list and the atmosphere on the evening, a reminder of just what a team we were and of  just how much we had achieved in restoring Oxford Castle, opening it to the public for the first time in its 1000 year history.  Dan Poore and Julian Munby of Oxford Archaeology, spoke from the heart that evening, reminding us of the long running contribution that OPT made going back to the 1940s and of our wonderful Trustee and lifelong Castle champion, Hugh Mercsy Walton, now deceased.  There are some amazing images in the book which records everything from the late Saxon period up to the present, a story told in pottery, coins, and carved stone, of shoes, purses, and scabbard leather found, clay pipes, animal bones, and of human skeletons across the ages, some given as cadavers to the University to further medical knowledge, returned to be pieced together with skulls cut off and bits removed. The icing on the cake had to be the choice of the detailed coloured map prepared in 1617 by Christ Church to fight a lawsuit, as the image to grace the cover of this great publication.

Oxford Open Doors is an event which allows us to showcase the work we do throughout the year and acts as a reminder of why we take on the projects we do.

Each year the weekend ends with a concert at the Sheldonian and as I sat to rest my weary feet, and to enjoy some Mozart and Gershwin alongside, I could only smile as I was told the Sheldonian had seen a record 7,387 visitors over the day.