Last month, (Yes, the times I’ve had both the time and energy to post have been few.) I took a special Behind Closed Doors tour at Christ Church Oxford. In fact, we were told this was the first Closed Doors tour, and that they hoped to do this two or three times a year.
It was a great day. The highlights for me were an excellent lunch at high table in Christ Church Hall (Eating in that glorious hall has been one of my aspirations.) and the books – wonderful old books, some of which we actually got to handle.
The outstanding book in that regard was St. Augustine’s Homilies on John from Buildwas Abbey, written in 1167. That is not a typo. It is in its original binding, too.
It is a very practical book and built to last (obviously!) which is what one would expect from the Cistercians. There isn’t a lot of illumination but some nice workmanlike initials. The abbey was not overly picky about the vellum (treated calf skin) it was written on. So the numerous holes in the vellum pages were simply written around. This was a book to be used, not for some lord to show off.
But that was not all. At my request, we visited the obscure Allestree Library. Many students at Christ Church have never heard of it, and it is in a smallish room in a corner of the college. It does not stand out at all.
But all the old books in it! Not as old as 1167; I think they are all printed books. But almost all are also 17th century or older.
There was more we got to see. The Dean’s Garden, complete with chickens and Alice’s Door, was an unexpected treat.
By the way, to find out the best things happening in Oxford, you do have to be alert. I found out about this by looking at a message board in Christ Church Meadow. And I had only read or heard of Allestree Library in a worn copy of Jan Morris’ Oxford. Some of the best events and places here are hardly publicized. As I’ve heard Barry Orford of Pusey House note with his characteristic perplexity, “No one tells you about anything in this town.”
Early in term, I completely missed the old town walls at New College being duly inspected, a regular event I was well aware of, but the timing of which I had completely forgotten. It took me a while to get over my grief.