University Church reopens after landmark restoration

Oxford University’s historic University Church of St Mary the Virgin has reopened, after undergoing its biggest restoration since the late 19th century.

During a two-year restoration project, many enhancements to the Church have been made, including improved access to the tower and the Clore Old Library, which formed part of the very first University Convocation House.

The restoration project has been led by the University Church Development team with architect Caroe Architecture Ltd. The project has been funded by Heritage Lottery Fund, Clore Duffield Foundation, University of Oxford and the Parish Church Council.

The Church was reopened on Friday March 8 by Canon Brian Mountford, HRH the Duke of Gloucester, Chancellor of the University Lord Patten, and Paul Hudson, Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund South East Committee. The event also marked the launch of an exciting programme of education and cultural activities.

Canon Mountford said: 'We are delighted with the results of this restoration project and we hope our congregation and hundreds of thousands of annual visitors will be just as pleased with the Church.

'Our attention now turns towards our education project, which will celebrate the Church’s historic relationship with the community of Oxford and the University.'

Stuart McLeod, head of the Heritage Lottery Fund South East, said: 'This church holds a special place in the heart of historic Oxford. The Grade I listing and the 300,000 annual visitors – nearly twice the number of the city’s population - are testament to its rich heritage.'

Architect Oliver Caroe said: 'Our objective was to restore and enhance the building, creating new energy and sense of purpose. St Mary’s plays an intense public role in the ecclesiastical, cultural and educational life in Oxford, and it is a landmark destination for visitors.  As such, the building has to accommodate a very complex interaction of uses.'

In the main part of the church, the chancel and nave have been restored and revived. The ceiling has been painted and the woodwork, including the 15th century chancel stalls, cleaned and waxed. The highlight in the nave is the addition of a new ‘celure’, a paint effect that recreates a heavenly sky while a direct representation of the Pleiades constellation has been rendered in white gold leaf on a blue background.  A new digitally controlled lighting system has also been installed.

Creating as much public access as possible has been an important feature of the project - the garden has been re-graded to provide wheelchair access, and a lift has been designed to fit within the historical structure.

Outside the building, the stonework has been cleaned and re-dressed in places and the weathercock on top of the spire has been re-gilded.

A new educational project celebrating the history of the Church has begun and this first phase has seen the introduction of a team of new volunteer welcomers and guides. A schools programme is under way and will continue to be developed over the next three years. A series of interpretive interventions are also being installed across the church to the 300,000 annual visitors. Most of these interventions will be in place by the end of March.