I took a break during the symposium, remembering that during my three weeks’ stay several years ago, I had failed to visit St Michael at North Gate– the city church of Oxford.  It just so happened to be down Ship Street from the dorm I stayed in, so I ducked out before a keynote on Byzantine chronicles and headed…
…into the pouring rain. Not your usual drizzle. No, this was torrential.
Dashing back inside, I was totally annoyed with myself– who goes to England without an umbrella?! The desk worker lent me hers in order to buy one for myself (an offer that confused me, but whatever). With my over-priced, super tacky purchase, I headed back out.
This is not a joke.
Third time’s the charm, right? Who cares if I’m one of those tourists? *shudder*
I made it to the church and was greeted quite kindly by the man in the gift shop (where one enters, somewhat strangely). He was patient and made me feel welcome, dispelling my fears of being rushed like the annoying tourist my umbrella claimed me to be. The adjoining tower is the oldest building in Oxford and dates back to around 1050. According to the church’s website,

“All other traces of the original church have vanished, but a church there certainly was. The Domesday Book (1086) records that ‘the priests of St Michael hold two houses worth 52d’. After the tower, the earliest surviving parts of the church are the chancel, the eastern part of the south aisle (nearest the altar), and the south door, all dating from the 13th century.”

 I found the church to be small, beautiful, and mostly under restoration. I wondered what the congregation is like– are they all academics? Is any of them an academic? I saw some evidence of a children’s Bible study and tried to imagine what it would be like to grow up in this particular church. Would its history make me feel isolated or connected? Would I feel overwhelmed by its heritage? Or would it not really matter at all?

When I came back out of the church, the same man directed me to the tower, whose student entrance price is less than two pounds. He showed me a 20 pence piece he gave me in change, explaining that it would activate an “ancient clock mechanism” in the tower, which I recorded:
I regrettably did not film what’s going on below these gears: a series of weights moves up and down in a process which my engineer husband would explain quite logically, but which I must only describe as something kind of like magic. Moving farther up the “Saxon Tower” I passed the bells which, according to the website, are so heavy that ringing them would damage the structural integrity of the building.

And massive they were!
Chimed, not rung.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter (and all of you should–@RebeccaShores) will recognize this, but it seemed worth including.

To my total surprise, the top of the tower is open to the public. I opened the door to the roof, careful to read the sign reminding visitors to close the door in order to keep out pigeons, and found myself in the pouring rain  again.  And then, the conundrum: do I bring that blasted umbrella?  No. I’m on top of a tower in the rain; that’s a terrible idea. And yet, the lightening rod is so much higher– it would take a true fluke to attract electricity to myself from an actual lightning rod, right? Ultimately I chose not to push my luck, and had a lovely, if rather wet, panoramic view of the town.
Descending the stairs, I looked again at the bells, at the clock mechanism, at the door that imprisoned Archbishop Cranmer. (NB: Wesley’s pulpit is also here, for any of you Methodists!) How lucky I was to have seen this on a glorified lunch break, how fortunate to have been in Oxford at all. I wondered how often I might come here if I’d attended Oxford for graduate school– would I have taken full advantage of what the town had to offer? I hadn’t the last time I was here.

I walked back out into the rain, having done what I should have years ago, hoping to have another opportunity to return.

Until next time, readers, wishing everyone dry clothes and a second chance.