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With its compelling combination of majestic architecture, literary heritage and double identity as (parts of) Harry Potter’s Hogwarts, Christ Church attracts tourists galore. Among Oxford’s largest colleges – the largest, if you include its bucolic meadow – and proud possessor of its most impressive quad, plus a superb art gallery and even a cathedral, it was founded in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey. It later became home to Lewis Carroll, whose picnic excursions with the then-dean’s daughter gave us Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.
The main entrance to Christ Church, Tom Gate, stands immediately below the imposing 17th-century Tom Tower. Sir Christopher Wren, who studied at Christ Church, was responsible for its topmost portions. Pass by at 9.05pm, and you’ll hear 101 chimes from its 6-tonne bell, Great Tom, to commemorate the curfew inflicted on the college’s original students.
All visitors, however, enter further south along St Aldate’s, walking through the gardens to reach Meadow Gate (where there may be queues). From there, the self-guided tour route leads to the Renaissance Great Hall, the college’s jaw-dropping dining room, with its hammer-beam roof and portraits of past scholars including Lewis Carroll and an entire troop of British prime ministers who studied here. It’s often closed to visitors at lunchtime, between noon and 2pm.
If the Great Hall looks awfully familiar, that may be because it starred as Hogwarts’ dining hall in the Harry Potter films. Although the movie-screen hall was mocked up in the studio, the fan-vaulted staircase via which you enter it appeared in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone, as the spot where Professor McGonagall welcomes Harry.
The route then crosses one side of Tom Quad – Oxford’s largest and most impressive quadrangle, overlooked by Tom Tower and with a statue of Mercury adorning its pond – to reach Christ Church Cathedral. It stands on the site where the shrine of St Frideswide, Oxford’s patron saint, was erected during the 8th century. The cathedral itself was built as the priory church during the 12th century, and became the college chapel when Cardinal Wolsey established what he called Cardinal College in 1525.
Long one of Oxford’s wealthiest colleges, Christ Church has amassed an exceptional art collection. Displayed in the small Christ Church Picture Gallery, added during the 1960s, it includes painting and drawings by Tintoretto, Michelangelo and other Renaissance masters.
Stretching away south and east of the college, and accessible free of charge, Christ Church Meadow, a verdant expanse bordered by the Cherwell and Thames (or Isis) rivers, is ideal for a leisurely half-hour walk. Look out for the college’s own herd of longhorn cattle.