Balliol College

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Things to do


Date of travel

June, 2019

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Balliol college is the oldest college in Oxford. In 1260 there was a dispute between the Bishop of Durham and John de Balliol who was one of the most loyal supporters of Henry III. A penance was placed on Balliol and in 1263 he rented a house just outside the town walls and paid for 16 poor scholars to live in it. After his death, his widow Dervorguilla established a permanent endowment and founded a college here.

Another claim to fame is that Balliol was one of the first colleges to allow women to attend classes in 1884, as long as they were ‘attended by some elder person’.

Balliol College is a splendid C19th building with a gateway and tower fronting onto Broad Street, nearly opposite the Tourist Information Office. There are often large groups standing outside and peering in for a view through the entrance gateway.

The porter’s lodge is in the entrance. Beyond is the Front Quad, an oval area of grass, which is surrounded by older buildings, dating from the C15th. To the left is the ‘new’ library building. The lovely oriel window is part of the Master’s Lodgings. The chapel with its characteristic dark and pale stripes, is in the north east corner of the quad.

Built in 1857, this is the third chapel on the site. Designed by William Butterfield it is immediately recognisable by its bands of deep red and pale beige stone. The outside is a bit like marmite – you either kove it or hate it. It wasn’t popular when first built and there was a serious offer to pay for it to be demolished and rebuilt. The college rejected it as a waste of money.

The inside is almost boring in comparison and much of Butterfield’s work has been replaced. The small antechapel contains a few memorials from the earlier chapel. A splendid wood screen separates it from the chapel.

Walls are pale cream plaster, covering the original bands of coloured stone, although these can still be seen in the window surrounds. There is wood panelling round the bottom of the walls. The most unusual silver gilt altar front dates from 1927. To the left of the altar is a miniature monument to Benjamin Jowett, who was a C19th Master of Balliol.

The east window dates from the C16th although the glass has been reset. It is in marked contrast to the rest of the stained glass windows which were designed by Butterfield.

The Library Passageway leads into the Garden Quad. The large wooden doors at the end of the passage were the main college doors until they were replaced in the C19th. The College sold them for firewood, but were saved by one of the alumni and eventually returned to Balliol. Also in the passageway is a list of Benefactors beginning with John Balliol.

Immediately facing the passageway is a modern sundial erected in 2009 to commemorate 30 years of female students at Balliol.

The Garden Quad is large grassy area with mature trees. The Master’s Lodgings are in the south east corner, abutting the New library. The student accommodation running the length of the south side of the quad is C19th to accommodate the increasing number of students.

At the far end is the splendid Dining Hall which is was built in 1877, replacing a smaller hall. The ground floor contains the college bar and buttery, which serves drinks and light refreshments to visitors as well as students. The dining room on the first floor is reached by a steep flight of steps. It is an impressive room with panelling around the walls, wood beamed ceiling and and pictures of past masters. Students sit on benches at the long highly polished tables. It could very well double up as the dining room for Hogwarts of Harry Potter fame.

To the right of the Hall is the Senior Common room in a mid C20th building.

The Fellow’s Garden is a small enclosed garden behind the Old library and reached through iron gates. It is a quiet secluded spot with flower borders. The stone feature is a collection of pieces of masonry form old Broad street buildings.

Being in the centre of Oxford, Balliol College does get quite a few visitors. Many just get as far as the porter’s office and take a quick picture. The college is open 10-5 (or dusk if earlier). There is a £3 entry charge which includes a short leaflet with information and a map of the college. It is worth paying to visit.

There is a plan of the college “here.”:


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