The smallest cathedral in England, or at least it has been... Christ Church Cathedral is impressive and historically fascinating, but also compact, and hidden away in a corner of the College's massive Tom Quad, in the shadow of the immense hall.
The cathedral is built on the site of the former 8th century church of St Frideswide, Oxford's patron saint. By the thirteenth century it was a place of pilgrimage. The site continued to develop and in 1524 Cardinal Wolsey was given permission by the Pope to build a new college on it. Henry VIII took over, ousting Wolsey, and claiming the college for himself. With the king's backing, it was bound to be an impressive place. The modern college is imposing, and where other colleges have private chapels of mainly moderate to small sizes, Christ Church is home to the cathedral of Oxford, as set down by Henry VIII in 1546. The building was not, however, all Henry's doing, but was constructed in the twelfth century. Various plans existed to develop it, and there have been some changes, but it has endured the past 900 years in relative peace.
Within the cathedral are a number of distinct places. The main stalls in the nave are where Evensong takes place today.
War memorials remember those lost in conflict, while a number of stone monuments commemorate people involved with the college. Collectively or individually, the cathedral recognises and remembers it community.
Music has been important at Christ Church throughout its history, with composers such as John Taverner conducting the choir. A range of choirs now serve the cathedral. The Cathedral Choir, drawing on taken from the local Christ Church Cathedral School, sings Evensong six nights a week, Tuesday to Sunday, during school term time. On Monday nights in term, the College Choir sings, while in the holidays, Evensong is said rather than sung. During the holidays, services Tuesday to Sunday are sung by the Cathedral Singers.
On Thursday nights and Sunday mornings a sung Eucharist is celebrated. On Friday nights, in recognition of Friday's special place within the church week, Evensong is unaccompanied, without the splendour of the organ. Psalms, anthems, canticles, Mass settings and prayers ring forth. You don't have to be a Christian to attend; it's a beautiful way to enjoy the building in action rather than simply trudging around it. Services operate on 'Christ Church time', at 5 minutes past GMT, which is worth bearing in mind when planning a visit.
As with any cathedral, it's worth looking out for the organ. At Christ Church, appearances can be deceptive, as the 1978-9 Austrian organ (by Rieger) is housed in the 1680 Father Smith casing, another great example of how our old buildings chronicle the developments of history in their very fabric. You should also listen out for the bells, which have their own history, and unique sound.
There is a small shop which also exhibits the collection of 'church plate', a stunning assortment of silverware.
Entrance to Christ Church, as a tourist, is through Christ Church Meadows, and not the main entrance to Tom Quad on St Aldate's. It is an extremely popular venue, so in peak tourist seasons, be ready for a wait and a crush.