Founded in 1264, Merton College is one of the oldest colleges in Oxford, now approaching its 750th anniversary. It includes the oldest quad in Oxbridge (Mob Quad), the oldest chapel (originally designed as a cathedral and featuring medieval stained glass windows and painted ceilings and a screen by Christopher Wren alongside a brand new 2013 organ) and the oldest continually used academic library in the UK.
Walter de Merton bought up much land in Oxford so the college has amazing grounds, meandering gently down Merton Street after the initial bulb of the chapel quad, croquet lawn, Fellows' quad and Mob Quad. The front entrance is just a few minutes from the city centre, while the back leads straight to Christ Church Meadows, a rural idyll which has sneaked in close to the city and offers fantastic, relaxing views to students and tourists alike.
Architecturally, Merton is a fabulous place. It contains one of the only Neo-Gothic buildings in its Old Warden's Lodgings (now a library), but also three unique sundials which attract tourists from around the world. Fellows' quad was commissioned by Sir Thomas Bodley, who went on to build the Bodleian Library.
Bodley was just one of Merton's famous alumni; Tolkien and TS Eliot are others, and as you wander around the extensive college gardens, you get a real sense of a magical, creative atmosphere, and come to understand how these men were inspired by the place.
The large permanent gardening team work hard to maintain a glorious set of gardens. Most major items are labelled so that visitors can appreciate the variety, and there is constant change as the team plant seasonal plants to enhance the glory of the place. Giant thistles, great banks of lavender, small 'bleeding hearts', apple trees trained along walls… the gardens are luscious and well worth a visits in their own right.
Merton College is open to the public 14:00-17:00 weekdays, and 10:00-17:00 at weekends at a cost of £3 or £2 until the chapel is reopened with the new organ. More information can be found on the Merton College website, which includes short videos to demonstrate more about college life.
College Evensong takes place at 17:45 on Tuesdays, Thursday and Sundays during term, and is open to the general public, free of charge. The college choir is part of a new music foundation who are already winning awards for their classical CDs.