Located on St Aldates, Christ Church is hard to miss: its towering spires and Romanesque buildings encircle Tom Quad, the largest in Oxford, and its impressive architecture stands peacefully next to a sprawling meadow. Some of us might know it as former home to academics such as John Locke, Albert Einstein, and Lewis Carroll. Most of us know it as the College where many scenes of the famous Harry Potter films take place. We also know that it is not always so easy to saunter up to the gates and stroll in, especially when there is an intimidating custodian standing there with a “Closed to Visitors” sign. I, for one, am guilty of sneaking onto the grounds at night to peer up the grand staircase, wander amongst the cloisters, and pretend that I actually go to Hogwarts.
Of course, not everyone has to be so sneaky. Every year, thousands and thousands of tourists enter the College. During certain designated hours and for an entrance fee, visitors are let in by the custodians to similarly experience a bit of this Harry Potter magic, a bit of that Alice in Wonderland charm. As the days lengthen and the warmer weather invites more visitors from all over the world, I decided gather my courage and approach one of the custodians to ask about his experience guarding the famous College.
It was an uncharacteristically bright Sunday morning when I walked to the main entrance of Christ Church. The sky was a pristine blue, church bells were tolling, and custodian Dick Evans was standing next to the familiar “Closed to Visitors” sign in the middle of the gate. He was wearing a crisp bowler hat and a smart black overcoat. Although I entered the gate with some uncertainty, I realized I had nothing to fear when Evans said, “G’morning! You all right?”
During the next half an hour, he spoke cheerfully about how he became a custodian and what it was like to work at Christ Church.
According to Evans, there are about thirteen custodians who work at the College, and they all come from “all walks of life.” Although most are English, one custodian is Hungarian and another is Spanish. Evans, a Welshman himself, had previously worked as a policeman and investigator. He became a part-time custodian at Christ Church after he retired, and seems to enjoy talking to both students and visitors.
“It’s lovely! You can make it as hard or as easy as you’d like. If you stand in the middle of the day and don’t talk to anybody, it gets very boring and time goes very slowly. But if you talk to everybody, they get to know you, you get to know the students.”
With a background in public safety, Evans doesn’t feel threatened by the constant flow of people. In fact, he doesn’t have much reason to: “We have radios. Panic button’s in the box. And the students here are lovely students. I’ve never met a bad student. I would say 99.9% of the students would speak to me if I were to say hello.”
However: “A lot would go in with their headphones,” he adds with a laugh.
When it comes to differentiating between tourists and students, Evans seems confident. “It comes with experience. If you’re a visitor to Oxford, you come in…it’s a bit like being star-struck, isn’t it? You look in and you go, ‘Wow! What is all that? What is all – How wonderful that is…’ But if you’re a student, you can normally tell they’re confident, not interested in their surroundings, as they come in straight in, you say hello, and you do get to know them, but if you’re a visitor or a stranger, they just don’t know where they’re going.” At that moment, a young man walked in with a messenger bag.
“G’morning!” Evans said. The young man responded with a quick nod and Evans let him in without another word.
A typical day for Evans involves alternating between the quad, the stairs, the hall, and the different gates that lead into and out of the College, including Tom Gate, Canterbury Gate, and Meadow Gate.
Custodians are also responsible for leading the “Behind the Scenes” tours, and they learn their facts from informational booklets that they are given when they first arrive on the job. They also learn about the College from each other. “It’s surprising what you pick up from custodians, the other people in the college who’ve been here longer than me. There’s so many portraits in the hall, if you did a history of the portraits, you could do a day’s tour on just the portraits!”
According to Evans, the College earns about 2.5 million pounds a year in tourism alone. However, the best-kept secret of Christ Church is off-limits to both tourists and students: the rabbit hole.
“The rabbit hole was some sort of secret fox door on the left hand corner of the Great Hall. It disappears down to the spiral staircase – lovely spiral staircase – to the Senior Common Room. And that’s where Alice’s father would’ve had his glass of port or wine before he left to eat at the table.”
Now, it is closed. Only those lucky enough to dine at the High Table use it to enter the Great Hall for formal dinners.
Beyond the typical tourist attractions, Evans is privy to other strange sights in College. “You see some of the students: they’re in their pajamas all day. And you see them walking around the quad. In the evenings, some of them even go in for formal hall, formal dinner…in their pajamas! I saw a gentleman last week, he was just going out. That was the first time I saw him wearing [normal] clothes!”
Evans’ only real complaint, really, seems to be the money. “Minimum wage!” he exclaims. “But,” he adds quickly, “you still get nice meals on duty.” In fact, he is particularly enthusiastic about the meals: “On Saturdays and Sundays they give us brunch, which is a late breakfast. The rest of the week – there’s a little sort of canteen off the great hall. The food is very nice – three course meal. Last week, I had skate wing. Roast beef this week.”
“Skate wing is very expensive, you know,” he informs me.
After our conversation, I left Christ Church to wander around the meadows. I went to stand next to a young woman who was admiring the flying buttresses and the intricate designs of College buildings. We both stood in silence for a while before we started talking. Her name was Kathleen, and she was a Brazilian studying Archeology for the year in Barcelona.
Eventually, I asked, “What brings you to Christ Church?”
“Of course, Harry Potter,” Kathleen admits. “I come here, and I see it’s just like the movies.” But then she adds, “I like also history. It’s beautiful…it’s big, beautiful; it makes me time travel to the past. If I stay here, I dunno, I feel like I’m in the 13th century or whatever. With the music of the bells, the sounds, yes, it’s like a dream.”