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  • Writer's pictureMimi Goodall, PhD

A Brief History of Christ Church Meadow in Oxford

What is Christ Church Meadow?

Christ Church Meadow is a pleasant, historic open space in Oxford with a war memorial and many beautiful flowers.

Christ Church Meadow at dusk

Christ Church Meadow History

Oxford is filled with green spaces. Peep through the doorway of almost any college and you’ll catch a glimpse of a perfectly manicured quad. Christ Church Meadow is somewhat different. Far from being a neat and trim square of grass, it’s a bucolic expanse bordered on two sides by the major Oxford rivers, the Cherwell to the east, and the Isis to the west (the River Thames is known as the Isis when it passes through Oxford). Christ Church Meadow is on a flood plain and its appearance changes throughout the year. Sometimes it’s a cool respite from the summer heat; at other times flood waters cover almost all of it, occasionally coming right up to the Broad Walk just outside the college from which it derives its name.

A path winds around the circumference of the meadow. Once you’ve walked this, you’ll have taken in some of Oxford’s most quintessential sights. It offers unparalleled views of some of the city’s most beautiful buildings: Christ Church, Magdalen College, and Merton College. You might also see some rare English Longhorn cows since a herd lives here in the meadow. You’re also likely to observe students rowing on the river. Most of the university boathouses are reached via a bridge crossing from the southernmost point of the meadow to a small spit of land known as Boathouse Island. It’s common to see crews of two, four or eight rowers, sporting their college colours, working up a sweat on the river. If you happen to be in Oxford around the first week of March or the last week of May, you might be lucky enough to watch Torpids or Summer Eights, the two hotly anticipated annual student rowing competitions.

people walking down a path at christ church meadow whilst the sun shines through the trees in autumn.

Christ Church Meadow has other historic associations with energetic and inventive endeavour. The meadow was the location of some of the earliest balloon flights in England: in 1784 James Sadler, ‘the first English aeronaut’, rose from Christ Church Meadow and landed ten kilometres away after a half-hour flight. You can find a plaque memorialising the occasion on the wall of Merton College, at the north side of the meadow.

But the meadow has a slightly more sombre past as well. This same northern stretch, where a wall borders Merton and Corpus Christi College, is known as Deadman’s Walk. It’s the site of an ancient footpath that crossed the Jewish Quarter, located just outside the old city walls. Medieval Jewish funeral processions would weave their way along the path, from the synagogue on Great Jewry Street, now St Aldate’s, to the Jewish cemetery once located where the Botanic Garden now stands. In the garden, you’ll find an inscription commemorating the Jewish community’s contributions to the medieval city and university during the 12th and 13th centuries.

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