Original features

October 9, 2008

New College, Oxford, may now be home to that pugnacious atheist Richard Dawkins, but it was founded by the Bishop of Winchester, William of Wykeham, in 1379 specifically to offer up prayers for his soul.

Much of the front quadrangle, hall, chapel and cloisters dates back to his times. They seem to have been designed to repel attack, with the college protected by a ditch and the city walls just beyond.

The celebrated oblong cloisters, consecrated in 1400, are reached through a vaulted passage from the chapel vestibule, which was once the site of the choristers' school. The roof is held up by huge unsupported medieval joists that bear the weight of the stone tiles and show no sign of sagging.

The cloisters were built for processions and burials, and they are still decorated with memorial tablets to the war dead and to famous alumni, including novelist John Galsworthy and Labour politician Hugh Gaitskell. They are used for open-air productions of student plays in the summer, sometimes with eerie interventions from the top of the bell tower looming above. They also featured in the film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, where the cloisters' 200-year-old oak tree formed a backdrop to a scene of magic.

Suggestions for this regular architectural series are welcome: matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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