Every year, Oxford Open Doors unlocks the doors to buildings across Oxford, letting us explore unusual and historical sides of the city that we otherwise might not get the chance to see.
Although tickets for many properties get snapped up pretty quickly, there are still plenty of architectural delights you can check out on a drop-in basis, all for free.
There’s also tours, exhibitions and talks to help you dive even further into the hidden histories of the capital and a range of guided and self-guided walks around the city and its green setting.
There has been a theatre on George Street for almost 170 years. The first theatre was built in 1836, and the second in 1886. In 1934, the third – called New Theatre – opened. Now owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group, it hosts everything from ballet and opera to musicals. Take a peek behind the scenes for Oxford’s largest theatre, including a chance to tread the boards of our prestigious stage.
Visit the restored mill and marina, the last remains of Osney Abbey built in 1410 and the Archimedes Screw that powers the site. Osney Mill is a former flour mill on a branch of the River Thames in Oxford. The mill was gutted by a fire in 1945 and remained derelict for over 60 years. The exterior walls were incorporated into a modern apartment building that now occupies the site during the early-2010s. The mill itself was built on the site of Osney Abbey. Little is left of the abbey, but there is still rubble and timber-framed structure at the mill site, which may date from the 15th century.
Balliol College is one of the oldest Oxford colleges. It was founded around 1263 by John I de Balliol, a wealthy landowner from Barnard Castle in County Durham, who provided the foundation and endowment for the college. The college is well known for its diverse community, friendly atmosphere and lively spirit of intellectual debate. Notable alumni include four Prime Ministers, five Nobel laureates and numerous literary and philosophical figures. Can’t make it for Oxford Open Doors? The college is open as often as can be and welcomes visitors who wish to tour the buildings and gardens.
The Old Palace, the current home of the Catholic Chaplains to the students and other Oxford University members, was the residence of the first Bishop of Oxford, Bishop King, in the 1540s. Its present impressive frontage dates from 1628, and the interior includes vestiges of both the earlier occupancy and the more ornate decorations of the Jacobean period, with the ceiling of the ‘Blue Room’ being the most striking. The house has had a fascinating history since then and became the home of the University of the Catholic Chaplaincy in 1920.
Christ Church and Dorchester Residential Management are opening up historic buildings at Wick Farm (also known as Headington Wick) near Barton – the first time these buildings have been open to the public. A heritage specialist will be onsite to talk about the history of the Grade II* listed Well House dating to the late 17th/early 18th century and the mid to late 18th century Grade II Wick Farmhouse Barn. Until 1881 the boundary of the parish of Headington looped north to include Wick Farm, and it continued to be considered part of Headington after that date.
Exeter College is located at the heart of Oxford, adjoining the Bodleian Library. The college is the fourth oldest at the University, and it has occupied its current site on Turl Street since 1315, one year after it was founded. Its founder, Walter de Stapeldon, was a Devon man who rose from a humble background to become Bishop of Exeter and Treasurer of England under Edward II. View the Chapel, the rarely-open Fellows’ Garden and sit in the 17th-century dining hall. See where filming for the young Tolkien, Discovery of Witches, Great British Menu final (2020) and Endeavour all took place. Light snacks will be available in the Undercroft Bar.
St Martin’s Tower more commonly referred to as “Carfax Tower”, is all that remains of the 13th century St Martin’s Church, the official city church of Oxford from 1122. It is considered to be the centre of the city. In 1896, the main part of the church was demolished to make more room for traffic in the area. The tower is 74 feet tall and no building in central Oxford may be constructed higher than it. Climb the 99 steps to the top of Carfax Tower for an amazing birds-eye view of Oxford’s Dreaming Spires. Beyond Oxford Open Days, the tower is open 10.00am to 5.30pm from Easter to October, and 10.00am to 3.30pm between October and Easter.
The Holywell Music Room, with access from Holywell Street, is said to be the oldest, purpose-built music room in Europe and hence England’s first concert hall. It was designed by Thomas Camplin, former Vice-Principal of St Edmund Hall, and opened in July 1748. The room continued as a concert venue throughout the 18th century and until 1836, from which time it was used for several other events, including auctions and exhibitions. The interior has been restored to a near-replica of the original and contains the only surviving Donaldson organ, built in 1790 by John Donaldson of Newcastle.
The University Church has been visited by many illustrious figures who left their mark on the building. Meet five of the most famous ones, Elizabeth I, Archbishop William Laud, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, John Henry Newman and John Wesley in a tale woven over the centuries expertly led by an accredited guide. The tower is the oldest part of the church still visible today. It dates from 1280 and is decorated with beautifully carved gargoyles and grotesques. The 127 steps up to the top lead you past the Clore Old Library and the historic bell ringing chamber. Outside of Oxford Open Doors, access to the Church remains free but visitors will need to purchase a ticket for the Tower for an allocated period of 20 minutes.