We always love to meet new people and make friends in the world of thatch, and we are not letting the current situation stop us, which is why we were excited to learn about the Christ Church Visitor Centre project in Oxford from the architects behind the plan. Purcell is a specialist architectural firm focusing on heritage and conservation – a field very closely linked to the thatching industry. We are grateful for use of the lovely images so that we can all visualise the fantastic job they have done improving the facilities at this historic site, even if we can’t explore it in person right now.
History of Christ Church
As the Cathedral church for the city and Diocese of Oxford, Christ Church is pivotal to the history, religion and culture for the region. Uniquely, Christ Church is also the college chapel to the Oxford University College of the same name. The college’s iconic architecture, particularly its Great Hall (inspiration for the fictional Great Hall of J. K. Rowlings’s Hogwarts School,) and Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower, is recognised globally as a symbol of one of the longest established Universities in the world.
The Church building is part of a religious complex first founded in the 8th century, and used as a monastery for centuries. In the mid-16th century, the priory was demolished to make way for a new University College, retaining the church as its chapel. The instalment of a bishop during its construction meant the chapel also became a Cathedral.
The Need for a New Christ Church Visitor Centre
Before the project, the Christ Church visitor centre was not one coherent unit as it is now. There was previously a tourist shop located in the Cathedral’s Chapter house, but space was limited and more storage needed. With an estimated 400 000 visitors per year, Christ Church not surprisingly is prone to congestion at its most popular times. The goal was to create a new ticketing system within the Visitor Centre to cut down on waiting times.
Overseen by the Governing Body at Christ Church, the project was managed by the architectural firm Purcell. Other credits (excluding thatching) go to:-
- The Landscaping team at Colvin & Moggridge
- The Contractor Beard
- Hoare Lea for M&E Engineering
- The Morton Partnership for Structural Engineering
- Stantec for Civil Engineering.
The Site of the New Christ Church Visitor Centre
The project to create a new, unified Christ Church Visitor Centre revolved around the restoration and extension of a previously unused thatched barn. Situated on its own in a tranquil meadow between the Thames and Cherwell rivers, the grounds offered many attractions, and the tranquil views were taken into consideration during the design phase.
However, there were also challenges to overcome. As well as being a Green Belt site in the Oxford flood plain, and Grade I listed in its own right, Christ Church Meadow is listed on the English Heritage Register of Historic Parks and Gardens. Therefore, the restoration designs needed to be sympathetic to both the rural setting and the nearby Grade I listed buildings of the College. Work was planned after extensive consultation with Historic England, and archaeologists to ensure any civil war remains were not damaged.
The Thatched Barn
First, the original early 19th century barn structure was repaired using appropriate traditional and sustainable materials to ensure longevity as well as meeting modern standards. Then, extensions were created using a combination of traditional natural materials and modern methods, to integrate the new sections with the old.
The interior of the barn offers a lesson in historic architecture to the visitor with exposed woodwork in the walls, and original stone floors protected by a modern suspended boardwalk.
Externally, of course, the thatch needed to be completely replaced. Oxfordshire based K Davis Ltd was brought in for this important task. As the only thatched building within the City of Oxford, there was no question but to retain this unique feature and preserve it for future generations to appreciate. Existing pine queen trusses were repaired, and new oak trusses were used to extend the space. The thatched roof of the original barn is now linked to a new thatched building with a step so that the extent of the original building is evident, but the transition is not jarring to look at.
Facilities at the New Christ Church Visitor Centre
As well as providing the much needed new ticketing space giving access to the private buildings of the college, the Christ Church Visitor Centre will be open to the general public, staff and students to visit without charge.
The extended thatched barn will house the new shop, meaning the medieval Chapter house can now be restored and used for more appropriate purposes. There will be a café and interpretation area where visitors can learn about the meadow around the thatched barn as well as the history of Christ Church College. The extra room also allows for a multipurpose meeting and seminar space, with catering facilities on site. Upstairs there are facilities, storage and offices for staff. Outside, there is a new works compound with yard facilities for the team in charge of maintaining the green spaces of Christ Church.
The Future of Christ Church Visitor Centre
Although the Christ Church Visitor Centre is sadly currently closed to the public, we look forward to an opportunity in the not too distant future to explore it for ourselves once government restrictions are lifted. For one of our team here at thatch HQ, a visit to Christ Church will evoke memories of exploring with a then member of the college and a thorough soaking after being toppled from a punt!
If you have any memories of the thatched barn, or were lucky enough to see it being restored, we would love to hear from you.