A Trip to the Top of Magdalen Tower

The second college tour of 2015 featured a special delight: Professor Nick Stargardt, History Fellow of Magdalen, treated a group of Ertegun scholars with a rare opportunity to climb Magdalen Tower and to see the city of Oxford from on high. For once, the weather proved to be propitious: while it was quite windy atop the tower’s platform, the morning’s clouds and wintry showers had dispersed, leaving the sky windswept and blue.

Towering at 144 feet, Magdalen Tower is the tallest structure in Oxford proper, and from such a height, one gets a distinctive impression of how cosy Oxford is, with the city flanked by the gently rolling hills of the Cotswolds on the west, and the sharp incline of Headington Hill to the east. The panoramic view of Oxford and its surroundings, viewed from atop Magdalen Tower, also disclosed certain secrets not visible from the street level: the row of shops on the High Street conveniently disguise St Edmund Hall’s ghastly brutalist residences, though they are all too visible fifteen stories up. Built over a period of seventeen years from 1492 to 1509, the tower’s irregular steps testify to the change in dimensions and plans—they were very narrow and slightly taxing to ascend! Replete with late winter sunshine, ascending Magdalen Tower left me with unforgettable vistas of the city and an appreciation for Oxford’s topography.

On the ground, our ever-faithful Ertegun director, Bryan Ward Perkins, guided us through Magdalen’s ostensibly medieval grounds, though as Bryan took pains to point out, a great deal of the current structures were heavily modified during the 19th century, not to mention the Neoclassical New Building of the 1730s. The resulting hybrid is nonetheless charming: the Cloisters are very attractive, though not as secluded and peaceful as New College’s, and the Chapel’s muted 18th century stained glass is striking, as is the replica of Da Vinci’s The Last Supper hanging above the Chapel’s entrance. The Ertegun scholars in attendance were well and truly spoiled by the experience!

Jacob Meister