THE final touches are being made to a major revamp of one of Oxford’s most iconic buildings.

For the past year, craftsmen have been working on a painstaking restoration of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin in High Street.

The whole scheme has cost about £5.1m, with the construction element priced at £3.14m.

Virtually all the stonework has been cleaned, repaired or replaced.

Experts including English Heritage and Oxford Archaeology have been consulted, while work has been led by Beard, which has offices in Oxford, using sub-contractors including Clifton Conservation and Long Hanborough-based stonemasons Joslins.

Numerous challenges have been faced during the work.

Cleaning one stained glass window had to be abandoned because there was no way of doing it without causing damage, and each of the monuments inside the church had to be treated using different techniques as they dated from differing periods and were constructed using different materials.

Even the scaffolding needed for work on the tower – some 200 tons of it on 27 levels – was far from straightforward.

Project manager Sophie Slade said: “There are only two or three sides of the building in which you can put the supports so we had a lot of very complex wrangling about how to put safe scaffolding around the tower so you didn’t pull it down.”

One of the most striking new features is the ceiling of the nave above the altar, known as a celure. Ms Slade said: “It is a special effect where it looks as if you are looking at the sky.

“We have gone for a very contemporary approach so we have done an actual constellation, the Pleiades, that was mentioned in the bible.”

The effect was achieved by using gilded plaster stars.

The Grade 1 listed building was given a £3.4m Heritage Lottery Fund grant for the work including an educational programme, and additional money has come from a fundraising campaign, Oxford University and the Clore Duffield Foundation.

The educational programme will include various ‘interventions’ around the church, ranging from a visitor desk, to projections of images, to a sound curtain – choral music which can be heard only as you approach the chancel.

The Rev Canon Brian Mountford said: “The beauty of the church has really been brought out.”

It is the first major restoration work since the 1890s.

The church will be rededicated with a special ceremony, led by the Right Rev Nicholas Holtam, Bishop of Salisbury, on Sunday, February 3 at 10.30am.

To find out more about the scheme and the church visit


The History of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin

Mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086, the University Church of St Mary the Virgin is one of Oxford’s most popular visitor attractions, seeing around 300,000 visitors each year.

Oxford University grew around the church, and adopted St Mary’s as its centre.

By the early 13th century it was the seat of university government where degrees were awarded.

All university business left the church by the middle of the 17th century but it remains the place where the university comes to worship.

The three Anglican bishops known as the Oxford Martyrs – Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer – were burnt at the stake in the 16th century after undergoing part of their trial at St Mary’s.

Other famous attendees include John Wesley, who founded the Methodist church l A sermon by John Keble at the church in 1833 is considered to have launched the ‘Oxford Movement’, an attempt to revive catholic spirituality in the church and university.