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Somerville swings into action for Open Doors Day

17th September 2013

Somerville College was pleased to welcome some 300 members of the public to explore the College buildings and grounds for Open Doors Day on Sunday.

Guests had the opportunity to stroll through one of Oxford’s first two women’s colleges free of charge; the college has been home to such diverse figures as Dorothy Hodgkin, Vera Brittain, Iris Murdoch, Indira Gandhi, Shirley Williams and Margaret Thatcher.

“The day seemed to go off with a right swing,” said Mark Ealey, Lodge Manager at Somerville College. “There was a steady flow of people and they were sure to have a good look at everything, from the plants to the chapel.”

Once inside, their route began with the New Council Room, the neoclassical nineteenth century College Council meeting room, before progressing to the Margaret Thatcher Conference Centre, opened in 1991, where Thatcher’s portrait hangs next to a portrait of fellow alumna Indira Gandhi. Both Somervillians were the first to become women prime ministers of their countries.

The Chapel, next stop on the tour, is a Somerville particular, with no denominational affiliation and a menu of different religious and humanist talks and services over the course of the academic year. The Chapel is watched over by two especially significant alumni, whose memorial plaques sit on the north and south walls. Dorothy Hodgkin is still the only British women to have won a Nobel Prize for science (hers was in Chemistry), while Dorothy L Sayers found fame as a novelist and translator, best-known for her fictional creation Peter Wimsey.

Next on the agenda were the gardens and the main quad. The Fellows’ Garden and the sundial which is its centre piece were created in memory of Madeleine Shaw Lefevre, the College’s first Principal. Today the College grounds are tranquil; the donkey, pony, two cows and a pig that once lived there are long gone, but other curious specimens still remain in the gardens.

Somerville’s gardeners have a history of importing plants from all around the world, but the unusual array of flora on display sparked the concern of one guest, who correctly identified a poisonous Castor Oil Plant. Despite its toxicity, the Castor Oil plant is commonly grown for ornamental purposes, thanks to the deep red of its stems and leaves.

The tour ended at the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ), purchased from the NHS by the university in 2003, and now at the heart of an enormous building project that will see several university departments move to the site.

Yet what is to many the jewel in the Somerville crown remained closed to visitors, since the College Library is currently undergoing refurbishment. Women were not allowed to use the Bodleian, the University of Oxford’s principal library, until the mid-20th century. Thus Somerville College, founded in 1879 as Somerville Hall, had to collect its own books – the result is the largest book collection of any College library at the university.

The College is eagerly awaiting the chance to reopen the collection and showcase the building’s newly restored stone façade, when the library officially reopens on 7 October.

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