Old buildings like the Sheldonian have a life of their own – a vitality accreted in the mortar over its many years of use - in which one can connect with the many people whose lives the building has touched: from the original benefactor, architect and builders; through the many students and academics who have passed through its halls; to the myriad of talented musicians who regularly perform in the space.
From the exterior the theatre has a unique character – standing elegantly aloof from its neighbours in spite of being an integral part of the University. Having enjoyed many concerts at the Sheldonian, I went with great anticipation to last night’s Late Night Opening hoping for a glimpse behind the scenes into the building’s private persona. Once inside almost alone after the last degree had been awarded, the last point had been debated and the last violin string plucked, I found that pomp and ceremony had left the building redolent in its own architectural glory echoing to the many feet and voices who have visited the building since Christopher Wren completed it in 1669.
For less than the cost of a decent glass of wine, you can sit alone with the lengthening shadows in the main hall admiring the “new” organ, controversially installed in 1999, behind the “old” Victorian casing or reflect on the newly restored flush of colours in Robert Streater’s ceiling. You can then wind your way unescorted up the worn and creaking oak stairs to the theatre’s attic – an impressive and complex geometric array of substantial oak beams, once a technological marvel - and finally you reach the building’s crowning cupola within touching distance of some dreaming spires and with panoramic views of wider Oxford and its surroundings. Last night’s lowering skies over the curls of medieval chimney pots reflected Lyra’s Oxford in my eyes.
At 346 years of age, the Sheldonian shows sign of age in the polish where fingertips have rested on bannisters and the gently concave stairs are comfortingly worn by the tread of many feet. Such creaky floors and winding staircases speak of centuries of accumulated experience and while on this tour there were tantalizing glimpses of lost faces in the shadows and just around every corner the dying strains of countless melodies could be heard. The building’s recent award-winning face lift gives it sparkle and an eye to the future - a vista certainly worth admiring.