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Invaluable restoration for Oxford church

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University Church of St Mary the Virgin- Oxford

A £5.5 million project to restore a 13th Century church in Oxford is nearing completion.

Situated on High Street, the work is currently being undertaken at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin. The project comprises the internal conservation and refurbishment of the church, including the repair of ancillary spaces, along with the restoration and conservation of external stone work, including pillars.

In addition, new facilities – including a platform lift, DDA compliant toilets and a new kitchen – are also being installed on the site to improve provisions for visitors.

University Church of St Mary the Virgin- Oxford

Swindon-based company, Beard, is the main contractor on the project, whilst conservation, heritage and listed building specialists Caroe Architecture is providing all architectural services on the site. Since work started on the project, Oliver Caroe, the lead architect at the University Church of St Mary the Virgin has been appointed as the architect at St Paul’s Cathedral.

Funding for the restoration project is being provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, with additional funding from Clore Duffield and the University of Oxford.

Project Coordinator, Sophie Slade, said:

“University Church of St Mary the Virgin is one of the oldest churches in Oxford and dates back to 1280. The work being undertaken on this site marks the first major programme of repairs, conservation and refurbishment since the 1890s.

“There is a programme of conservation, refurbishment and repairs across the entire Church complex and new facilities are being installed to make certain parts of the building much more accessible.

University Church of St Mary the Virgin- Oxford

“The project is a Heritage Lottery Funded scheme under the title Education, Heritage and Renewal for the 21st Century. The scheme consists of three strands: construction, interpretation and education. I’m overseeing all three of the elements, with £3.4 million being allocated for the construction side of the project.”

Work began on the restoration project in November 2011. Internal work on the site has taken place on the side chapel, the tower – including its base – the chancel, the cafe and the old library. All of the work required the erection of birdcage scaffolding and a team of conservators have worked from the top of the church downwards, cleaning and repainting stonework and finishes.

University Church of St Mary the Virgin- Oxford

All the monuments and stain glassed windows on the site have also received an extensive clean, whilst a team of electricians has worked across the entire building, stripping out the existing wiring and replacing it with new cabling.

An intelligent lighting system – featuring dimmable controls – is also being installed.

Discussing the extensive restoration process, Sophie Slade said:

“The project has been very challenging and with hindsight we may have looked at alternative ways to continue the church’s ongoing operations. We always understood the work might be a little difficult at times, but the programming of this project has been a little bit more complex than anyone realised.

“Once the phase involving the nave area commenced and the space was filled with a birdcage scaffold, shared occupancy became more challenging. During this phase it has been more difficult to welcome visitors into the church as it made the building look less inviting.

“Restoring access to the tower also took a little longer than envisaged, so a temporary route had to be installed as the tower is one of the most popular visitor attractions, with approximately 300,000 visitors per year.”

University Church of St Mary the Virgin- Oxford

In addition to the current work on the site, some external landscaping is also set to take place in the church yard to improve access for wheelchair users.

Sophie Slade said:

“This restoration work is part of a much wider scheme, with the interpretation and education side of the project being included to increase access and information for visitors.

“We do not want the site to become a museum rather we want visitors to be able to understand the history of the church. We are lifting the standard of information that is available, allowing visitors to access it more readily.

University Church of St Mary the Virgin- Oxford

“We are working with a number of schools in the area and we are also appointing a number of heritage volunteers who will be on site, welcoming visitors on a regular basis. The volunteers will be able to provide even more information regarding the unique history of the church and how the site sits within the wider context of Oxford.”

The restoration of the University Church of St Mary the Virgin is currently scheduled to reach completion in December 2012.

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