Inside the Radcliffe Camera

The Bodleian library’s Radcliffe Camera is possibly the most iconic landmark in Oxford. No matter what the weather, all through the year, the tiny square around it is full of tourists pointing cameras and phones reverentially. As far as I’m aware, however, there are no longer any guided tours which are allowed inside this part of the Bodleian, and so the inside of the Camera remains rather more of a mystery.

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The building has changed quite a lot over the past ten years. When I was an undergraduate, the bottom floor of the library housed theology and the top floor history, with an entrance up the flight of steps at the front, where the friendly librarian on duty at the desk halfway up the stairs checked your bag on the way in (I’m not quite sure why…) and out (incase you were smuggling books of the Bodleian, which is a strictly non-borrowing library!). I don’t think the floors were carpeted back then, as I remember the horror of my footsteps echoing around the Upper Camera as I tried to navigate the complicated system of shelfmarks to find the books I needed, and some heads turned reproachfully at the noise.

The downstairs theology section was always warmer and cosier, with more free desks, but less prosaic, with barred windows that let in little daylight. Being a theologically-minded history student, though, I always cast my eyes over the shelves around me hungrily, wishing I had time to read some of the alluring volumes. The Upper Camera was always more intimidating, with its incredible echo (I sneezed today, while visiting for the first time in a long time, and the sound roared around the cathedral-like space) and majestic spaciousness. The worst and best part always was the gallery. The worst things were the echoes of footsteps (now somewhat muffled by the carpet) and the terribly shaky narrow iron staircase up to the gallery which always trembled even at my light weight. The best thing was the view, out over All Souls College and the distant countryside beyond it, the University Church, Exeter and Brasenose Colleges, the rest of the Bodleian, and the dreaming spires of Oxford. At sunset, I used to stand at one of the windows, drinking in the view for a few minutes, before heading home down dark and narrow Brasenose Lane, both enchantingly historic and rather dangerous after dark.

Things have changed somewhat nowadays. The History Faculty Library has now moved into the downstairs I think, the whole building has been carpeted (a good idea, as it makes it warmer and quieter), and – just as I was leaving – the ‘Glink’ opened beneath the Bodleian, an idiosyncratic subterranean space.

But recently I was back, and reminded of the terrible echoes, the confusing shelfmarks, the ‘Bodelian-resident’ type of students who sit silent and ever-present at their desks in the library even in the summer holidays(!), and the beautiful architecture and breathtaking views. I was, more practically, also reminded what an incomparable resource Oxbridge students have on their doorstep. If I need to consult a book for my thesis and it’s not in my university library, my best option is often to plan a trip to Oxford to read that pesky chapter I simply can’t do without; Oxford students simply need to trot up the road, and they’re surrounded by almost every book they could possibly need. I’m very glad and grateful that I too can visit when I need to, though.

Since I couldn’t resist a few shots of the view around me (including some very unusual stools, that I think one would only find casually placed around the library in Oxbridge), here is a rare glimpse into the quite unique world of the Upper Camera (or ‘Upper Cam’, as we always called it).

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View from the Upper Cam gallery over Brasenose College and Lincoln College.

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View from the gallery over the Upper Cam

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View from the Upper Cam gallery over All Souls College

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The strange stool

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The Radcliffe Camera square

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