About half of Oxford’s 39 colleges participated in Open Doors weekend which for most, it seems, involved opening their doors wider than usual, sticking blue balloons on them and not demanding money as townfolk walked through. One I was intrigued to see in the programme was All Souls’, a college for extremely bright postgraduates only, and perceived even by university insiders to be aloof and elitist. Years of seeing it through its resolutely shut high iron gate have intrigued me. Others too, it turned out. It was crowded but to my astonishment All Souls’ knows how to welcome people. There was a leaflet specially produced for the day and an incongruous brass band (well, not entirely incongruous – all, men and women, were in black tie) playing jaunty numbers in the cloisters. I queued for the Codrington Library and gasped when I saw it – what could you possibly want to do but study faced with this elegance? Oh to be clever enough to lose myself in a book at one of those little desks…
Every hundred years, All Souls’ holds a ceremony in which the Fellows parade around the College with flaming torches led by a 'Lord Mallard' who is carried in a chair, in search of a giant mallard that supposedly flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built in 1437. The Fellows sing the Mallard Song and the procession is led by an individual carrying a duck — originally dead, now just wooden — tied to the end of a vertical pole. When the ceremony was last due in 2001 a friend of mine was working in the office and had to check the college archives for the correct procedures. They turned out to be incomplete so she had the delightful task of filling in the gaps then recording what they’d done for those who will have to chase the mallard again in 2101.
I went to see the chapel and on the way out I spotted a notice requesting visitors to pray for the soul of a college fellow. This is not what I do but I walked over to see who had recently departed. ‘Richard Spekinton, who died on the 9th day of the month of March’. OK, not that recent. Um, what? ‘In the one thousand four hundred and ninetieth year of our Lord’? That’s one old soul.