Through Looking Glass with the Dean of Christ Church

Oxford Mail: Bill Heine Bill Heine

‘There’s a bit of magic around here,” mused the Dean of Christ Church as we walked from the real life playroom of Alice in Wonderland to the cinematic Hogwarts Hall from the Harry Potter films. After 11 years, Christopher Lewis was leaving the college; but the first time we met was also a ‘Tinkerbelle moment’.

I stood in Tom Quad beside his huge door that opened two steps up, one foot off the ground. I felt small and Alice-like when I encountered this large grin a full two feet above me. “You must be Bill. I’m Christopher. Do come in.”

Oxford Mail:

Bill Heine with the Dean of Christ Church College, Christopher Lewis by the Alice Door leading to the Cathedral Garden

We walked into his study and stood in front of a French window with a view to a garden that showed no signs of the 20th or 21st centuries. It was quiet and peaceful and a few hundred yards from the belching, spluttering traffic congestion of Carfax.

Then the guinea fowl started to screech. Christopher threw up the window which turned into a door and we went to investigate. The seven chickens and four guinea fowl were housed under a huge, gnarled, two hundred year old white horse-chestnut tree. He pointed to a branch. “That’s supposed to be the perch of Alice Liddell’s cat with the Cheshire grin.”

This time when we walked back into his study the Dean introduced me to his cat, Julie. “Well, she’s not exactly my cat, she’s a ‘place’ cat, a Deanery animal. We’ll part company soon. She was found years ago…in July, hence the name Julie.”

Oxford Mail:

Christopher with wife Rhona in line of the window seats in the nursery.

Julie ‘owned’ the garden and took us over to the wooden pen of the thirty-year-old college tortoise called ‘Sampras’, after Pete. He was in training, munching on some lettuce, getting ready for the annual Oxford Colleges Tortoise Fair this Sunday at Corpus Christi which climaxes with a tortoise race.

The course is strewn with lambs lettuce to entice the varsity college tortoise contenders. Sampras came in last last year, and this sparked a great debate about whether or not he really had won “for the last shall be first”.

Julie walked us over to the lynch pin of Lewis Carroll’s book, the door to a secret garden that Alice was desperate to enter. As daughter of the Dean of Christ Church she had the run of the walled family garden, but from the window of her first floor playroom Alice could see over the wall into the Cathedral garden where she was not allowed.

The Dean opened the door and we slipped into Alice’s Wonderland, which like all dreamscapes is better experienced in the mind. I hope this garden was more exhilarating 150 years ago because today it is almost ‘the pits’, devoid of colour, texture or fragrance. Poor Alice, she must be turning in her grave.

Oxford Mail:

The pair are pictured by the Alice Door leading to the Cathedral Garden

Christopher Lewis asked if I wanted to see the gridirons in the Great Hall which was filmed as Hogwarts in the Harry Potter series. They held a possible connection to the Alice stories because they feature two ‘characters’ with elongated necks, a la Alice when she was struggling with ‘the great puzzle’ – “I can’t go back to yesterday, because I was a different person then.”

So the Dean of Christ Church is also looking at the ‘great puzzle’ and has to go forward to tomorrow with his retirement looming. When? Well it’s complicated...technically by the end of September, but in practice at the end of the academic year, around the fourth of July. Things are not quite what they seem here.’’

Was he a different person when he started as Dean 11 years ago? How has he changed? There’s no straightforward answer to that either. “You’d better ask the people that matter – students, colleagues, my wife Rhona.’’

During our conversations he created his own version of Wonderland. He liked ‘institutions’. “They are important. They influence you and you become part of them, but you also need to be questioning constantly. Nothing is not under review. It's valuable to be a rebel. You need to stand back and be critical as well as being a part.’’

History is at the heart of things, but the past is prologue. The sheer history of Christ Church is obvious. But the Dean is not obsessed by the past and his part in the fabric of the place. He took great delight in the modern Christ Church. “This is not a museum. It is a contemporary education institution.

May not look like that but it is on the cutting edge of astrophysics, nano-technology as well as history and religion.’’ How important is style to the Dean? “Christ Church has enough self-confidence not to be worried about itself and its image. People expect us to be formal, but we’re not. We have fun; we don’t have to put on airs.’’

The greatest paradox came in a discussion about the big downside and the big upside of being Dean; and the answer was the same.

Oxford Mail:

The view from a nursery window, as seen by the young Alice Liddell, overlooking the locked garden door

“The most difficult and complex side of running an institution like Christ Church is the personnel. There is no way of avoiding that. But at the same time the greatest joy and reward in the job are the people – the students, alumni, staff, academics, parents, colleagues…’’

The future: what does that look like as he leaves Christ Church? “We need to review what we teach, and how people learn. Everything academic should be open to change. From the outside the structure of an Oxford College like this does not look like it is in flux, but inside everything is under review.

“We need to focus much more on environmental conservation with these old buildings…maybe solar panels on the roof or ground heat pumps in the meadow. And access to what Christ Church has to offer is crucial. We need to encourage a much wider group of people to apply.’’ If the Dean were to tell me – “Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast’’, I would be tempted to reply: “That is an excellent practice.’’

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