Strange Oxford Traditions: Ascension Day

photo (c) John Cairns

Date of Publication: 27 May 2014

Oxford is a place of old traditions. This is never more in evident when linked to the Churches in Oxford. To this day, on Ascension Day, when the Church remembers Jesus’ going up into Heaven, celebrated 30 Days after Easter, you will see something very odd happening in Oxford. Something that has happened in England since before 1066, indeed it is recorded from the time of Alfred the Great!

At around 11am, after a short service, a large group of school children, no older than eleven or twelve, accompanied by Teachers, Parents, a Priest, and normally a fair few students, emerge from the different Churches clutching long wooden sticks.

The group proceed to walk from the Church to different points in the city, through shops and Colleges alike, to do something known as ‘Beating the Bounds’. What they are doing is marking out the boundaries of the Parish (the area for which the Church is responsible)… a practice which made much more sense in a time before maps.

This is done in a peculiar way – drawing a marking on the wall (or the floor) at different points in chalk, normally a cross, with the initials of the Church and the year in each quadrant. The children (and often students too) then take the wooden canes and hit the marker, to encouraging shouts of “Mark! Mark! Mark!” At each point, the marking is often followed by the singing of a Hymn.

This happens in Shopping Malls and in Colleges. Indeed, it even happens on the floor of the world famous Codrington Library of All Souls College, something for which there is a special Act of Parliament giving right of access.

Often the Colleges will provide a welcome and refreshments to the parishioners, as they wind their way through the city, carrying out this tradition which has been observed for over a millennium.

Learn more about the history of Oxford in Is history really around every corner in Oxford?

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