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Miranda Hockliffe, Cathedral Visitor Officer

Written by Emily Essex, posted on Friday, August 24, 2018

Behind the scenes header image


Miranda Hockliffe, Cathedral Visitor Officer

Emily: What does a Cathedral Visitor Officer do?

Miranda: I am responsible for looking after all the visitors who come to the Cathedral, which now number just under half a million a year.  To help me do that I have a team of volunteers in the Cathedral every day welcoming, informing, assisting, and guiding the visitors.

Emily: How did you end up as Cathedral Visitor Officer at Christ Church?

Miranda: I’ve worked in tourism for most of my life: I worked for many years as a guide in France, Spain, and Italy.

When I eventually came to settle in Oxford I actually started work at Christ Church as a Custodian [our wonderful staff in the bowler hats] and then after a couple of years of doing that I jumped ship and came to the Cathedral to work in the Cathedral Visitor Department.

Emily: So is there a difference in your interactions with the visitors in the College and the Cathedral?

Miranda: It’s the same visitor who comes to the College and the Cathedral so I do work very closely with the College tourism department. However, a lot of visitors are coming primarily to see the College: because it’s part of the University, because of the Harry Potter connection, etc. But even the people who know little about the Cathedral might find something here that inspires them, something unexpected. It’s this ‘hidden treasure’ that I like to reveal to visitors, like offering them an unexpected gift.

Miranda walks the Camino de Santiago, 2003

And then we have to peel back the layers of history to find the treasure at its heart; a small Saxon church which became an Augustinian monastery, which became an Oxford College with a College Chapel which became a Cathedral with its stunning architecture, stained glass windows, and world-famous choir, which is still a living place of worship centuries later.

Emily: It’s interesting that you describe the Cathedral as a ‘treasure’, you’ve used that word a couple of times. What is it about the Cathedral that you think is amazing?

Miranda: If you think of the College as the crown then the Cathedral is the jewel in that crown, which is a bit of a cliché but it’s true – it is small and perfectly formed, and it shines from within. If you come in first thing in the morning, when the sun is rising in the East and the light is shining through the windows, throwing coloured light patterns on to the stone… for me that is just sublime, it’s divine, it really is. Even if you’re not religious you would feel something very special about that.

Emily: So your job is trying to get people to appreciate that all these treasures are here.

Miranda: That’s what our Cathedral Guides are very good at doing. We have over one hundred Cathedral Guides who are all volunteers who give their time freely, come from all different backgrounds, and love to share their knowledge of the Cathedral with the visitors.

Emily: And, as you mentioned, you’ve been a guide yourself, so that must give you inside knowledge.

The credencial, Miranda's pilgrim passport from the Camino de Santiago

Miranda: Yes, I worked as a guide mostly in France, Spain, and Italy and a bit in the UK.  We took people on walking tours, with the emphasis on culture, history, art, gastronomy, etc.

My particular interest was art history, Romanesque architecture, and pilgrimages. Some of my favourite tours were based on pilgrimages like the Camino de Santiago (which ends in the Spanish Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela) or the Via Francigena (which is Canterbury to Rome).

We did most of the guiding ourselves but when we had specialist visits in a city or a winery or an art gallery, we would often employ a local guide to do the tour and then if they didn’t speak English we would do the translation.

Miranda and a colleague in Tuscany in 1999 - taking a break between tripsOne particular occasion I remember, we were doing a wine tasting in this little village in Umbria, and the owner of the vineyard was explaining the wine but didn’t speak any English. So I did a simultaneous interpretation for him. And this was the kind of wine tasting where you don’t spit the wine out! So as the evening progressed my translation became more and more florid, until by the end of the evening I would suddenly realise that he had stopped talking and I hadn’t listened to a single word he’d been saying! So I just made it up.

Obviously we had a budget for these tours and everything: transport, food, etc had a cap on it, but the wine budget was slightly more flexible... You can see why I didn’t pursue a career as a simultaneous interpreter though!

Emily: I can’t believe you ever wanted to leave! You obviously love travelling – you must have lots of stories…

Miranda: Yes, while travelling all over the world something unexpected is bound to happen. Actually, I once had an ice cream stolen by an emu.

Emily: What?! How did that happen?

Miranda talking to visitors in the Cathedral, with two Cathedral Guides

Miranda: I was travelling round Australia in the winter, as we didn’t do tours all year, and we were visiting an emu sanctuary.  It was so hot that we got ice creams and I was chatting and waving this ice cream about and all of a sudden a great beak came out of nowhere and took the whole ice cream - stick and all!

Emily: That’s so disappointing!

Miranda: I know, I really love ice cream…

Emily: It’s interesting to think about your experiences in the context of Christ Church- not specifically the emu perhaps!

Miranda: No, you're less likely to see one here.

Emily: Emus are much rarer in the College grounds… But what I mean is: you spent all that time as a guide and you’ve done a lot of travelling yourself, do you think your experience of being a visitor informs how you interact with and organise the visitors here?

Miranda: I think the fact that I love travelling and going to experience other people’s cultures and history and art and way of life makes me feel as though this job is about reciprocating: I can give back to them what I’ve enjoyed while I’ve been travelling, I can unwrap the Cathedral for them. Miranda hiking the GR20 in Corsica, 2004Travelling is definitely part of why I do what I do.

Emily: Now the Cathedral Guides are wonderfully knowledgeable, but even so a lot of them have favourites: the things that they could happily talk about for hours. What would your favourite things be?

Miranda: I think my favourite thing in the Cathedral is probably the Frideswide story and everything that goes with it: the Shrine and the Burne-Jones window. We know that Frideswide did exist even if we know little else about her for certain. Her story goes right back to Saxon times and that’s what this whole thing is built on. I love that - that it was this one woman who started the whole thing off with her convent and her small group of nuns. That she is right at the heart of this place. The whole story is inspiring.

 [You can read more about Frideswide’s story in her Pen Portrait]

The Shrine of St Frideswide, early in the morningI also love the window which overlooks her shrine and which tells her story: it is quite unique as a piece of history, displaying some of the early work of Edward Burne-Jones, but to me what’s so special is that if you come on the right kind of day with the right kind of weather and the light is shining through the window and the colours are reflected on the shrine: it’s just magical [Miranda rummaged for a picture to show us]. It’s like jewels- that’s why I call this place a jewel. It’s unbelievably beautiful.

Emily: Final question: What’s the best part of your job?

Miranda: It’s very varied – we have so many visitors from all over the world that no one day is ever the same, and we have so much history to share with them.

It’s wonderful when we can surprise and inspire people: who didn’t know that the real Alice from Alice in Wonderland grew up in the Deanery at Christ Church; that a Saxon noblewoman founded the original church here; that everyone can come and listen to a world class choir at Evensong.

And I suppose the other thing is that I like meeting people and learning about other cultures when I travel, and in this job I can also meet people and share our culture every day without having to go anywhere.  Well, just to work!

Emily: Thank you so much, Miranda.



Next month I will be interviewing Clare Hayns, the College Chaplain and Welfare Coordinator.

Join me to find out:
Why being a human being is so important at Christ Church...
Why the College Chaplain spent ten years with jugglers and fire-eaters
And, Why the Cathedral is the 'beating heart' of Christ Church...