University Church café to close as part of ambitious development plan

Oxford, England

1 September 2023

A new social enterprise, repairs to stonework, replanting of the gardens and a major redevelopment of the University Church’s café facilities at Radcliffe Square are set to ensure a much-loved space can welcome visitors to Oxford for years to come.

The University Church of St Mary the Virgin, which welcomes around half a million visitors to one of the most beautiful squares in Europe each year, is to redevelop its popular café, gardens, and churchyard in Radcliffe Square. The proposals for redevelopment, agreed by the Parochial Parish Council (PCC) and reviewed by the Diocesan Advisory Committee, significantly reduce energy usage, improve accessibility, enhance security, and ensure that the Grade 1 listed building is fit to welcome all visitors well into the future. These proposals seek to advance the Vision and Strategy, set out earlier this year, enhancing our ministry of hospitality.

The café facilities occupy a site within the precincts of St Mary’s, which includes the Old Congregation House. The building was constructed within the churchyard in 1320 and it is one of the oldest purpose-built University buildings in northern Europe. The plans for landscaping will ensure a greater degree of connection with Radcliffe Square and give physical expression to the significant relationship between the Church and the University. 

The current café will close in the next few months, and it is hoped a new café, operated as a social enterprise, will open its doors in Spring 2025. The PCC hopes that the social enterprise will further improve the quality of welcome to University Church, with pricing set at an affordable level for students and local residents and create new employment opportunities for underrepresented people in Oxford.

The plans, which have been in development for almost two years include the redevelopment of café toilet facilities, which are currently cramped for people with limited mobility, and improved accessibility at the tower door opposite the Radcliffe Camera. With a complete refit of electrical appliances, the café will benefit from significantly improved ventilation and energy usage. Outside, the gardens will be replanted to improve light and sightlines with the aim of improving visitors’ sense of welcome and security after sunset. Memorials and stonework repairs also form part of the plan. 

The PCC has sought to engage the current café licensee constructively about its plans for some time but has not been able to reach agreement about a way forward. The PCC will be seeking to develop a new social enterprise for the café once the works are completed.

In the coming months, there will be a series of presentations for the congregation and other stakeholders to discover more about the PCC’s plans, including the renovation of the building, the restoration of the churchyard, and the establishment of a new social enterprise. 

For and on behalf of the Parochial Church Council