The beating of the bounds is a tradition which dates back to Anglo-Saxon times, and was the means by which parish boundaries were marked, and remembered. On Ascension Day the Vicar and parishioners of St Mary the Virgin, the University Church, walk the parish boundary, “marking” it at various points. Over the centuries, the parish boundaries have changed little (save where a parish church no longer exists, and lands have been designated to neighbouring churches); but the built landscape has changed.
The north eastern part of the parish boundary used to enclose the parish orchard which lay to the north of the land owned by All Souls College; when the college acquired this land to allow its expansion in the eighteenth century, the Codrington Library was built on the site of the orchard.
Since the building of the Library, and on the east side of the quadrangle the fellows’ common room and studies, the parishioners’ route around the bounds is now most nearly followed inside some of these buildings.
The outer walls of the Codrington Library follow the line of the parish boundary so the “mark” is now made on one of the black marble floor stones in the middle of the library.
The “beating” is done using twelve long canes, wielded by the choristers, who shout “MARK” at each of the twelve blows to the mark.
From the Library the company next moves out into the quadrangle, to a point similarly marked in front of the Common Room, at the foot of Hawksmoor’s twin towers, and here a hymn is sung by the choir and parishioners (although this year the hymn was sung in the dry of the library!). In the past (though still in living memory) pennies were thrown down from the rooms above for the choirboys to claim (surely an early incarnation of Health and Safety stopped this custom). After the hymn cherry cake is served in the Hall, a reminder of the cherry trees that once grew in the parish orchard. Finally the company moves to the Warden’s driveway for another “marking” before emerging from the College onto High Street, and from thence they cross to University College to continue their progress around the parish boundary.