April: Roadmap by any other name

April: Roadmap by any other name

In a city known across the world for its dictionary, and which even has its own Oxford comma, the use of words as a subject of conversation is hardly news.  Over the past twelve months we have seen a plethora of new meanings and expressions resulting from the pandemic, social distancing, lockdown, rule of six.  And now the latest craze on a phrase is the single word ‘roadmap’ already familiar as consultant-speak but now used to describe our way towards the light at the end of this very particular tunnel. 

I reflect on the two words road and map and how I have heard them used in more commonplace parlance in these past few months.  This begins with the recent announcement of the cancellation of the road which was to be the Oxford - Cambridge Expressway, and which led on to the chance for a trip to follow part of the East - West Rail Route to Milton Keynes.  In these strange times this seemed a treat, seeing something different and having some freedom to be out and about.  With sat nav at the ready, and on a glorious Spring afternoon, we seek out old disused railway tracks and try and spy on HS2 workings already happening.  We stop to eat a picnic of boiled eggs and homemade sandwiches in a deserted churchyard, not far from the village of Quainton. The church is sadly locked, a subject for another day, chosen from my ancient copy of the Buckinghamshire Shell Guide first published in the 1930s which sits beside me on the passenger seat.  I find a bench and enjoy the warmth of the sun as I look to find the fine illustrations by artist John Nash which I know are hidden within the covers.  I reflect on the oddness of this commission by Shell, an international oil company, but then this is published at a time when OS maps and guidebooks were to have a heyday, with families owning cars for the first time bringing a taste of freedom to travel.  I cannot fail to notice the Oxford connection as it is William Morris who has made cars affordable, and sees a vision of a car in every drive and, with Shell able to profit from the fuel sold, the partnership now makes sense.

A few evenings later, I join a lecture by art historian Frances Spalding for SPAB and the Betjeman Society exploring the friendship between poet laureate Sir John Betjeman and artist John Piper which led to the Shell Guide to Oxfordshire, of which I have a coveted first edition.  It was their passion for the county, and for some of the less fashionable buildings of the time, that led to them being saved.  I resolve to ask her to do the talk for OPT members, recognising our own link to Betjeman who was OPT secretary in the 1940s, which she has now agreed to do.   

Later local historian Liz Woolley hosts a talk on the Coming of the Railway to Oxford in the 1840s, some hundred years before the car craze, in which she mentions how this opened up the chance for everyday folk to travel on holiday and leisure for the first time, though it remained too expensive for many.  Liz took us on the journey from the first station at Marlborough Road, behind the Abingdon Road and then to the present station site, where such was the railway mania at the time that Oxford gets two railways, Brunel and Robert Stephenson competing on different incompatible gauge rails, leading two separate stations being built side by side. This week I met with Network Rail to talk about plans to improve the first, whilst the second, remembered by some as the tyre depot, has been removed and rebuilt at the Quainton Rail Museum, making way for the Said Business School.  All that remains of this railway is the Rewley Road Swing bridge, which has quite a story to tell, and we are now on site restoring it and earlier this week celebrated as we oiled and coaxed its cogs and wheels back to life, turning again for the first time in nearly fifty years.

Like so many sites around Oxford, the railyard, once full of ‘smoke, steam and sounds of shunting …’ is now a residential housing development.   Whether in the city centre, or on the green fields around the edges, the car is no longer king, and developers are now being encouraged to put Active Travel, the latest buzz phrase to describe cycling and walking, at the heart of their plans.  Fully supportive of this idea I am heading out to Barton and Bayswater Park later to see how we can help to ensure that routes are good and join up across the various developments that are coming forward - an Oxford road map with some key milestones along the way.