February: The Covered Market - A Place for Everyone

February: The Covered Market - A Place for Everyone

During the dark evenings of Winter, indoors is the only place to be and for me that means the theatre.

Staying close to home, in the past month I managed to catch the final Panto performance at the Oxford Playhouse, and see ‘Educating Rita’, together with Creation Theatre’s Bleak House at Blackwell’s. I missed the Oxford undertone in Educating Rita first time round, but it’s all there 40 years on, a brilliant piece of writing, still relevant, and beautifully staged and acted in our very own Theatre, and where the playwright, Willy Russell, joined the audience for the first night of the run.

Seeing Creation perform in Blackwell’s was rather different, but a great reminder that any space can become a set. Bleak House, was cleverly written and staged, making the most of the bookish surrounds, with birds flying, paper and, everywhere books. The bookshop has to close before the theatre can begin, and as we waited to take our seats Blackwells was ours to wander around, rather magic standing empty of customers, a theatre of its own. A little handwritten card ‘recommended’ jumped out from the bookshelf before me, mentioning the Oxford Preservation Trust Heritage Walks Books.  We are about to publish the final book in the series so they are on my mind, and marvel at the way the words and drawings bring the streets to life through the stories and painted pictures of heritage lost and heritage survived. I pick a book from the shelf and the pages fall open at the Covered Market, where Creation Theatre performed last Summer. 

For me the Covered Market is Oxford’s best theatre, a lively place for everyday people, full of characters and setting scenes, the stallholders like performers.  They arrive early, fresh from the London markets, fruit, veg and flowers set out on their stalls to attract our custom. Chefs talk of the theatre of cooking, but for me the theatre begins here, away from the blandness of the supermarket shelf, as we, in walk-on parts, choose our local produce, mud clinging potatoes, fresh fish, meat and cheese, weighing down the scales, before our waiting carrier bags open-mouthed, stopping to buy a bunch of daffodils to remind us Spring will come soon.

There’s been a Market here since 1774, and in those 250 years the character has seeped into the walls. Before that there were stalls in the streets, delaying the traffic in Butchers Row, Beef Lane and Fish Street. Descriptions talk of the ‘untidy, messy and the unsavoury’ and I can sense it now, the noises and the smells, chaos all around.   

The Market of today needs to be something more than just fresh produce, of course, with it’s great coffee shops, take away foods, ice cream, chocolate and glorious hats, which are already there. But it needs to do more and the City Council, who own the Market, have been looking at how other places do it in Tooting and Brixton, alongside the well-known Covent Garden and Borough Market. We are right up with them as we want to see this become the place to be, and so much more than a place for the tourist to photograph, though who can blame them. The City Council is thinking about the bigger picture, restoration and regeneration, tenant mix and varying leases and they’ve brought together some good people in their officers and Councillors to make this happen. It takes time to get it right, so it is great to see that already there are plans to  open the Market in the evening, with shared seating in the centre, so anyone buying their meal can sit down together, and they have signed up TAP Social who run a great place in an industrial unit on the Botley Business Park, so what will they do with the Covered Market as their backdrop.

And in the surrounding streets, the Market Quarter from Broad Street, through the Turl, Ship and Market Streets, the top end of the High and including King Edward Street, with the Market at it’s heart, could be a place where the independent shop and business could thrive. The Jesus College redevelopment on the corner of Cornmarket and Market Street is an opportunity to turn Market Street into an attractive space, and improve the rather good front façade of the Market, if you take a look, for it has been ‘back of house’ for too long, only good for deliveries, parking and public lavatories.   

OPT work with everyone to help make this happen, college, council and market trader.  We are on site restoring three early stalls in the old Lindsey’s Butchers, working in partnership with the City Council. We are restoring stone columns, old flag floors, iron trelliswork and detailing and it’s going to look great. We don’t know who the tenants will eventually be but together we will make sure that they add to the theatre of this place which is the crown of our town.

Join the conversation online with @OxfordPresTrust and #TheCoveredMarketOxford