June 2018: Connecting people with nature

June 2018: Connecting people with nature

Too sunny to stay underground I get out at Green Park tube station and walk across London’s Royal Parks to Westminster for my meeting, reflecting on how many hundreds of people of all ages shapes and sizes are enjoying the green public open space on this ordinary weekday morning.   I see an advertisement for London Garden Square Day in early June and check out the 200 secret gardens and other places behind doors and on top of office roofs, all opening to celebrate the contribution green spaces make.

I think about Oxford and what Oxford Preservation Trust’s own Oxford Open Doors does for Oxford’s heritage, and my thoughts turn to public versus private, and the importance of our strong partnerships. 

Oxford is a wonderful green city and whilst we have some great parks, not least South Park, given to the City by OPT as our gift in the 1950s, it is something wider that gives Oxford its special character.  A mixture of the private and the public and the planned and unplanned, the city has no hard edges, but instead has fingers of green running into and through the city, carrying on up into the surrounding hills where town, and gown, meets country.     

There can be few spaces with less green a character than our own historic streets, the college buildings built up against the pavement, signaling ‘keep out’ to the passer-by, with just the occasional glimpse of a tree and its blossom escaping over a wall.  Yet be invited within these walls and the colours can seem almost unnatural, as carefully nurtured grass in quads uncrushed by feet, appear vivid against the stone, the college gardens a series of outside rooms amongst the buildings, overwhelming in their beauty.  At Christ Church the meadows reach out to the banks of the Rivers Isis and Cherwell, open to the public each day, a rural idyll a gate away from the busy bus lane that St. Aldate’s has become.  From here the visitor walks, or punts, past the playing fields of Magdalen School and the Botanic Gardens travelling on up river past Magdalen’s land soon reaching the University Parks.  It is a short walk on from here along the riverbank to Marston and the Vicky Arms, though too few know the way. There used to be a ferry from the pub linking to the footpaths to Summertown - we ought to bring it back! 

From the centre of Oxford footpaths follow the river and the canal and on northwards to Port Meadow which somehow defines Oxford for me, linking to Binsey, Godstow and Wytham Woods, where you’ll need a permit.  

I think about how hard it is to find these public ways if you don’t know them.  The Westgate shopping centre now shares the views with a wide audience and talks of the wider Oxford experience as a marketing tool on their website, yet makes no mention of the walks and cycle routes nearby, a short walk into the the western hills and the dreaming spires view, which the city itself has recently opened up in Raleigh Park.   Close by OPT has taken its latest land purchase the Harcourt Hill Fields and linked them to the Hinksey Heights Nature Park leading on up to Boars Hill and the new OPT circular walk which can unlock stories of JMW Turner, Matthew Arnold, Masefield, Bridges and Nicholson, cultural giants who lived, painted and wrote here.  

OPT care for around 1000 acres in and around the city and improve the public access all the time, whether opening up Wolvercote Lakes or our latest project at Marston where we are installing a new punt and picnic stop and creating a new circular walk.   But we don’t own it all and need strong partnerships and a shared vision to make this happen elsewhere. Where opportunities arise for more footpaths and cycle routes these should not be missed, and that often comes at times of change, when new developments and infrastructure are planned.   

And so to the largest infrastructure project Oxford has seen in a generation, the Environment Agency’s Oxford Flood Relief Channel which stretches along the entire length of Oxford on the west.  We were delighted when throughout their public consultation the EA heralded as one of their three key objectives ‘to connect people with nature’.  Oxford was to have a new nature park and improved cycleways with a footpath to link North and South Hinksey.  So where has this gone, for we have looked and looked again at the 249 documents in the planning application and cannot find this, instead leaving us worrying about the hundreds of trees that will go, and the harmful effect on the existing footpaths at Willow Walk and the North Hinksey Causeway with huge ugly bridges to be installed.   We are not objecting to the principle of the scheme but do feel the EA should be held to account when spending £120 million of public money as should the other public bodies involved.  They should keep to their promise and deliver on their objective.  They need to do better and to work with other partners to make this happen.    

Although the consultation into the Flood Alleviation Scheme has closed, the public can still comment.  If you feel strongly about this subject, have your say click here: http://bit.ly/2haveyoursay