June: Oxford gets back to work

June: Oxford gets back to work

I have returned to the office and thinking forward as the entries come in for this year’s Oxford Preservation Trust Awards. They have been going for 42 years and still attract support, celebrating something that Oxford is rather good at, with some amazing projects big and small. This seems all the more poignant with so many construction projects now on hold, and I worry for the resilience of the extraordinary people behind the work, the architects, construction companies and the many individual craftsmen and women who work for and with them, and whose traditional building skills, sometimes built up over a lifetime, could so easily be lost should they not wish or be able to return to work.  

It is good to see that some projects have continued or are now getting back on site, and it was with real pleasure that I attended a site meeting to look at the progress on the restoration of the former Lindsey’s Butchers in the Covered Market, a partnership between the City Council and Oxford Preservation Trust. Our patient dedicated and skilled contractors have been nearly a fortnight back on the job, but whilst we have had many a virtual conversation, this meeting was a first for the architects and me. We met like old friends, picking up where we left off, catching up on families and the health of others in the project team. We had rendezvoused early before the shops opened, meeting in the delivery yard, carefully dancing at a distance around the busy market traders as they readied for the day ahead and the recent return of their loyal customers.   

We wonder what we will see as we know that the 1970s brick façade has been removed since we last visited, as it will help with widening the arcade and improving circulation around the market. We had  intended to keep the project under wraps hidden behind the incongruous bricks until the end, using the walls as site hoardings, but different times call for different actions and so the dramatic reveal had happened early. 

We stop to catch our breath as it appears before us. No longer are we faced with incongruous red brick and green, blocked views and narrowed aisle, and in their place a line of stone columns, disguised below fifteen layers of paint until now. Taking it in turns, we look closely to see how they have been cleaned and pieced back together, new stone added only where necessary, a feeling of pride at the workmanship. At the back the rear brick wall has been resurrected, fresh with paint, sitting easy against the repaired stone flags in the floor. We each smile as we notice the original painted sign above the door, all carefully restored, and a lovely surprise as we did not know this work had been done.

Somehow the whole area seems much brighter, and we realise that alongside this work, others have been working their magic, with the contractors up on the roof cleaning and restoring the clerestory windows above the shops so that the sunshine can now stream in to light the shopfronts and the terracotta pavements below. There is still more work to come with the new windows and joinery coming shortly, together with the repaired and reworked iron trellis work to complete the jigsaw. I wonder what trader will take the units when the time is right but know that they will take just pride in their place.

I return to the office with a spring in my step. I open my email inbox to find some wonderful images of expert tracery carvings on seasoned oak ready to be fitted into the medieval window which we were restoring at our medieval merchants house in East St Helen Street, Abingdon before we had to stop back in March. Work continued in a workshop offsite so that it is now ready to be fitted. I thank heaven for the generous benefactor who has funded this work, together with the specialist work at the Covered Market, as in these straitened financial times OPT would not be able to do this without them. 

And as I read the government’s messages about all being in this together, and getting the economy back on the road, and I am pleased that OPT with our partners are doing just that. I read on to the latest message urging us to get out and shop, and I remember why I love this place when I recall the crowd outside Blackwell’s on the day it re-opened. I will head there shortly, coming back via the Market for shopping and a welcome iscream where there will certainly be a queue regardless of any social distancing.    

Entries for the OPT Awards 2020 close on Saturday 18 July. Anyone can enter a project, download the entry form at https://www.oxfordpreservation.org.uk/content/opt-awards-2020

With thanks to: James Mackintosh Architects, Cliveden Conservation, and Croft Building and Conservation