June: Water Fountains – a new Oxford heritage

June: Water Fountains – a new Oxford heritage

As the crowds gathered at Grandpont, close to the site of Oxford’s first station, in order to celebrate the coming of the railway to Oxford 175 years ago, the Flying Scotsman gathered steam travelling to and from Didcot, reminding us that the magic of the railway still lives on.  At the very same time, over in Broad Street, the place was filled with a celebration of Oxford’s future travel and the Electric Vehicle Show,  part of Oxford’s Green Week Festival, organised by the City Council and others, and a showcase of zero emission vehicles from bike to supercar.  Whilst the OPT team will usually be seen walking, or using pedal power, we will certainly be looking into car clubs who hire electric vehicles for when we do need to use them.   

With the City due to introduce a zero-emission zone as early as 2020, I reflect on the scale of change that is to come, and to come quickly.   Can the City perhaps make it part of their mission to encourage electric vehicles by commissioning and installing some beautiful charging points that will add to our historic streets and areas? We are already aware of the controversy caused in one North Oxford residential street where proposals for trial electric points has caused consternation, and which can only act to delay.   The City and County might also want to work together to vastly improve the cycle network and facilities which are too poor for a city with such a strong commitment to cycling.

It is wonderful to live in a City with so much expertise, knowledge and commitment to the climate change agenda, see last week’s Oxford Times article Ian Curtis and note that Waitrose decided to pick Oxford to ‘trial’ their package free scheme. I also look to the success of the RefillOxford scheme, with thanks to volunteer Georgina Matthews, with 170 + outlets in the city now signed up to fill your empty water bottle, reducing reliance on plastic.  OPT are their latest sign-up, so if you are passing, come and see us at 10 Turn Again Lane, just beside the Westgate, and we’ll be pleased to turn on the tap for you.   Knowing that you will be welcome is really important, as I experienced at first hand on a recent journey to the West Country. I stopped at a service station to fill my water bottle but with no obvious refill point, I had to steel myself to join the shortest queue at the burger bar, not at all sure what reception I would get.  As it was, the assistant could not have been more helpful, but it took a degree of confidence and inconvenience that needs to be removed.  How much better would it be if it became the norm to find drinking fountains around the place to fill up our empty water bottles.     

Of course, before mains was available, water was gathered publicly, and in Oxford it was to the Carfax Conduit (1615-17) that people came.  On some occasions, so history tells, the water turned to wine as in 1660 marking the restoration of the monarchy. The Conduit now sits in Nuneham Park moved there in 1787, but before that it was linked by underground lead pipes, encased in elm, which brought water from natural springs in the western hills.  Today the early Conduit House (1616) still remains, sitting just off Harcourt Hill, and owned by English Heritage who will be opening at this year’s Oxford Open Doors - September 14/15.   

Mechanical drinking fountains first appear in Italy in the 15th century, though evidence of supplying public drinking water dates much further back to 3000 BC and the use of spring water from Roman and Greek times.  But in England it is not until the Victorian times that drinking fountains become popular, promoted by philanthropists wanting to provide clean drinking water in poorer areas.   Oxford’s most notable fountain is the Victoria Water Fountain at the Plain (1899) commemorating Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.  OPT restored it in 2009 but sadly not the drinking water as the lead pipes are now known to be unsafe to use.  At the Railway Fair, friends came to chat about the Victorian Cast Iron Pump which still sits beside the south door of the University Church on the High.   As drinking fountains were often placed close to churches or churchyards, its position is no surprise though the fact it has survived is more of a miracle.  It is one of the features that Edith Gollnast has recorded with such charm in our series of ‘On Foot in Oxford Heritage Walks’ books, the next edition of which comes out this Autumn.   Our conversation turned to whether the pump could be restored or perhaps replicated? There are a number of these fountains that are still around, including one beside the door to the Carfax Tower, which was once part of St. Martin’s parish church. They were also found near pubs to give the thirsty public an alternative to drinking beer, so perhaps you know of others?

In London, the London Fountain Company have a scheme to bring their old fountains back to life and have designed a new and rather beautiful drinking fountain, and water fountains are also resurfacing in Bristol, with new ones added in Hull last year, provided by Yorkshire Water.   It will, of course, be more difficult than designing the fountain itself, getting clean water to them but if anyone can do it Oxford can, and we will definitely be there to help.