May 2018: Oxford Bridges in Context ...

May 2018: Oxford Bridges in Context ...

Last week, a knock on the door of the OPT office in Turn Again Lane brought with it a huge parcel and a stunning architectural drawing of the Carfax Conduit, just too big to house elsewhere. Through a mutual loan it now adorns our meeting room wall, and everyone can enjoy the fine draughtsmanship of Eric Throssell FRIBA who, in the 1970s, worked on the restoration of this special piece of Oxford now in Nuneham Park. 

I was reminded of the importance of such drawings when Oxford historians Malcolm Graham and Julian Munby, shared some beautifully executed hand drawn plans of Oxford bridges, found in the city’s archives.  The importance of not just the bridges themselves, but their context was obvious as we looked at structures built, and unbuilt, including TG Jackson’s Bridge of Sighs for Hertford College (1927).   Not everyone was keen on the Bridge, and the archives reveal plans for a tunnel under New College Lane instead.  Luckily it did happen, and its success within the surrounding street scene is there for all to see today as our visitors queue to take photos against its backdrop.  There were also plans for a similar bridge for Lincoln College across Turl Street which did not happen, and where it would surely have had a rather different and enclosing feel, which the Hertford bridge does not.

Talking bridges with Gill Butter, city conservation officer, she mentioned the high gothic Headington Hill bridge at London Road, built for the Morrell brewing family in 1877 by Oxford architect William Wilkinson.  Old postcards reveal ten different views and angles of it and how much it was admired. Today, it feels a very public structure with its relationship to South Park, thanks to OPTs gift to the people of Oxford, and the bridge provides a convenient route for Oxford Brookes students across their campus.  It is surely waiting in the wings for some of that tender care so lovingly expended on the other University buildings up the hill so that it can be returned to its former glory.

On my way to the OPT offices in St Ebbe’s I walk from St. Aldate’s into Brewer Street and look forward to the stunning new glass bridge which flies above the old City Wall linking Pembroke College old and new, and making such a cheering contribution to a street which previously felt a dingy and forgotten place, and recognised in the OPT Annual Awards.

With bridges on my mind I learn news that the planning application for the Oxford Flood Alleviation Scheme is now in. I cannot help but see the link between my earlier conversations for this is an area of bridges running from the Botley Road, otherwise known as Seven Bridges Road as there are seven crossings along its length. The scheme will mean that two new substantial bridges are needed at Willow Walk and the Hinksey Causeway behind the Fishes Pub at North Hinksey, both much loved and well-used routes into the city.  The scheme also has a one-hundred year lifespan just as the Bridge of Sighs celebrates its own centenary. The area is one with a very different character, of course. an extraordinary survival of a rural green open landscape within the city, where town meets country.  Sadly, it will change, but with an understanding of its distinctive character these new structures can surely be introduced in a sensitive way, as in the bridges at the University Parks and further north at Wolfson College -designed to allow people to punt underneath.  

And so with bridges in mind I open the website page, with its rather daunting 250  attachments, and begin to look for the plans of the improvements to the area and enjoyment as public rights of way with the enhanced surfaces fencing railings and signage promised in the documents.  The bridges are to be huge 20 - 23 metres (60 – 75 ft) and will have to be high so that they do not block the flow of water at times of flood.   There is lots of technical data and drawings, but I can find nothing to inspire, no artist or architect plans or drawings, or anything that tells of a vision or sense of place.   Perhaps it is too early for this and it will come forward as the scheme unfolds.  One way or another I look forward to working with the Council and the EA to design two new bridges in context, beautiful structures that befit the importance of the area and which build on the Oxford tradition of building for future generations to enjoy.   We surely all  want to see two new structures that people can celebrate as adding to the setting of this internationally important city of ours.  Who knows, they might even win awards.