May: Oxford’s empty streets are still alive

May: Oxford’s empty streets are still alive

Working from home is not an easy fit at OPT when we need to have a sense of what is happening on the ground in and around the city, keeping our eyes and ears open, meeting and talking with people, out and about, managing our land, visiting sites to comment on planning applications, and so on. Moving from ‘home’ to ‘alert’ allows us to think about when we might be back in our office at Turn Again Lane, where eight weeks ago, I turned off the lights and shut the shutters. I carried away a pile of papers and books which might prove useful, not least writing my monthly column, and this sits beside me now. On top of the stack is a set of the Oxford Heritage Walks books.

These precious little volumes cover the city centre, bringing the streets to life. They are delicious to dip in to, crammed with tasty morsels, tantalising titbits of colonnaded butter benches, and underground vaults.  Who knew that Queen Street was called Great Bailey, linked to the Castle until 1785 when George III and Queen Charlotte visited and it changed. Imagine 36-37 (now Paperchase) as a Morris Garage showroom where you would drive over the pavement into the ground floor, a goods lift taking cars to the first- floor showroom, and opposite an Electric Cinema. All this comes from where the page falls open in the latest volume ‘On Foot from Carfax to Turn Again'. This also covers St Ebbe’s and 6-10 Turn Again Lane, saved after a lengthy battle and restored by OPT as our offices in the 1970s. These books are not about the magnificent, of which Oxford has plenty, but about the ordinary, everyday buildings and features which survived or have been lost. They came about when three of Oxford’s heritage greats retired, conservation officers John Ashdown, the cartographer, and Edith Gollnast, who illustrates the books, and Malcolm Graham, author, former Head of Oxfordshire Studies. They still meet with other heritage colleagues each week, or they used before all this, and I would sometime join them, often there to raise a question on something Oxford. They would delve into the archives of their minds, reminding and checking with each other, and coming back to me all too quickly to share their knowledge and guide me on my way.

All this needed to be captured if it was not to be lost. A set of  County Council ‘On foot’ leaflets from the 1970s and now out of print served as the blueprint and, with crucial support from a few generous people who have stayed with us throughout the journey, the first book in a series of six was published in 2013. These small paint pictures of places past and present, walk with you along the cobbles and pavements, reveal details hidden in the buildings of things lost and others found, and all are available to read from your deckchair, and can be bought from the OPT and Blackwell’s website. And when we get back the last book is ready on the printers’ starting block and will complete the series.

Over the past few weeks we have seen numerous short video clips and photos of Oxford buildings and her streets against azure skies on Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere, reminding us of the beauty of our streets and majestic buildings, which can cause the passer-by to catch her breath.

Many have commented on the joy of these empty streets, no longer busy, no people, no traffic, no noise. But is it true that our streets are more beautiful without the human endeavour that normally surrounds them? Would we not miss those too many bicycles badly stacked, rushing streets full of young and old, students, shops and shoppers busy in their daily tasks?  What of our visitors, hopeful as they ask for directions to ‘the University’, pointing them in the direction of the Radcliffe Camera, to climb St Mary’s Tower alongside or head to the Castle Mound to see our dreaming spires for themselves.

I idealise, of course, for reality brings dirty crowded pavements, smoking coaches, tacky tourist shops and smelly public loos. Will this sojourn have proved long enough for those who influence to keep the good and block the evil, perhaps a car free Broad Street, low pollution levels keeping a green agenda high, supporting all things local, managing our visitor economy and tourism better? Whatever the future holds I know that I want to stroll freely again, to greet old friends, and meet with new ones, at whatever distance. I look forward to seeing you there, enjoying Oxford, a copy of the Heritage Walks visible in your bicycle basket.

Debbie