November: Our proud little row of 17th century cottages is dwarfed by our neighbour at the Westgate

November: Our proud little row of 17th century cottages is dwarfed by our neighbour at the Westgate

Our proud little row of 17th century cottages is dwarfed by our neighbour at the Westgate, the street much quieter than before, with fewer passers-by, other than the odd misled shopper who manages to find their way out, enroute to the everywhere shops of Queen Street and Cornmarket perhaps.   The shopping centre presents a blank windowless face to those outside, blank, and impenetrable, and yet get inside and it oozes with activity at this time of year. Heads down the shoppers’ shop, intent on getting value from their trip having braved the traffic queues, as they tick off Gabby, Grace and Uncle George, collecting the things that online shopping has failed to deliver.  They don’t look up to notice the street names carefully preserved with Turn Again Lane rather managing to hold on to its name as it passes across the middle past the escalator, the takeaway cafés, and the loos, and into Castle Street. I walk it frequently as it is my quickest route to the Castle and this time as I pass through, I can feel myself mentally urging the crowds to follow, to leave their glittery pursuits and come with me, to see presents far richer, through Paradise Street and the paradise gardens of the 13th century Grey Friar, and along the Castle Mill Stream to St. George’s Tower. I walk on and want to catch my breath as it appears against the clear blue sky of recent weeks. Its ancient stones need no false lighting, as the walls, which were built to keep people out, seem to sparkle in their newly cleared and cleaned state, the overgrowth of too many years removed to make it appear a more welcome place, with thanks to my kind colleagues at the County Council and their contractors with their clever scaffold and heads for height. The recent work has once more unconcealed the windows, high up in what is the earliest stone tower in Oxford, and in England, originally designed to be part of Oxford’s town wall and then built into the later castle. I look up and can picture a scene where Empress Matilda would lower herself down dressed in white as disguise to cross the snow to Wallingford, to escape from her cousin Stephen who would go on to steal the crown and prevent her from becoming the first English queen. There are so many stories to tell, to which the crowds who came to the Castleyard for the Oxford Christmas Light Festival can attest, with the history of the city captured in the extraordinary lighting spectacular arranged by OPT and TORCH to celebrate 950 years of Oxford Castle and all played out against the backdrop of the Castle buildings, and with the shadowy figure of Matilda stealing across the scene.

My involvement at the Castle has led me to an interest in English female monarchy which, in the end, does not begin until Mary I reign in the 16th century. A current exhibition at the British Library on ‘Elizabeth & Mary (Scots) was therefore a must for me. It is extraordinary how rich our history and their collection are, almost overwhelming in its importance and magnificence.  I needed something to ground me and looked for any reference to Oxford. I was not to be disappointed for their copy of the 16th century Foxe’s ‘Book of Martyrs’, a book full of intricate woodcuts of some very gruesome acts which recounts the persecution of protestants under Mary I’s reign, is laid open at the trial and burning at the stake of Thomas Cranmer in Broad Street. I was abruptly brought back to the present day, for this wonderful exhibition had drawn attention to Oxford’s often sorry treatment of its heritage, exemplified by the sorry state of the memorial of which a worried resident had recently sent me a photo showing the encroaching tarmac. It will not be deliberate and simply shows how easily lost these things are, so whilst it is not our responsibility we better get on and do something, just as we did with the Martyrs Memorial and that did not stop us restoring that.  I have no excuse, I have let time slip and now it is time for OPT to make something happen for these small windows into the past, so easily lost, have a greater role to play. I look forward to sharing the finished results when we have them. Go to our website for more information on how to access the recording of the lighting spectacular