October: On foot or up high

October: On foot or up high

I led a group of Historic England professionals from across the UK around Oxford recently, and that might not suggest the Westgate as the obvious ‘go to’ for me as Director of Oxford Preservation Trust.  But what better place than the top deck, the ‘pavement in the sky’ to provide a very public view of the dreaming spires across town and gown. The medieval church tower and steeple of St. Ebbe’s and St. Aldate’s, intertwined with Christopher Wren’s Tom Tower and the great buildings of Christ Church, with the previously unnoticed Brewery Tower, now Modern Art Oxford, peaking its head up alongside.  As we head up to the escalators we stop to look at the stunning display of 13th century floor tiles, now oddly placed high up above the lift doors, when you know they once graced the cloister floor of the Greyfriars Monastery, and a glimpse back into a past where in this place you would have been more likely to encounter a cassocked monk than a bag-ladened shopper.  The Westgate gets its name from the gate in the Saxon wall and those who made it to Oxford Open Doors in 2015, would have seen at first hand the archaeology that lies beneath and was uncovered before the redevelopment took place.    

Up on the Westgate rooftop we pause to look down at St. Ebbe’s, once a web of town streets and houses built over the Friary and no doubt retaining parts of the walls and stones within the garden walls and boundaries. The area, reminiscent in character to Jericho, was victim to slum clearance in the 1960s, when all was lost, all that is except the row of 17th century cottages in Turn Again Lane, which we and others battled to save, and which OPT now look after with our offices at No10.

Turn Again, the story of the Greyfriars, Paradise, and Castle Street once described as one of the ‘most beautiful streets in the city’ are just some hidden histories revealed in our latest Heritage Walks book ‘On Foot from Carfax to Turn Again’. The books began as an idea to update a series of leaflets published in the 1970s by Oxfordshire County Council, under the leadership of Malcolm Graham, Oxford and Oxfordshire Local Studies Librarian.  When he retired, shortly followed by Edith Gollnast, long time Oxford City Conservation Officer, and fine draughtsman, I knew I had to act quickly if we were to capture their knowledge gained over a lifetime of working in this place which they have made their own.  It should perhaps come as no surprise to find the leaflets became books and this is number five in the series of six covering the city centre.

There are books about Oxford’s world-famous architectural treasures, but these are different. Unlocking the history of our everyday streets and local buildings, revealing their hidden histories, whilst bringing the streets to life, capturing their very characters hidden in every corner. Malcolm and Edith’s personalities are caught up in their words and drawings, an overflowing treasure chest of information, based on historical evidence, and revealing what has been lost, alongside what remains, recorded for everyone to share, enjoy and to keep.      

And so back to our Historic England visitors. We later walked up into the heart of the University climbing to the cupola at the top of the Sheldonian Theatre.  From here you can stretch out your hand and feel you might touch those pinnacles on All Souls or run a hand across the magnificent dome of the Radcliffe Camera.  The views span across the rooftops north, south, east and west and on into the hills that surround. We all reflect on what makes Oxford and its views special, and can all agree that it is not the simply the silhouette of the towers and spires, glorious as they are, but the rich palimpsest of heritage in this ever changing city.

To get your copy of the latest book in our heritage walk series click here now.