My first memory of this beautiful city was back in 1966. I had taken a train from London, where my future husband was waiting to meet me. He had secured a job in Oxford, having moved down there himself from the north of England. We walked from the train station excitedly chatting and not really taking any notice of our surroundings. Then we reached the corner of an iconic landmark which depicts the centre of Oxford – Carfax. Cornmarket and High Street meet up with Queen Street and St Aldates at this point. Looking left, I had the weird sensation that I had stumbled into Alice in Wonderland’s world. Quaint little shops ran down each side of the road. Turning again, I found myself in front of a tall tower that I later learned is called Carfax Tower. Walking along the whole of Cornmarket Street was like walking through a scene from Alice’s “Through the Looking Glass” written by Lewis Carroll. This most famous author had attended the University in the mid-1850s. Many of the scenes described throughout his books can be found either in Oxford’s parks or along the riverbanks of the River Thames that runs through the centre of this beautiful city.
Over the years, a lot of the old building in the centre of Oxford have been renovated and updated. Visitors over the past twenty or so years will have often remarked, and not always politely, on the scaffolding and boarded-off areas. However, the essence of the city is still here. Long-standing listed buildings have been left untouched and it is still possible to imagine the world of some famous personages, such as Oscar Wilde, Charles Darwin, even Edmond Halley who discovered the Halley’s Comet. This was last seen from earth in 1986 and only appears approximately every 76 years so we have some time to wait for the next citing.
Many of our own Prime Ministers have attended Oxford University at one time or another, along with some very well-known people from other countries. Indira Gandhi and Bill Clinton spring to mind. Actors like Hugh Grant will have enjoyed the long lazy summers punting on the River and reciting plays in Oxford’s South Park. It is easy to visualise yourself walking through the same side streets as the Stephen Hawking, J.R. Tolkien, Margaret Thatcher, to name but a few, once did. Once we were walking along a narrow path somewhere north of Oxford. Either side of us was a canopy of weeds, wildflowers and bushes, dotted around tall, thin, gnarled trees. Our walk had been solitary until we suddenly noticed a young man some distance in front of us. He looked furtively around before planting what appeared to be a large plastic bag under a shrub. As we approached to inspect it, fully expecting to find it full of rubbish or, even worse, a body, the same man rushed up from an adjoining path. It turned out that the bag was a prop in one of the Morse series, and was waiting to be discovered by an actor playing the part of a dog-walker.
When I arrived in Oxford, the Oxford prison was very much a working institution. At the time, it was housed in the remains of the Oxford Castle, which had been badly defaced during the English Civil War during the 17th century. The prison closed in 1996 and the internal structure is now a private hotel. Visitors pay to be taken on escorted tours and get a feel of what it must have been like to have been incarcerated for some misdemeanour or other. The walk includes a tour of the deep dark recesses underground to follow the footsteps of prisoners destined to spend time incarcerated in the most appalling conditions.
Oxford is, indeed, steeped in history and every year people flock here to take guided walking tours along its narrow streets and alleys once said to be haunted by ghosts. Many authors have written screeds of stories woven around its streets and surrounding villages. Anyone who has seen ‘Inspector Morse’, or ‘Lewis’ will find it easy to recognise landmarks found in the tales of murder and mystery. More recently, Harry Potter fans would recognise some of the areas that appear in his books. Or join in a tour along the Bodley Staircase and Hall of Christchurch College, check out the Great Hall which provided the inspiration for Hogwarts’ dining hall.
Oxford was very lucky to escape the wrath of Hitler during the second world war, while other cities, such as London, Coventry and Liverpool were all but obliterated. Speaking to one scholar in Oxford recently, I was told that the reason was simple. Hitler had planned on making Oxford his headquarters once he had conquered England. Had this happened, we would all be living in a different world now.
We have seen many changes over the years. Being a small city, there was a problem with pollution caused by cars trying to get from one end of the city to another. Accidents between vehicles and pedestrians or cyclists were common. Our councillors racked their brains to come up with a solution. Nothing seemed to work and even now, although pedestrianisation of much of Oxford’s centre means less traffic, a new shopping Mall invites people to think they can drive straight into the centre. Sadly, this has led to long queues along all four major routes into Oxford.
Recent changes include a new train station almost four miles outside the city centre. From here, you can hop on a bus, visit Blenheim Palace, or enjoy a 45 minute train ride straight into London. Since the station has been built, the increase of cars on the roads has, unfortunately, increased exponentially through our villages and surrounding areas.
This is “my Oxford”. Where I have spent the last few decades bringing up three children and now live some five miles out of the City with my husband. While we have always enjoyed cycling – which, being a University City, Oxford has always encouraged – the increase on our already clogged up road system puts its cyclists in grave danger. My children were lucky because they learned to cycle in a time when our roads had less cars competing for space. These days I worry that we are raising a generation of young children who are being encouraged to cycle on narrow pavements – rather than on the much busier roads of today. While the battle between our cars and cyclists still rages on, when these youngsters have grown up, they will still feel safer on the pavement than on the road.
It saddens me to think that, while I love Oxford, I now cannot wait to sell and move to somewhere quieter, and with less cars. Oxford has always been a ‘young’ city, enjoyed mostly by young people, as it should be.
A Gallery of more photographs taken on one sunny walk during the 2020 Lockdown.