Saturday, April 28th 2012
We awoke to grey skies and the splash of rain. It was decidedly chilly too. Just the sort of day to cuddle up warm at home, wouldn’t you say? Instead, we went to Oxford. We had not visited this city of “dreaming spires” for a while and it seemed about time to do so though I could have wished for more appropriate weather.
I did vaguely hope that the weather would be better in Oxford but, of course, it wasn’t. However, once we were here, we had to make the best of it.
The origins of the settlement that grew into England’s oldest university town are lost in the mists of history. The position is strategic: the Thames here was shallow enough for cattle to walk across, a fact recalled in the modern name of Oxford. Opposite the station, the name is recalled again in Olivia Musgrave’s sculpture of an ox, commissioned in 2001 for the opening of the new building of the Saïd Business School, beside which it stands. A.N. Wilson claims that it also reminds us that Oxford has an historic cattle market but I prefer to think of it just as a very fine and lively-looking ox.
Our path from the station to the town took us along Bridge Street which, appropriately enough, goes over a bridge. The river it bridges is the Cherwell. At least, I think it is, though there are so many streams, branches and waterways here that it is difficult for the visitor to be sure which one he is looking at.
Beside the river at this point is the beginning (or end) of the Oxford Canal. This runs for 78 miles, through Banbury and Rugby to Coventry, with links to the Thames and the Grand Union Canal.
Nearby is this – what would you call it? An installation? A structure? – consisting of six lock gate balance beams sticking out from a central brick turret, looking a bit like a winch. It was designed by William Bird to be unveiled in celebration of the canal’s bicentenary. It probably makes sense to someone.
There was a pair of geese swimming and dabbling in the river. As soon as he spotted us, the male paddled across to see if we had anything to give him but the female was more circumspect and kept away. As it happened, the goose was lucky and got some treats from Tigger.
Though looking as though they are all of a piece, these two buildings in George Street were built separately at the same time, 1894-6, though by different builders. The corn exchange was used by corn merchants until 1832 when they found accommodation in the new cattle market. The fire brigade was founded in 1870 as a volunteer organization, hence, perhaps, its motto SEMPER PARATUS – SEMPER VOLENS (“Always ready, always willing”). This was the brigade’s third home, which it occupied until 1971. The building now serves as an arts and performance centre.
George Street leads to Cornmarket Street where, among other things, one finds the Church of St Michael and this impressive square-built tower. Though now incorporated into the church, the Saxon Tower was once part of the city walls and, dating to about 1,000 years ago, is Oxford’s oldest building. It can be visited, although we haven’t so far been inside, and I am told it contains treasures worth seeing.
In nearby St Michael’s Street, we find this tableau, which I take to be St Michael fighting Satan in the form of a dragon. For a religion that preaches love and peace, Christianity does evince a strange and sadistic obsession with violence and killing.
I have to admit that after even this short walk, the weather was making me feel miserable and the rain was a disincentive to taking photos. (My camera is not an underwater model, after all!) So when Tigger proposed going into this building, I was only too happy to agree. Actually, it wasn’t so much the building itself, interesting as this may be, that attracted me but the fact that there was a cafe within. For a while we were able to relax and dry off in the warm.
The building, nos. 26 and 27 Cornmarket Street, dates from the 15th century, though with later alterations. For example, the upper floors would have made an overhang but the space beneath this has been occupied by extending the floor plan of the shops. The ground floor has been converted into two shops and no. 26 (the nearer) still retains a dwelling on the first and second floor. The building is of course Grade II listed.
A day like this is one for indoor rather than outdoor activities and so we hoped to pay a visit to the Museum of Oxford. Accordingly, after our brief respite in Pret A Manger, we set out again along Cornmarket.
Cornmarket Street is lined with shops and is quite long. It makes sense, then, that it is pedestrianized for part of its length, something I approve off and would like to see more of in our towns. At the end of this street is a crossroads, called Carfax, considered by many to be the centre of Oxford. The name is thought to come from the Latin quadrifurcus (‘four forked’) or the French carrefour (‘crossroads’). The other three streets meeting here are the High Street, St Aldate’s and Queen Street.
The landmark here is the Carfax Tower, once the belfry of the 13th century Church of St Martin, the rest of which was demolished in 1900 in order to allow road widening to take place. The tower is 74 ft high and an ordinance forbids the building of any structures higher than this in the centre of Oxford. If only such an ordinance existed in London to prevent the building of obscenities like the Heron Tower and the Shard.
The bells of the old church remain in place and are still rung on special occasions. I believe they are also used to ring the hours and the quarter hours on the splendid clock with its motto FORTIS EST VERITAS (‘truth is strong’). When St Martin’s church still existed, it was the church which the mayor and other officers of the town were expected to attend. This piece of knowledge brought an interesting sequel later (see below).
We now turned down St Aldate’s towards the Town Hall, to which is adjoined the Museum of Oxford. In the above photo, the Town Hall is on the left while the famous Tom Tower is seen in the background.
Quoting from the English Heritage listing text, the Town was built in “1893-7 in Elizabethan-Jacobean style in Clipsham stone by H T Hare”. An extension was added on the northward side in 1932. You would expect the Town Hall of a rich and ancient city like Oxford to be splendid, inside as well as outside. So we went in to take a look.
In the entrance we met an obliging gentleman seated at a desk. He explained that as the offices were closed and weddings were taking place, we would not be able to access the upper floors but that we were welcome to take photographs on the stairs and landing.
He was able to tell us something of the history of the Town Hall and describe some of the wonders in other parts of the building. Meeting people like this is a pleasure because they increase the enjoyment of the visit.
Doors, balustrades, radiator grilles, carvings… all show a high degree of quality in their finish. The building expresses the pride of the city fathers in their city and both design and detail are tasteful and executed with finesse.
Over the stairs as one turns to descend, one sees the city coat of arms, moulded in relief and painted in full colour, and a clock which has presumably been telling time in the Town Hall for 115 years or so.
I would have liked to see other parts of the building because, according to our host’s description, there would have been wonders to behold. Perhaps we can return another time and gain access to the parts that were closed today.
Everywhere you look there are features and details to notice. Our host told us that though he had worked here for years, as he goes about he often sees something that he has not noticed before.
This seat caught my attention. Was it a throne or a ceremonial chair of some sort? This turned out to be the sequel I mentioned above. When the city officers attended St Martin’s Church, the Mayor had a special pew. When the church was demolished, the pew was brought to the Town Hall where it has resided ever since, a haunting memory of a past era.
The Museum entrance is at the south end of the Town Hall building. However, when we arrived, we found it was closed. I am not sure whether it closes on Saturday or whether it is closed for refurbishment. Either way, we should perhaps have checked. Not that it matters as there are plenty of other things to do in Oxford…
Before doing anything else, it felt like time for lunch. A pleasant place to eat would be doubly welcome on such a miserable day as this. Happily, our hopes were realized…
I can think of few things more delightful than a good Indian lunch to raise one spirit’s on a cold and wet day. Or on any kind of day, come to that. Shezan resides on the first floor of the building it occupies but it is worth the climb. I would gladly visit them again on a future return to Oxford.
We set out again into the rain and had a look around the Oxford Covered Market. Dating from the 18th century, the market seems to be going strong, still selling a range of good quality basic and luxury goods. It seemed very busy and lively which is good to see when markets in some towns are in decline.
There was a fire juggler (perhaps he was also a fire eater but we didn’t wait to see) who was bravely performing, despite the weather, even if he did seem intent on setting his pants on fire. Then again, the speed of the hand deceives the eye.
This is where we were heading. Frustrated by being denied access to one museum we sought solace in another, Oxford University’s Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology, famous throughout the world. “The Ashmolean” dates its original foundation from 1683, taking its name from collector Elias Ashmole. The modern Asmolean, however, began in 1908 with the merger of the “old” Ashmolean and the University Art Collection, begun in 1620. The current theme of the museum is Crossing Cultures, Crossing Time, seeking to show that “cultures interact with and influence one another, across time and geography” (information board at the entrance).
The Ashmolean allows photography without flash. Again, I have to question why other museums are so restrictive about this. I think they are badly advised and need to wake up and join the real world.
It was interesting to see how many people were indeed taking photos, whether with cameras or with their mobiles and good to see so much interest in the exhibits, which cover a time span from ancient times to today.
In view of the vast array of subject matter, it is impossible to give even a brief impression of the whole. It would need a book. I have selected just a few of the items that particularly caught my eye, though I must say that deciding what to leave out was the hardest part!
The description for the above reads (in part): “Jupiter, bare-chested and bearded, holds out a thunderbolt.” To me, it looks more like a French loaf but the sculpture is fine, nonetheless, and I would have liked to see it in pristine condition.
If we find the above startlingly colourful, it is probably because we are used to our ancient sculptures being plain white or beige, depending on the stone used. This effigy or idealized portrait of August, initiator of Rome’s line of emperors, is a plaster copy of an original from 20-15 BC which is today in the Vatican Museum. It has been painted to show how it would have looked when first put on display. Enjoyment of vivid colour is not just a modern passion.
Equally striking, to me at any rate, is this bust of the Duke of Wellington. To my eyes it is surprisingly modern and a bold approach to the portrayal of a great and famous general. His head alone, undecorated by uniform and accoutrements of rank, juts out from the base in an expression of dynamism. The label reminds us that the bust was modelled one year before Wellington’s decisive victory at Waterloo. This shows how great he was already considered to be, even without that defining triumph.
There were, of course, clocks and I was, of course, fascinated by them. This long-case clock, capable of running for thirty days between windings, was made my John Knibb of Oxford around 1690. John was the younger brother of Joseph Knibb, arguably the more famous of the pair, who moved to London around 1670, leaving John in charge of the Oxford business. John made many fine clocks himself, as exemplified by this beauty.
I liked the way the light and shadow picked out the details of the above sculptured tower shrine. Buddhism shares with Christianity the trait that while the basic message is apparently simple, the religion has split into a bewildering array of cults, each with its own take on the founding person and additions – often complex – to the doctrine.
While the preceding examples are old or ancient, my last is bang up to date. Tigger showed it to me and wouldn’t let me see the label until I had guessed who the artist was. No problem at all with that: only one artist of my acquaintance could have made this.
This work in bronze, entitled Athletics Sprinting, is by the sculptor Paul Day whose work is very characteristic in its use of perspective. Other famous sculptures by him include the Battle of Britain Monument on the Victoria Embankment and, perhaps most famously of all, Meeting Point, the massive sculpture of a couple embracing that has become an icon of the Eurostar terminal at St Pancras station. The latter piece has a remarkable frieze around the base, on the theme of transport. In an age when art seems to have taken a decided plunge down a blind alley, I have much admiration for Paul Day whose work, while thoroughly modern, has not lost touch with reality and can be appreciated by ordinary people without any need of inflated and vacuous prose to explain it.
An Indian lunch followed by a leisurely ramble around the Asmolean, what could top that? Not a lot, really, especially in view of the meteorological conditions prevailing outside. We therefore now set off for the station and soon had a train for Paddington. It was good to go home, turn on the heating and make tea! Nonetheless, we have not done with Oxford yet and will be back again soon.