Oxford is said to be the home of lost causes. Now it is in danger of becoming one itselfby Peter Hitchens / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Gum-splattered, tourist-infested, traffic-swamped Oxford suffers through another summer night. Bouncers loom in bar doorways, amid the perfume of stale lager and the throb of drums in a street where a young man was recently kicked unconscious for letting a woman jump the queue for the kebab van. Monoglot “language students” mill around McDonald’s. The drug dealers sit in their flashy cars waiting for trade. No doubt it was as bad as this in the middle ages, although they managed without gum, burgers or rock music, but should we be returning to the 14th century quite so soon?
Daylight comes and the scene is if anything more woeful. Coaches draw up and dump their tourist occupants, who look about them with glazed bafflement. They see the beauty, but they have no inkling of what it was for or how it came about, or how to treat it. Some shamble along behind guides, or climb into open-top buses which grind round the tiny historic area, saving tourists the trouble of walking or thinking. They are not really enjoying themselves, only doing their duty; and if they were made to take an exam on why they had come, most would fail dismally. Like half the modern world, they seek something they have lost, but their very numbers drive away the peace they hope to find.
What they see is a Disney version of an ancient university city, shining and phoney. Of course the stonework of the colleges was dirty and diseased, and the ivy which once hung from the walls was probably damaging, but was it really necessary to scrub quite so clean? Most of Oxford university now looks as if it had been built yesterday. It has been preserved to death.
Perhaps to make up for the hysterical conservation of the historic core, the rest of Oxford has been handed over, bound and gagged, to the worst influences of the 20th century. If you seek an example of bad town planning or architecture, from multi-storey carparks to raw concrete brutalism, from inner-ring road to pedestrian precinct, it is here. North Oxford, once studious and bosky, has become seriously rich. A tiny terraced workman’s cottage costs ?220,000, and a proper family house a great deal more. It has lost much of its dark Victorian charm now that it is so inaccessible to the academics for whom it was built.
Even the ancient…