Open arms or up in arms, residents of Oxford face a rapidly changing retail landscape. The revamped Westgate centre, due to open in 2017, will include a three-storey John Lewis, 70 new shops, a cinema and an underground car park.

The 800,000 sq ft retail-led mixed use development Work has already begun on the 800,000 sq ft Westgate development, seen here as an artist's impression from Queen Street

By Olivia Gordon

When people find out Oxford is about to get its very own John Lewis store, they tend to be thrilled, but also a bit bemused. Oxford has a long history of not quite being a ‘proper’ city centre, with high streets lined by big-name shops.

We Oxford residents have long been resigned to having to go to London if we want to visit the likes of John Lewis or Ikea. We don’t even have a truly massive 24-hour mega-sized supermarket.

Many would say this is all well and good. The site of the Westgate, looking down Castle Street in the 1900sThe site of the Westgate, looking down Castle Street in the 1900s

Just as Oxford City Council has managed to preserve the pedestrianised city centre from the giant concrete underpasses and roundabouts which have come to dominate other cities, it has also resisted turning Oxford’s high streets into a commercial metropolis. Instead, endless quaint and sometimes downright bizarre shops have flourished. Who needs a newfangled shiny John Lewis when we’ve got Boswell & Co., trading since 1738?

But like it or not, change is coming. The redevelopment of the 1970s Westgate Centre will bring a 100,000 square foot John Lewis to Oxford in October 2017, part of an 800,000 square foot new ‘shopping and leisure development’, boasting a ‘boutique’ Curzon cinema, and more than 100 retail stores and 25 restaurants and cafes including a food court and rooftop terrace dining. The rival Clarendon Centre, which once looked so modern, must be a bit scared. Westgate_OxfordJohn Lewis will be the largest shop in the complex, which is due to be completed in the autumn next year

Ikea isn’t going to be far away for much longer, either. A new Reading superstore is opening this summer. A new Sainsbury’s is opening in the centre of town, too – on the corner of St. Aldate’s. Last year, we got our first big Waitrose, on the Botley Road.

The turning point for Oxford seemed to come in 2002, when Marks & Spencer’s set up a game-changing shop in Summertown, followed by Primark hitting the Westgate centre in 2006. It’s as if developers are finally realising that Oxford - always been a bit out of the way, a bit neglected, when it comes to big-name shops – was a gap in the market. westgate_OxfordThe plan for the revamped Westgate, which stretches from Thames Street up to Queen Street

Of course, we’ve had plenty of chain stores in our time. But there was often something not quite right about them and they were doomed from the outset. Remember the huge Co-op supermarket that used to sit halfway up Cornmarket – the one with the funny basement? It was always virtually empty. (Tesco on St. Giles, with your equally funny basement, take note – you, too, are probably doomed).westgate_OxfordAn artist's view of one of the new shopping arcades

You can bring the big world to Oxford, but it doesn’t seem to fit. The snazzy brands sit awkwardly among the dreaming spires; the University and its history frighten them off somehow. Not for us vast malls like Westfield, the Bullring or Bluewater. Apart from a few stalwarts like Marks & Spencer and Debenhams (going strong in central Oxford since 1975 and 1953 respectively), we have pottered around without huge malls, and settled for second-tier stores like Littlewood’s and, currently, a string of mobile phone shops. (The fascinating site Oxfordhistory.org.uk has inventories of which shops existed on Cornmarket and George Street in 1973, 2008 and today. It notes that while Cornmarket was dominated by shoe shops in the 1970s, now it is overrun by mobile phone shops. The only Cornmarket stores that have stayed in place from 1976 to the present are Boots, W.H. Smith, Boswell & Co., Austin Reed Ltd., and three banks.)

The site of the Westgate, looking down Castle Street in the 1900sWhen the Westgate originally opened in 1972, it was as anticipated as the new Westgate is today. It even had a Selfridges. But look how the Westgate ended up – a gloomy hall filled with discount and random shops. Selfridges became less and less cutting edge as it was taken over by Lewis’s and then Allders, which closed in 2005 – the site was finally taken over by Primark in 2006. The Westgate had a reasonably sized Sainsbury’s - but it was so hidden away that Oxford residents forgot it was there and aren’t sure if it still exists even today. When the Westgate was built, there was an exciting 1970s-style ‘moving pathway’ in the car park. That didn’t even last a few years. It remained out of use, cordoned off, for decades, while the Westgate car park became an eyesore.

And now, suddenly, with the new Westgate, it seems like finally we are getting our very own Oxford-sized version of Westfield. When John Lewis says: ‘Oxford has long been a sought-after location for us and we’re thrilled to be able to expand our reach to customers across the region for the first time,’ Oxford people think ‘Really?’ Oxford the city (not the University) has had this cut-off, slightly forgotten feeling for so long; has a retail monolith really noticed us? Are we really going to be on some sort of shopping map?

Oxonians are excited. Because much as we love our strange little shops – Ducker & Son, the shoe shop in the Turl, selling the same smell of leathery senior common rooms since 1898; The Covered Market, with its butchered animal carcasses; Little Clarendon Street, a haven for artsy boutiques – there have long been empty shop fronts dotted around town and a feeling, sometimes, of the city running to seed while the University flowers. Shopping at Bonners fruit stall in the Covered MarketShopping at Bonners fruit stall in the ever-popular Covered Market

With rising property prices and affectation piled upon gentrification, shopping streets like North Parade have become caricatures of their former selves. In the 1980s, North Parade had a post office, a hardware shop, Victoria Wine, a launderette and an Italian restaurant. It was a useful little shopping parade. Today, these shops have long gone –and the street is home to a twee deli that sells selected artisanal frou-frous, but never anything you actually need. So, a great big mall with a John Lewis is welcome on Oxford’s monopoly board.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t topple Boswells. Then again, Boswells has survived so long already, one suspects it will still be here in another few centuries, gazing on the ruins of the 2017 Westgate Centre.

the work shop of Elliston & Cavell, Oxford, 1930sThe work shop of the Oxford department store Elliston & Cavell in the 1930s

Oxford places that came and went

Elliston & Cavell

Clothkits

Past Times

Sylvester’s

The Reject Shop

Athena

The Oxford Story

The Co-op in Cornmarket

Blackwell’s children’s bookshop

Oriental Crafts

Cult Clothing

Victoria Wine

HMV

Bangles

C&A

Etam

Tammy Girl

Russell Acott

Tumi

Avid Records

Massive Records

Allders

Littlewoods

Blackwell's book shop in Broad Street Blackwell's book shop on Broad Street

Oxford institutions

Ducker & Son – men’s shoes - since 1898

Walters of Oxford – university apparel – more than 150 years old

Tiger Lily – tattoos, piercing & alternative fashion – since 1991

The OUP bookshop – Oxford University Press books - since 1872

Bonners Fruit & Veg – since 1926

Boswell & Co. – department store - since 1738

Maison Blanc – patisserie - since 1981

Browns – restaurant - since the 1970s

Blackwell’s – bookshop - since 1879

Ben’s Cookies – biscuits - since 1983

Next to Nothing - clothes

The Nosebag – café

Thirsty Meeples – board game café – since 2013

George & Davis’ – ice cream – since 1992

 

Images: Oxford University Images, Shutterstock, Westgate Oxford

Comments

By JC Spender
on

No mention of Paradise or the first Indian restaurants - which served the cheapest meals in town.

By Alan Giles
on

...and don't forget Sunshine Records on Little Clarendon Street, which was an oasis of distraction for undergraduates in the 1970s. Nearly all the albums were displayed on racks where you didn't need to leaf through them, just slowly wander along gazing at the sleeves. Only when I moved into a career in retailing did I realise what a poor use of space this was - no wonder it didn't survive.

By David Shamash
on

Another one that was there when I was up in the 1950s and is now a "went" is the Wimpy that was on St Giles.

By timothy keates
on

During my third year (Michaelmas 1963 - Trinity 1964) I lodged in a basement in St Ebbe's. An archaeologist, equipped with the latest technology, would now have difficulty finding the place. Many towns in the UK have seen themselves "redeveloped", with their old individual shops replaced by branches of chain stores. It looks as though the Westgate area, already similarly affected, is taking a further step in that direction.

By A Dexter
on

Ducker's is of course closing due to unsustainable rents. Why the praise for a soulless high street behemoth and off the shelf arcade whilst sticking the knife into a small business? Oxford has been missing a decent deli since the sad death of Palm's.

By Iain Morrison
on

Before its move to the Westgate Marks & Spencer was on the east side of Cornmarket, just north of Market Street, hence in Oxford long before 1973.

By Amitzur Ilan (...
on

Was it really justified to mock so badly at the old, homely North Parade?
(I have lived at Winchester Road 1971-1974, and then, on and off, even very ecently, lodged at my alma matter St. Antony's College, around the corner from the miniature, lovely - oh yes - Parade ).

By Michael Cross
on

You have forgotten:-

Cooper's, the ironmongers which used to stand on the corner of St Ebbe's, where the Westgate Centre was to be located. My uncle used to work there in the 1940s and in my days as a builder's labourer in the mid 1950s, I would be sent there to collect items when working on the building of the then new telephone exchange in Thames Street.

If, by Browns, you mean Browns in the Covered Market, I remember going there for tea as a treat in the 1940s when it was already well-established.

And you haven't mentioned Parker's bookshop ion the corner of the Turl and Broad Street, taken over by Blackwell's after I went down in 1958.

Elliston and Cavell (where my aunt worked in the 1940s and where my late wife had her first job on leaving school) was taken over by Debenham's.

Webber's department store at the Carfax end of the High? Forgotten, too. Not to mention both of Webber's near neighbours, the International Stores (groceries and provisions) where my late father-in-law worked in pre-War days and Sainsbury's both also in the High.

And what about Grimbley Hughes, the classy grocers at the Carfax end of Cornmarket?

The Cadena Cafe? Complete with potted palms, Rudolph the Austrian waiter and 'palm court' orchestra which stood In Cornmarket where the Clarendon Centre stands. I had my wedding reception there in 1958.

I could go on.....(and I haven't lived in Oxford since 1958)

You haven't done you homework properly! Not up to the standard I expect from Oxford. Tut, tut.

Michael Cross

St John's 1955.

By Jeffrey Hobbs (...
on

The university outfitters, Shepherd & Woodward, still occupies its site on the High Street.
I bought my dinner suit there in 1972 for £50. I have it to this day and wear it from time to time. I am pleased to boast that it still fits! The man who sold it to me was happy to take a cheque in payment without any bank card, because I was a student at the university, so long as I wrote my college on the back. This struck me at the time as very gentlemanly.

By Jane Reeve
on

For me needing to go to the Westgate Library has been my reason for buying whatever essential was urgent at Marks and Spencer or ...

By Jacquie Robson
on

I still regret the old Sainsbury's on the High practically at Carfax. They had real staff and stunning food related tile murals (I suppose early 20th century) I wonder what happened to those tiles? In the spirit of the late 1960s, I expect they got junked in favour of something 'modern'.

By John Boyce
on

I have seen no mention here of Rowell the jewellers. They were for many years at 115 High St, between the OUP bookshop and Shep&Woodward. My father Frank Boyce was md for many years, succeeded by my brother Colin. Rowells downsized many years ago and moved across High St into a side street. A back room at 115 High St was where the Oxford Union Society started; it was later used as a Rowell workroom.

By John Wilkinson
on

"Twee deli" on North Parade? An obvious reference to the small independent 2 North Parade deli which Olivia clearly hasn't visited. I visited this morning, as I do most mornings, and I bought bread, cheese, carrots, potatoes, courgettes (all local and organic), and bacon. Hardly "frou-frous" that nobody wants unless you are the sort of person who dines only on caviar and fois gras (are you? Might explain a lot). Perhaps in future you could strive for a less snarky assessment of what many residents of Oxford actually value about shopping in Oxford (and which is constantly in danger of being swamped by less than benign superstores)?

By Richard Hamer
on

I don't think it is right to say that Blackwells Music Shop came and went. It has simply moved a couple of times. There was also Taphouse.

By Shonagh
on

And how about that shop on the High in the seventies, a place with beautifully tiled walls that sold cheese? Cut from whole English cheeses that had never seen a plastic wrapping? Wasn't that a Sainsbury's?

By Sue Dawes
on

Little Clarendon Street: Usbornes, Laura Ashley ,,, and a shop selling Indian clothing, jewelry etc the name of which I forget

By Pranay Lal
on

Alternative Tuck Shop on Hollywell St. for sandwiches on the go!

By Steve
on

And Woolworths on Cornmarket in the mid 70s, with its amazing in store bakery. There is no supermarket supplying bread of that quality anywhere today.

By Caroline Bucklow
on

Just wanted to correct a couple of things.

Both the Story Museum and Blackwell's Music shop continue to thrive.

By Jane Reed
on

There was a shop selling snuff on Broad Street when I was up at St. Anne's in the late 70s. Also, am I hallucinating (too much snuff...) or does anyone else remember Annabelinda's...and wasn't there a Fenwick's in the Westgate centre then?

By victoria
on

If the twee deli you're referring to on North Parade is 2 North Parade produce store then I am shocked as your assessment is terribly misjudged. I'm not sure what you actually need when you are food shopping but I tend to go for, bread, milk, eggs, vegetables, cheese all of which are carefully sourced by the owners of this independent shop from small farms and artisan producers in and around Oxford who are not into frous frous but produce food with absolute honesty, respect and passion. My advice would be to visit 2 North Parade and talk to the owners before writing such statements, businesses like this in Oxford should be supported and John Lewis can look after itself.

By Teresa Jonson
on

I am so pleased that oxford is getting a revamp on it shopping mall as the old one was really dated and very few retail shops. I do hope that there will be a mixture of high street stores from John Lewis to the more moderate priced ones like Primark. Oxford is a wonderful city with great atmosphere and I personally think it will attract more visitors. Lets face it we love to shop, as well as sight seeing and oxford will have it all.

By Jenny Woodhouse
on

I remember the Austrian waiter at the Cadena! I had a summer job there in 1963 or thereabouts and was quite upset that he got all the tips! Being young and English meant I couldn't compete.

By Malcolm Alexander
on

Trying to find an update on the new development. Has it been completed yet or what date is expected please.

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