Local historian Malcolm Graham shares his latest ‘Oxford Heritage Walks’ guide, in which he uncovers a western corner of the city, which is rich in history but all too often unexplored by tourists and locals.
The tower of Oxford Castle from the Castle Mound, where local historian Malcolm Graham begins his latest heritage tour
By Olivia Gordon
When local historian Malcolm Graham suggested a tour starting in Paradise Street, by St. George’s Tower, I confess I had to look it up on a map. I grew up in Oxford and have spent most of my 37 years here, but I am ashamed to say that never once had I explored the fascinating and very central neighbourhood of St. Thomas’s which lies behind Oxford Castle. Nor had I ever paid much attention to the equally historic area around the railway station – a part of Oxford people drive through as fast as possible, cursing the endless traffic jams.
‘On foot from Paradise Street to Sheepwash’ is the latest of Malcolm Graham’s ‘Oxford Heritage Walks’ guides. Each slim book, complete with maps and illustrations, is designed to fit in the pocket of anyone who wants to walk through Oxford and understand its history.
The first three titles, published over the last four years, have provided a tour of the most famous parts of the city - from Oxford Castle to St. Giles, from Broad Street to the High, and from the Bodleian to the University Parks. The latest instalment covers the district around the railway station, which crisscrosses the river at every turn.
‘In a way it’s the most challenging area [to research] because it’s changed so much - and it is changing,’ Graham explained as we set off. ‘It’s an area people don’t tend to investigate but it’s full of history, back to the Bronze Age.’
This area has seen plenty of regeneration and a visit to Oxford Castle area has been on my to-do list for a few years now, but I can’t believe that I have never stood still to look at the Saxon watchtower of St. George’s before. Dating back to around 1066, it competes, Malcolm told me, with St. Michael’s in Cornmarket to be Oxford’ s oldest surviving building. Sculpted heads found in Hollybush Row, from old photographs
We walked along the river along Lower and Upper Fisher Row, where only a few original Georgian houses survive. Park End Street took on a new significance as Graham told me how it was 1700s relief road, with a wharf where a Brazilian café stands today.
Many of this area’s historic buildings were carelessly destroyed in the centuries before modern conservationists took control. General brick-pilfering, the building of the railway, and the city’s first council houses in the 1930s all played their part, then much of what was left was ‘finished off’ in the 1950s and 60s, Graham added sadly.
Thankfully, it was harder to get rid of the historic waterways. Many streams were created over the years in attempts to direct Oxford’s flow of water towards different mills.Rewley Road approach to Rewley Abbey site, from an eighteenth century drawing
Next to a little alleyway by the 11th century Castle Mill Stream, Graham showed me a stone wall. It was all that remains of Rewley Abbey, founded in 1280 as a place of study for Cistercian monks and destroyed by the Victorian railway built here in 1851. In the modern Rewley Road development across the road from the station you can still see the Victorian remains of a swinging railway bridge over ‘Sheepwash channel’.
Graham, who is originally from Brighton and now lives in Botley, came to Oxford in 1970 to work as the city’s first full-time local history librarian. Now retired after many years as Head of Oxfordshire Studies with Oxfordshire County Council, he has written his walking books for the Oxford Preservation Trust. He spends much of his time exploring the city, noticing details that most people miss - from an ironmonger’s inscription of his own name on railings, to overgrown paths under low railway bridges.3-5 Hythe Bridge Street, an early 20th century brick warehouse, which formerly served as an ice factory
Our walk continued through Osney, once inhabited mainly by railway workers, and we gazed at the remnants of Osney Abbey, Osney Cemetery and Osney Mill.
Finally, we walked through St Thomas’s, where we saw the buildings that once housed the sisterhood of St. Thomas the Martyr, as well as charity school Coombe House, and the former malthouses whose tang, Graham says, lasted until only a few decades ago. It’s a beautiful part of Oxford which is only moments from the hubbub of the city centre, for years all but derelict. Despite the recent regeneration, the streets are almost deserted and few tourists seem to know about it. I was embarrassed that even as a local, it has taken me 37 years to discover it. Coombe House, once a charity school, near Oxford Castle
The book’s cartographer is Alun Jones, Emeritus Dean of Oxford University’s Centre for Medieval Studies, and illustrations are the work of Edith Gollnast, a freelance artist who worked for decades as a historic buildings officer for Oxford City Council. Her 57 new drawings are a mixture of existing subjects seen on the walk and other scenes which are now sadly lost. The latter are redrawn from historic prints and photographs. She explains: ‘One of my many exciting rediscoveries of this watery area is its important industrial past and the landscape, buildings and structures that play, or played, their part in this environment.’
Graham and Gollnast are currently working on a fifth book which covers southern Oxford, due to be published in late 2017.
The Paradise Street to Sheepwash walk took us just over an hour, at a leisurely pace, although Graham noted it could take up to three hours if you did it noting every detail. I’m planning to do just this, with his guidebook in my hand.
You can buy the guidebooks from Blackwell’s bookshop in Oxford or through the Oxford Preservation Trust.
Images: Oxford University Images, Oxford Preservation Trust