Reading has the Oracle and Milton Keynes has The Centre:MK, but until recently Oxford had no more than an ageing Westgate (1970-72), remembered by many alumni chiefly for part-housing the adjacent Sainsbury’s. That was in turn adjacent to a distinctly Calvinist-flavoured church, St Ebbe’s, where you could still hear serious sermons about Predestination, even after the start of the twenty-first century. The editor of Oxford Today has no good memories and plenty of bad ones.
The new entrance by Bonn Square
Well, at October 24, 2017 (today as this is being penned!) it all changed at 10am and the new Westgate opened.
The blurb covers all bases, you’ll be pleased to hear: ‘Relaxing and buzzing, intellectual and hedonistic, stylish and comforting, Westgate Oxford will deliver a game changing experience set to reinvent the city of Oxford as the ultimate retail and lifestyle destination.’
Masterful prose, and 'hedonistic' as an antonym to 'INTELLECTUAL'. I shouldn’t be worrying about finding the latter. Granted, there’s a spanking new Blackwells. But it’s got a tiny amount of stock compared to the main store on Broad Street, and the emphasis is on fiction, board games, picture books and newspapers. It’s more Dan Brown than Brownian Motion, although I did buy a signed first edition/first impression copy of local sensation Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, the first volume of a new trilogy called ‘The Book of Dust’. I did so in a fever of capitalistic urgency, knowing that the small handful of those on display would be gone by elevenses.
Swelling crowds demonstrated that Oxford has been anticipating this great day for a long time. Primark won the balloon competition while Japanese fashion brand Uniqlo generated a vast queue by offering free coffee and buns. No water was turned into wine but the lights were bright and someone might have had a damascene moment in J.D. Sports.
Signs of late-stage capitalism!
Of course, some stores hadn’t yet opened, there were reports of dozens of unfilled shop assistant vacancies, and the main attraction was of course John Lewis.
But for this reviewer, who entered merely as a member of the public and not as press, the most obvious thing about the old (and new) entrance by Bonn Square, is that all the cycle parking has been swept away, leaving bikes to be haphazardly stacked against walls or locked haplessly to lampposts.
190 bike parking spaces have been destroyed in St Ebbe's Street for no obvious reason
According to Andy Chivers writing for the Oxford Times on this very subject, 230 bike parking spaces have been destroyed at the western end of Queen St and 190 spaces in St Ebbes’ St. The official map for the new Westgate insists that there is bike parking in Bonn Square but there is not. I understand that there is new bike parking down and around, but nowhere near the entrance. I smell a controversy.
The centrepiece is another John Lewis, but Boswells is a lot easier to get to if you live in at Balliol
The larger discussion revolves as you might expect around The Point Of The Shopping Centre, which has cost £430 million and covers a claimed 800,000 square feet, and encapsulates the last century - land of cars and consumer goods, private ownership and 'bigger is better'.
That’s the weird thing. We live in an age of Amazon Prime and Generation Rent, yet people crave experience and bricks and mortar might offer it. The new John Lewis has an ‘Experience Desk’ to cater to this. On the menu were ‘Magic Candy Personalisation’, ‘Ted Baker Wheel of Fortune’ and ‘Personal Stylist Talks’. See, the point is to get you face to face with people rather than screens, to go beyond merely transactional retail exchanges. There’s a Lingerie Advice Desk, and a Nail and Brow Bar. The sociologists might nod a bit here. We could have a seminar.
I wonder what the pastor at St Ebbe’s would have to say. Discussing the matter with my mother, at lunch, led her to enthusiastically anticipate a day in John Lewis ‘nearer Christmas’, instantly qualified by ‘we’ve become completely consumerist haven’t we?’ the sort of nod to chiliasm that may wipe the veneer off the nail bar, if only briefly.
And then there’s the air quality row that has engulfed Oxford lately. Oxford's transport issue just won’t go away. Sure, the mall website emphasises Park and Ride, but there’s a whopping car park just in case and advice to come in along the Abingdon Road or the Botley Road if coming by car. These already choked arterial streets are expected to get worse, even while the City Council has recently harvested an unseemly amount of global acclaim for saying that it will construct the world’s first zero-emission city centre (by which it means a few streets restricted to certain types of vehicle by 2025).
A typical scene on the Botley Road, long before the opening of the new shopping centre
The reality of persistently illegal levels of nitrogen dioxide and health-damaging particulates, and the very bright lights of the new Westgate, are impossible to tear apart because they undeniably relate to each other, perhaps notably so if you come into town on a politically-correct but nonetheless filthy-emissions diesel bus.
On that thought I left to retrieve my oddly-parked bike and get back to my computer.