“Lyra’s Oxford is not my Oxford”: paean to a changing city

The view from Oxford Westgate shopping centre. Image: Getty.

Lyra’s Oxford was my Oxford. Or so I thought as a nine-year-old, scribbling words to this effect in a letter to my favourite author Philip Pullman.

Like many other children – and adults – His Dark Materials had captured my imagination from the first page. And having just moved to the city from San Francisco a year previously, I felt like Lyra: an outlier, ready for adventure.

So I ran around the city, peeking into college grounds, playing manhunt in the back alleys of Jericho where I lived, and dropping sticks off bridges over the canal.

The canal in question was home to the Castle Mill Boatyard. In Pullman’s trilogy it is home to the Gyptians who shelter Lyra. Owned by British Waterways, plans to redevelop this historic site have been divisive and ongoing for more than 10 years.

In 2005 Pullman joined protests against turning the boatyard, then home to more than 100 people, into luxury flats, calling the plans “soulless, bland and corporate”. In 2008 these plans were abandoned.

In 2015 I attended a meeting about the redevelopment at nearby St Barnabas School, at which an architect tried to convince locals he would create ‘little Venice’ on the site, and where we sat around squinting at the expensive slivers of sketched brick he was terming “affordable family homes”.

Today, the battle continues. Affordable housing must be key to the £20m redevelopment plan as the city, which is surrounded by a green belt, continues to struggle with a lack of homes. The city council will likely be grappling with this, and issues such as affordable child care, for many years to come, impacting the lives of the Lyras of tomorrow.

Like all teenagers, I stopped playing capture the flag and pretending I had a daemon as I got older. When Borders bookshop and HMV, which as all Oxford kids will know were the only two places to meet friends in town, closed down, it was time to stop loitering and get a job.

Sylvester, the independent gift shop I worked at on Little Clarendon Street, didn’t take long to close when the Oxford College that owns buildings on the street increased its rent.


Last year, Wahoo and The Glee Club, the nightclub and comedy club where I bartended, were given six months’ notice to close by owners Nuffield College. The Oxford Mail called it “the end of an era”. Nearby Warehouse also shut, with The Bridge still rumoured to be clearing out to make way for Nuffield’s plans to develop Frideswide Square, the area near the train station. 

This cluster of bars and clubs, known as Park End, was the heart of Oxford’s nightlife. For those Oxford folk who shun chart toppers and WKDs (although don’t pretend you didn’t go Bridge when you were 18), alternative music venue The Cellar also only just avoided closure this month.

If Lyra’s soul is her daemon, what is the soul of the city? For me, and I would hazard a guess at many of my peers, these local areas, shops, bars and more were where we played, learnt, had our first drink, our first sloppy kiss, came of age and muddled through life. These were the soul of the city.

Lyra’s Oxford was never supposed to be my Oxford, of course. Will’s Oxford, visited mostly in the second book, The Subtle Knife, more closely resembles our world.

These changes to the city have been significant and some of its magic has been lost, but change is not a bad thing. It’s what makes Oxford set to become the first city to ban all petrol and diesel vehicles from its centre, and throw up a myriad of new shops and chain restaurants in the recently opened Westgate shopping centre for teenagers to make their official town meet up spot.

Reading Pullman’s new book released 19 October, La Belle Sauvage, brings back fond memories of my hometown. Malcolm Polstead’s home The Trout is still the place for a pint after a wintry walk across Port Meadow. And Godstow Abbey (Priory in the book) will no doubt still be a hotspot for underage drinking, bonfires and merriment, although University Parks was always our favourite.

Perhaps there is at this moment a nine-year-old boy writing to Pullman to tell him why Malcolm’s Oxford is his Oxford. 

Natasha Turner tweets as @NatashaDTurner.

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Treating towns as bastions of Brexit ignores the reasons for the referendum result – and how to address them

Newcastle: not all cities are booming. Image: Getty.

The EU Referendum result has often been characterised as a revolt of Britain’s “left-behind” towns and rural areas against the “metropolitan elite”. But this view diverts attention from the underlying issues which drove the Brexit vote – and ironically has diverted policy attention away from addressing them too.

It’s true that a number of big urban authorities, led by London, voted to stay. And overall people living in cities were less likely to vote leave than towns. Setting aside Scottish cities and towns, which both voted very strongly for remain, Leave polled 51 per cent of the vote in English and Welsh cities, compared to 56 per cent in local authorities that include towns. (Consistent data isn’t available below local authority level.)

Yet there is a lot of variation underlying this average across towns. In Boston, 75 per cent voted Leave, and in Hartlepool and Grimsby it was 70 per cent. But at the other end of the scale, there were a number of towns that voted to stay. For example, Leave polled at 49 per cent in Horsham and Harrogate, and 46 per cent in Windsor and Hitchin. In places such as Winchester, Leamington Spa and Bath, the Leave voted amounted to less than 42 per cent of the vote.

What drives this variation across towns? Data from the Centre for Cities’ recent report Talk of the Town shows economic outcomes were the biggest factor – with towns that voted Remain also having stronger economies.

For a start, pro-Remain towns generally have smaller shares of people who were either unemployed or claiming long-term benefit. (This is based on 2011 data, the latest available.)

Towns which voted Remain also had a higher share of jobs in high-skilled exporting businesses – an indication of how successful they have been at attracting and retaining high-paid job opportunities.

And both measures will have been influenced by the skills of the residents in each town: the higher the share of residents with a degree, the stronger the Remain vote.

So the Brexit vote was reflective of the varying economic outcomes for people in different parts of the country. Places which have responded well to changes in the national economy voted to Remain in the EU, and those that have been ‘left behind’ – be they towns or cities – were more likely to have voted to Leave.

This sends a clear message to politicians about the need to improve the economic outcomes of the people that live in these towns and cities. But the irony is that the fallout from the Brexit has left no room for domestic policy, and little progress has been made on addressing the problem that, in part, is likely to have been responsible for the referendum outcome in the first place.

Indeed, politicians of all stripes have seemed more concerned about jostling for position within their parties, than setting out ideas for domestic policy agenda. Most worryingly, progress on devolution – a crucial way of giving areas a greater political voice – has stalled.


There was talk earlier this year of Theresa May relaunching her premiership next summer focusing on domestic policy. One of her biggest concerns should be that so many cities perform below the national average on a range of measures, and so do not make the contribution that they should to the national economy.

But addressing this problem wouldn’t ignore towns – quite the opposite. What Talk of the Town shows is that the underperformance of a number of cities is bad not just for their residents or the national economy, but also for the residents in surrounding towns too. A poorly performing neighbouring city limits both the job opportunities open to its residents and impacts on nearby towns’ ability to attract-in business investment and create higher paid jobs.

This isn’t the only factor – as the last chart above suggests, addressing poor skills should be central to any serious domestic policy agenda. But place has an influence on economic outcomes for people too, and policy needs recognise that different places play different roles. It also needs to reflect the importance of the relationships between places to improve the access that people across the country have to job opportunities and higher wages.

The Brexit vote didn’t result from a split between cities and towns. And if we are to address the reasons for it, we need to better understand the relationship between them, rather than seeing them as opposing entities.

Paul Swinney is head of policy & research at the Centre for Cities, on whose blog this article first appeared.

Read the Centre’s Talk of the Town report to find out more about the relationship between cities and towns, and what this means for policy.