“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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