“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.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.  

 
 
 
 

So how could Northern Ireland spend £400m on new infrastructure?

Great Victoria Street station, Belfast. Image: Milepost98/Wikipedia.

Last year’s confidence and supply agreement between the Conservative party and the DUP saw 40 per cent of the Northern Irish party’s £1bn price tag allocated to infrastructure. Although there is, at the time of writing, no functioning government in the North to spend it, where could £400m be best used?

Northern Ireland is not, geographically, a large place. The six counties are inhabited by under 2m people and, to use a comparative metric that anyone who has sat in a high school geography lesson may remember, the North is less than half the size of Belgium. Belfast and Derry, Northern Ireland’s two major urban centres, are only a 70 mile drive apart. On the face of it then, an injection of cash into infrastructure should be relatively straightforward.

Yet the Belfast Rapid Transit system is the only notable public transport infrastructure currently being developed in the North. That takes the form of a web of connected bus lanes, as well as investment in a new bus fleet for use in them, that aims to cut car use in the heavily congested city.

One way to spend the money might be to tame the Irish Sea. Democratic Unionist Party MP Sammy Wilson claimed back in January a bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland was “feasible” and would be a “much needed alternative” to the current ferry route. Unsurprisingly, he isn’t the first to notice that Northern Ireland’s east coast is only 20 miles from Scotland.

But while some MPs dream of bridges across the sea, interest in more useful infrastructure is less forthcoming. Take the NI Railways service, which despite the name only covers a fraction of the North. A simple glance over a map shows how fractured coverage is.

Even where the trains do run, the service is hardly efficient. The Belfast-Derry journey takes over two hours, which doesn’t compare well with the current London-Birmingham fast service, which covers almost twice the distance in 1hr22. Belfast City Airport, which last year handled 2.5m passengers, is serviced by Sydenham Station – but only via shuttle bus, which you have to request, or via the verge of the A2.

Meanwhile there is no train at all to Belfast International Airport: instead, an expensive taxi or a bus through the Northern Irish countryside is required. It may be scenic, but it isn’t good infrastructure.

That said, NI Rail saw 14.2m  passenger journeys last year, compared to 11.5m in 2012-13: the problem isn’t that there is no demand for infrastructure, simply that no one has bothered to build it.

It is a similar story with roads. Belfast and Derry are only a 70 miles apart, yet there isn’t a direct, or even indirect, motorway link between the two. In fact, there are only 60 miles of motorway in the entire North: all are in the east, almost exclusively focused on Belfast.


Northern Ireland is, of course, not the only part of the UK poorly supplied when it comes to transport. Anyone reading this who lives in the North East of England or who relies of commuters trains around Manchester, for example, will have experienced similar problem. So what makes Northern Ireland special?

Well: for a relatively small geographical area, there is a striking polarisation in the provision of transport. Not only is there an overall lack of infrastructure, but what does exist is overwhelmingly concentrated in the east. To take one instructive statistic, 51 of Northern Ireland’s railway stations are located east of the River Bann, the traditional dividing line between east and west.

This divide isn’t an accident: rather, it’s a legacy of the North’s sectarian history. The east has been traditionally unionist, the west nationalist, and there has been a strong bias in economic power and investment towards the former. As analysis from Northern Irish regeneration advisor Steve Bradley shows, the main rail and road networks are almost exclusively confined to areas where Protestant are more common than Catholics, and where the DUP holds political power.

So, if the North does come under direct rule from Westminster, there are some fairly obvious gaps in the transport network that could do with being filled – based on the needs of citizens, rather than their background or voting preference. But with the open question of the Irish border hanging over us – something which brings implications for cross-border travel along with everything else – the chances of that appear slim.