Two Oxford Spires: From Magdalen to Windrush

Dominic Davies and Elleke Boehmer

In 2011, Magdalen College had an estimated financial endowment of £168.1 million.
Looking west from Magdalen College, up Oxford's High Street, the dome of the Radcliffe Camera nestles into the skyline, carefully framed by the street's boundaries.
The Plain roundabout marks the end of Magdalen Bridge and the beginning of Cowley and Iffley Roads, where The Cape of Good Hope pub, established in 1892, can also be found. The pub's name is taken from the title given to the notoriously dangerous coastline of South Africa by colonisers and traders heading for India and the Far East.
Temporary structures such as scaffolding become easy targets for graffiti artists, while old shopfronts are put to a variety of purposes.
Still a relatively wealthy area, Cowley Road is littered with bars and clubs that cater to the large student population that lives there, some of them with perhaps unintentionally political names.
On the morning of Sunday 31 March 2013, a fire gutted Cycle King, one of Oxford's main bicycle traders. It took 70 firefighters three days to subdue the blaze.
Small shop fronts and graffitied walls line Cowley Road.
With the prevalence of bikes comes the prevalence of bike theft. Any part that can be sold will, if left unguarded for too long, be taken, from lights and mudguards to wheels and brake wires.
A whole host of ice cream parlours have found good business on Cowley Road, operating as social hubs alongside the bars, pubs and clubs.
As Cowley's shops and bars ebb away, they are replaced with large residential areas.
Between Towns Road runs perpendicular to the arterial route along which this documentation is moving, operating as an infrastructural demarcation that severs the city.
D's Caribbean Takeaway.
Huge swathes of land around Oxford's Ring Road have been carved into monotonous industrial estates.
Looking back after crossing Between Towns Road, the corner of Templars Square Shopping Centre can be seen giving way to more residential space.
The first glimpse of Windrush Tower as the road crosses over Oxford's Eastern Bypass. It stands in the heart of Blackbird Leys, a council estate that was built in the 1950s and 60s and now home to over twelve thousand people. It was originally part of a re-housing plan that moved people from a then deteriorating inner city to Oxford's borders.
Oxford City Council is working alongside private business to construct a series of new car parks across Blackbird Leys.
Windrush Tower catches the evening sunset on its west-facing wall.
A sign lies on its back in the shadow of Windrush.
Oxford City Council’s South East Area Committee and Oxford Safer Communities Partnership spent £26,000 on security cameras in 2009. The cameras rotate and film in 360 degrees and are linked to the city’s main CCTV station in St Aldate’s.
The Blackbird Leys estate abruptly comes to an end, giving way to the rolling hills of countryside between Oxford and London.
A young tree radiates light and colour behind its protecting fence.

(Hover over image to pause.)

Oxford is a divided city. The magnificent university buildings that are clustered in central and North Oxford are renowned throughout the world. Tourists flock to take photos of their astonishing architectural beauty. Less well-known is the Oxford that lies beyond the boundaries of the centre, just beyond the River Cherwell, to the south and east. Moving in this direction, the urban landscape changes as it accommodates extensive council estates and areas of relative poverty. What emerges is an infrastructural grid of boundary walls and axial roads, a blueprint designed to regulate and contain diverse ethnic communities and complex layers of socioeconomic class.

This photo essay documents the way in which Oxford’s urban planning engineers and manages this social division. The inequalities that define its different geographies are written into its street names, with Between Towns Road carving the city into two disparate halves. Two Oxford towers work as the geographical bookends of the essay’s narrative, as it moves in one straight infrastructural line between them (with a swerve at Between Towns Road), telling a story of stark juxtaposition that is intended to provoke questions. The first, Magdalen Tower, is a four-storey building completed in 1509 as part of Magdalen College, University of Oxford. Decorated with ornate carvings and octagonal turrets, it is home to a peal of 10 bells and each May Morning the iconic singing of the Magdalen College Choir is staged here. The second, Windrush Tower, is a 15-storey tower block built in the 1960s and named after the River Windrush, which flows into the Thames nearby. That it shares its name with the passenger ship, the Empire Windrush, which docked at Tilbury from Jamaica on 22 June 1948 and marked the start of the postwar immigration boom that would alter Britain’s sociocultural contours forever, is a poignant coincidence.

On the surface at least, central Oxford denies the stories of its peripheral zones. These photos attempt to visualise that which is denied.

Elleke Boehmer is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford and is Network Convener of the Planned Violence Network.

Dominic Davies is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and is the Network’s Facilitator.

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