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Two Oxford Spires: From Magdalen to Windrush

Dominic Davies and Elleke Boehmer

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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. They look forward to a new Leverhulme-funded Network based at the English Faculty, University of Oxford, entitled, Planned Violence: Post/Colonial Urban Infrastructures and Literature. More information about the project can be found here [1].

Elleke Boehmer [2] is Professor of World Literature in English at the University of Oxford and is Network Convener of the Leverhulme-funded Planned Violence Network.

Dominic Davies [3] is reading for a DPhil in English Literature at St Anne’s College, Oxford, and is the Network’s Facilitator. He is Editor-in-Chief at the Oxonian Review.