The rain in Brasenose Lane still goes – mainly – down the drain. The difference is that this particular gutter is in the middle of the road rather than cambered to either side.
The technical term for it is a ‘kennel’. Did it get that name, as some claim, because it was a favourite haunt for scrawny medieval dogs scavenging for the bones of discarded meat carcasses? It’s certainly a powerful image – as is that of Dr Johnson as an undergraduate, feet astride the High Street kennel ‘lost in unhygienic thought’. [We salute the late, great Jan Morris for this unforgettable vignette.]
In earlier times these gutters ran down the middle of every thoroughfare. The endless re-surfacing of Cornmarket exposed a subterranean kennel of considerable depth, filled with the detritus of centuries; and, in Pusey Lane and Walton Lane, cobbled byways parallel to Walton Street, you can still see the vestiges of a long forgotten street-plan, a tantalising hint of what might have been – like some memory from Pompeii.
The miscellaneous cobbles of Bath Place, which lead down to the Turf Tavern, are also deeply evocative. Merton Street’s are the most extensive. And those of Bulwarks Lane are perhaps the best of the lot, winding mysteriously around the ancient ramparts of the Norman castle.
The very designation ‘Lane’ (Bear Lane, Beef Lane, Magpie Lane, Tidmarsh Lane) speaks of an older age, more rural, cramped, intense, when the swill was communal and the centre of Oxford was a more intimate place. ‘Loathsome,’ was how John Ruskin described it. In these more sanitised times Brasenose Lane acts as a time-conduit from the medieval to the modern. One minute you are at the cluttered crossroads of the Turl and Market Street, with the high wall of Exeter College pressing you to one side. Next, Radcliffe Camera curves into view, its setting spacious yet intimate, with the towers of All Souls beyond and a high window revealing a staircase up which no one ever seems to walk …
A formal report from the University Estates office (2012) describes it thus – its normally restrained tones tested to their understated limit:
As one approaches eastwards along Brasenose Lane, the western elevation of the Codrington Library of All Souls College is all that can be seen until one nears the end of the lane. This enclosed location engenders an effect of delayed gratification and discovery for the visitor. Even when one travels specifically to Radcliffe Square, as all tourist groups in Oxford do, the area is something of a concealed surprise, feeling like a secret being discovered. As one moves along any of the approaching lanes, the Camera is slowly revealed, until the entirety of Radcliffe Square is opened up, revealing a wide space characterised by an eclectic mix of distinct yet complementary architecture now united by a consistent limestone palette and dominated by the imposing verticality of the Radcliffe Camera in the centre. The growing revelation of the space adds to the already-significant impact of the architecture.
This is a filmic vision, equally evocative on misty evenings when the stones glisten under Dickensian lamps, as on a summer’s morning with sharp light and fresh shade. No wonder Inspectors Morse, Lewis and Thursday are constantly to be seen walking along it. Brasenose Lane is somehow the perfect length for the rising sense of expectation – before you burst upon the glories beyond.