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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.

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Have you ever walked down Brasenose Lane and wondered what lies to the other side of the wall? Here’s part of the answer … It comes from Lina Gibb who describes herself as ‘a Bodleian subject consultant with an old iPhone’. More of her fine photographs can be seen at https://www.instagram.com/linafromoxford/
The lighting of Brasenose Lane is an important aspect of its charm and character. Liz Woolley explains how a small group of dedicated people rescued us from ‘the last word in sheer ugliness’. 

Four of your pictures feature the lovely scrolled lamp brackets designed by Robert Maccoun of the Oxford Civic Society in the 1970s.

In his book The Erosion of Oxford James Stevens Curl, one of the founders of the Society, noted that old street lamps of pleasing design, fixed to the walls of buildings, were rapidly being replaced by “the last word in sheer ugliness”: modern lights, many shaped like ping-pong bats, on stand-alone poles which quickly became plastered with signs.  Moreover, these replacement lamps were in an unsightly and bewildering variety of styles; those along the middle of St Giles had no fewer than four different kinds of fittings, resulting in “virtual anarchy”. The Civic Society’s working group on street lighting produced a booklet Street Lighting in Oxford, researched and written by Thomas Braun. It advocated the retention and rehabilitation of Windsor lanterns, which were being taken down and sold off to the public from the City Council’s depot on Nelson Street in Jericho for £7 each.

As a result of Braun’s study, the City Engineer’s Department began to work in close consultation with the Society’s working group and with John Ashdown, the newly-appointed City Conservation Officer. It was decided to use a modern replica of the old Windsor lantern in the minor roads of the city centre and in Old Headington. What was needed was a way of attaching these lanterns to the walls of historic buildings. A member of the group, Robert Maccoun, designed a special wrought iron wall-mounted bracket, as shown in your photographs. Maccoun was an American engineer who lived on a former college barge and repaired boats for a living. He got on particularly well with Derek Parfit, the distinguished Oxford philosopher and convenor of the working group; both men cared deeply about the detail and appearance of historic Oxford. Parfit offered to pay for prototypes of Maccoun’s lamp brackets to be manufactured and they were installed on the High Street frontage of Parfit’s college, All Souls, and other nearby locations. Eventually the replica Windsor lanterns and Civic Society brackets were adopted in most of the small city streets and in Old Headington.

Your readers can learn more of the story, and of the Oxford Civic Society’s many other activities to preserve and enhance Oxford, in Changing Oxford: Fifty years of Oxford Civic Society 1969 – 2019, downloadable from the Society’s website at https://www.oxcivicsoc.org.uk/what-we-do/communications/books-and-pamphlets/  LW

Edith Gollnast, inimitable illustrator of Oxford, worked for many years in Oxford’s town planning department, with particular responsibility for historic buildings and conservation areas. She makes a very important distinction: a cobble is not the same as a sett.

Cobblestones are natural, hard, round, or roughly oval shaped stones that have been washed smooth over the years by the action of sea water. Radcliffe Square is a predominantly cobbled surface on its south, west and north sides.

”Setts are traditionally cut from granite, very hard wearing, usually square when laid on the ground. They can be tumbled to soften the appearance of their edges. Bath Place features setts and stones for paving and drainage channels – with a short cobble strip margin on the west.

“Flooring stones can also take the form of a brick shape, usually brick sized but it can be more slender. Brasenose Lane’s drainage channels are stone setts and stone brick shapes while the lane’s surface is asphalt. There are no cobbles. – EG

Stephanie Jenkins brings a diabolical dimension to the Brasenose Lane story! She has referred us to these two spooky links:
https://www.bbc.co.uk/oxford/spooky/devil_oxford.shtml
https://www.bnc.ox.ac.uk/about-brasenose/history/215-brasenose-traditions-and-legends/415-the-devil-visits-brasenose
Thanks are also due to Professor Bob Evans who draws our attention to an alternative version (in two separate tales) in J. Mordaunt Crook’s Brasenose: the Biography of an Oxford College (2008) pp 189 and 213. The suggestion is that the second scandal of 1840 can be seen as ‘marking the College’s passage from a riotous Regency age to a sober Victorian one’.
Meanwhile, a legion of Latinists wrote in to point out that, evocative though it might be to imagine scavenging medieval dogs, the term ‘kennel’ is in fact derived from ‘canalis’ meaning ‘pipe, groove, channel’ (from ‘canna’, a ‘cane, or reed’).

 

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