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Tis the season! Time to deck the halls, fill the mead cup, drain the barrel, and troll the ancient yuletide carol. Time also for a long overdue visit to Oxford’s Covered Market.

For maximum impact make your approach via the Turl and Market Street. The air is marginally warmer inside than out, thanks to a scattering of electric bar heaters, but you can still see your breath (or could, before the days of the covidian mask).

Ahead of you hangs a haunch of venison, a row of pheasants, a line of dangling rabbits. Behind them stand the butchers, scrubbed and ready for business. There are twinkling lights and hand-painted wooden signs. Characters from Alice in Wonderland float surreally beneath the high-raftered, polygonal roof. The air carries scents of baking, mulled wine, sizzling bacon, cheese, coffee, hot chocolate, shoe polish.

‘Pure retail theatre’ is how the old website used to describe it. The current one hasn’t yet been proof-read. It features  ‘colours and aroma’s’, lists ‘opening ours’ and invites us, ‘when we repopen’ [sic] to ‘come visit and enjoy personal bespoke customer service together with first class products’. But hey! Who needs a website? The Covered Market has been here for 250 years and it demands to be experienced in real life and real time.

Its doors were first opened on 1 November 1774. Up to that point meat had been chopped and sold outdoors. The city streets had become increasingly clogged, offal-strewn and difficult to navigate. Complaints were voiced at council meetings about malodorous ‘messy and unsavoury’ stalls. So plans were drawn up to create a dedicated trading area off the High Street. Twenty butchers shops were consolidated under one roof, and this became the only place where meat, poultry and fish could be sold lawfully. What was once Fish Street became St Aldates; Butcher Row was gentrified into Queen Street.

It was a classic example of municipal rationalisation in the Age of Enlightenment, making trading simpler, cleaner and less disruptive. The 1771 Oxford Mileways Act further provided for the removal of ‘Nuisances and Annoyances’ in order to make the approaches to the city more ‘commodious’. Alas, such nuisances and annoyances included the old North and East Gates to the medieval walled city, which were pulled down and lost to us forever.

Over the centuries the market has been remodeled, reshaped and re-roofed, more than doubling in size. Only the three-arched stone façade on High Street would still be recognizable to its original architect, John Gwynn (who went on to design Magdalen Bridge). Retail fashions have come and gone, yet the atmosphere of the Covered Market remains proudly distinctive. No faceless chain stores here. No blank-faced shop assistants. No soulless background Muzak. This is a life-enhancing place to be – and to watch other people be.

While you’re here, why not tuck into a tasty Oxford Sausage (with a dollop of Oxford Sauce of course) or sample some Oxford Blue cheese? Commission a cake to your own design, get your shoes re-heeled, or enjoy a bespoke hat-fitting? Refresh yourself at the Teardrop nano pub, or have a Moo Moo milkshake made to order? Then write a Christmas card and post it in the Victorian letter-box which stands beacon-like and shiningly red in the midst of it all.

Possibly still edible – although you wouldn’t want to test this claim – is the oldest ham in the world. Yes, that’s right: a foot-long shoulder of blackened meat, preserved and transported to these shores from Chicago in 1892. It now dangles proudly at the front of M Feller and Daughter in the heart of the market. Michael Feller, a life-long butcher whose organic bacon rashers have been known to turn the head of many a would-be vegetarian, bought it when it came up from auction at Christie’s 101 years later. It has been here ever since. Michael and daughter Mitzi have been here since 1979.

Time flies. Our Yuletide foray is nearly over. Let’s exit along Golden Cross Alley, through the medieval courtyard and out onto Cornmarket. Out into the world of air-conditioning systems and artificial light, plastic fascias and glass-fronted chain stores. The Clarendon Centre gapes vacantly just across the road. It’s an altogether different kind of ‘retail theatre’ – fifty yards and a hundred worlds away.

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We are indebted to Dr Toby Barnard FBA, Fellow (for forty years) of Hertford College, for this glorious reflection:

In the 1990s when the Covered Market was under one of its periodic threats I wrote to the Independent that I had more interesting conversations with the butchers than with my academic colleagues. My letter was published. Indeed, Fellers are still delivering to us now, here in West Oxfordshire. Occasionally we are bidden to lunch at their very splendid manor house at (appropriately) Upper Slaughter. I also caused a slight stir by insisting that Mike and Elizabeth Feller be invited to the dinner after the day-long symposium when I retired. They came and Mike approved of the meat. They have a fine collection of antique needlework, much of which has been generously donated to the Ashmolean.

Cardews also are still delivering my favoured coffee beans, but I lament the passing of Palms (where outside Fortnums can you buy Karlsbad plums?) as also the Waterperry shop in the centre. One Saturday morning, Burke Trend – the Rector of Lincoln College – and his wife were in there. Suddenly Lady Trend turned to him: ‘That’s not the Saturday basket. Go back at once to the Lodgings and bring the Saturday basket.’ How many heads of house and their spouses shop in the market these days, I wonder? – TB

Mention of the Covered Market prompted an important reminiscence from Malcolm Graham, luminary of Oxford local historians:

I came to Oxford in 1970 and, for a brief period between 1971 and local government reorganisation in 1974, I was both the City’s Archivist and Local History Librarian. One of my tasks was to seek out archive material in City Council offices and storerooms. A major discovery in a Town Hall basement store was the first minute book of the joint City and University Market Committee which established the market on its present site in the 1770s. For some reason it had become detached from the later minute books, so I had it rebound and reunited with the other volumes. The find helped to spur my early interest in the market which led to the publication of an article about its history in 1979 – http://www.oxoniensia.org/volumes/1979/graham.pdf 

‘As to the market itself, I recall that it was still very much a food market in the early 1970s and not at all on the tourist trail – the Oxford guidebook I bought when I came here did not even mention it. Since the 1940s, there had been various plans to relocate the market to a site in St Ebbe’s, and the postwar clearance of so many city centre houses – now much regretted – had robbed it of many local customers. The market had clearly seen better days in the early 1970s: I recall festoons of barbed wire above the Market Street entrances to deter would-be burglars! It was, I think, painted municipal cream, but it retained York stone paving which was subsequently removed. Thursday was still early-closing day in Oxford, and I remember that, if you entered the market at one end just before 1 pm, you might find the gates at the other end locked. I’m not sure whether anyone ever got locked in! – MG

Malcolm also features in a short film about the Covered Market: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zLYKtjypePI
Sally Jenkins, Blue Badge guide and tour co-ordinator, writes:

In your understandable excitement at the sight of the more-than-a-hundred-year-old ham you perhaps overlooked a more recent adornment to the Covered Market – Zyczliwek the Polish gnome.

The plaque which accompanies him tells us this:

In 2018 the cities of Oxford and Wroclaw signed a twin city partnership agreement. This gnome is a gift from Wroclaw to Oxford presented on that occasion. The gnome’s name is Zyczliwek, or Well-Wisher, symbolizing Wroclaw’s friendship with partner cities across the world. – SJ

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