In his article on ‘The Expansion of Towns – Planned and Unplanned’ [Journal of the Town Planning Institute, 43 (1957), p.106] D.W. Riley identifies certain towns as possessing ‘an efficiency, culture, and charm which are the gradually matured expression of generations of settled living’.
He might well be describing what is arguably the greatest Victorian suburb in Britain, the world within a world known as ‘North Oxford’.
Stretching from the canal in the west to the River Cherwell in the east, and north from St Giles, Norham Gardens and Observatory Street to Frenchay, Lathbury and Belbroughton Roads – the whole slab of land between and beyond the Woodstock and Banbury Roads for over a mile in fact – North Oxford is an extraordinary monument to middle-class expansion.
Vast gothic, gabled, red brick villas. Tree-lined, mature gardens brimming with lilac and forsythia, copper beech and apple blossom. Mellow gravel drives of yellowing local stone, disclosing cars that are spacious rather than showy. Wisteria-clad eaves and laurel green drainpipes. Trellising of box and yew.
If one were to pick a particular spot to explore in the midst of all this residential massification, it might be the nine-acre gentrified estate known as Park Town: the Arch at the end of Park Town to be precise. Grand but not triumphalist, self-important but not ostentatious, the Park Town Arch now leads to a bare lane (where once there would have been stables) along which bicycling children are funnelled to famously high-achieving independent schools (the Dragon, Summer Fields, Oxford High). Discreetly corballed at the foot to prevent the passage of any four-wheeled motor vehicles, it proclaims the date of 1855 – the time of the Siege of Sebastapol in the Crimean War – and is illuminated by splendid black Victorian streetlights bearing the mark of the Oxford Corporation.
In front of the Arch is a tangle of dark green trees, known as ‘The Jungle’, planted to create an air of cool seclusion. A carved paving stone tells us that this place ‘was for thirty years cared for by Charles Elton FRS (1900-91) ecologist and conservationist’, a local resident and fellow of Corpus Christi College.
At the heart of Park Town is the only gated (i.e. private) communal garden in Oxford. It is reminiscent of a small, residential London square, a provincial attempt at exclusivity. It still has a curious air of aspiration about it, which may be telling. For the houses (architect: Samuel Lipscomb Seckham) though highly sought after, are actually relatively small, and the reason they are placed in a crescent is to disguise the fact that they form a terrace rather than being detached. The communal square is there because there wasn’t enough space to accommodate large back gardens. And the very raison d’être for Park Town in the first place was to make money for St John’s College, which owned much of the empty land to the north of the Victorian city.
So there’s a hint of historic modesty here, which adds to the neighbourhood’s discreet charm, and which even the increasing presence of fleets of ‘Basement Specialist’ vans can’t quite dispel. D.W. Riley would still feel very much at home here.