Yes, it’s clean. Yes, it has lots of shops. Yes, it’s more spacious, more airy, altogether less horrid then its concrete predecessor. But we can’t help feeling as we walk off the street, through the gaping entrance to the Westgate Centre, or ‘Westgate Oxford’ as it now styles itself, that we could be more or less anywhere.
The website tells us it’s ‘home to 800,000 sq. ft. of prestigious global brands, eclectic restaurants and cafés, a boutique cinema and sophisticated rooftop bars and dining’. As ‘retail environments’ go we’re unsure how that compares with Salford, Scunthorpe, Sheffield or indeed Swindon … The language of twenty-first-century shopping is bombastic, brand-tastic – and ultimately plastic.
There seem to be only three distinctively ‘Oxford’ things about Westgate Oxford:
(1) A small brown plaque, low down on a shiny white wall reminds us that the great Roger Bacon (d.1292), one of the finest minds of the medieval world, breathed his last here; and across the walkway you can see an imagined picture of the gardens – Paradise Gardens they were called – where he sat contemplating the wonders of nature and the realms beyond.
(2) A wall decoration near the entrance arcade is comprised of tiles recovered by archaeologists when the foundations for the shopping complex were being excavated. It is moving to think that these thin, small, squares of brightly decorated clay once lined the cloisters of the Franciscan friary which was his home.
Both are reminders of a time before Accessorize, Nando’s or Primark: a quieter, un-airconditioned world, traversed by leather sandals rather than £100 Nike high-siders.
(3) Lest we get accused of being grumpy old gits (which of course we are) the view from the top tier of the building is very fine indeed. Watching the evening sun catch the pinnacled roof of Christ Church cathedral and the dome of Tom Tower with a Mojito and Lime in hand is something not even Brother Roger could have dreamed of.
A weave of flowers and herbs set in tasteful wooden planters (the ‘scented string’) curves along the Upper Terrace, leading us to comfortable outdoor seating areas.
Service is polite and energised. A Harris’s hawk makes sure the pigeons are kept at bay. There are quite a few smartly dressed people on view, clearly not locals, which suggests that the Westgate is achieving its aim of drawing in people from further away and acting as a magnet for tourists. Above all, it is very good to sit under the open sky and look out over the dreaming spires to the dark green horizon beyond.
It’s not quite enough to get rid of the feeling of loss for what was once here, nor the sense that the entire world is being turned into a giant retail environment [Citizens – sorry, Customers – of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our chainstores.] Not quite an earthly paradise then; but the heavenly views do compensate.