Advancements in sustainability projects and a network of social support sets Oxford apart from its elitist history
You may view Oxford as a place indebted to upper class education and wider Oxfordshire as an idealised image of the English countryside. However, the city in 2022 is working hard to cater to a wider and more diverse population.
We shall look at some of the key traditional indicators of ‘Old Oxford’. You only have to walk down Broad Street or the High Street to be overwhelmed with statues of historic figures, commemorative plaques and ancient establishments.
Tradition and Division
Oxford has historically been a place of division, whether this be between religion, rivalry between university and townsfolk, or opposing politics. Take for instance the plaque along Broad Street which remembers the burning at the stake of Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley and Thomas Cranmer in 1555 and 1556. All three members of the clergy were executed for their protestant beliefs under the new regime of Catholic queen Mary Tudor. Oxford became centre stage in Europe for the warring of Catholics and Protestants in the 16th century.
Another example of friction is the St Scholastica’s Day Riot in 1355. Beginning with a row in a pub over poor quality wine, this altercation escalated into the warring of townspeople and scholars using arrows, and a total of 63 scholars and 30 townsfolk were killed (read more here). Oxford again fractured in the 1640s during the English civil war. The university backed the royalist cause – the king actually lived in Christ Church College – and the townsfolk supported the parliamentary campaign. The city became a literal battleground, and not for the first time!
A City of ‘Firsts’
The Natural History in Oxford has been an epicentre of biological discovery. One of the most notable moments in evolutionary history was ‘The Great Debate’ in 1860, which was a heated discussion between Thomas Huxley, ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’ and opposing theologian Samuel Wilberforce, attended by 500 members of the public. Huxley’s powerful speech will have been part of what turned public opinion from fear of the idea that humans evolved from apes to acceptance.
Oxford is home to scientific firsts and discoveries, and also some of the very first institutions and public houses. For example, The Bear Inn is a rustic ale house which dates as far back as 1242, making it one of the oldest standing pubs in Britain. In addition, Queen’s Lane Coffee House, situated towards Magdalen bridge, claims to be the ‘Oldest Established Coffee House in Europe, Since 1654’.
While these ancient establishments are little more than relics which seem far gone, they are also indications of how Oxford is a place at the forefront of changing ideas and times, even going into the future generations.
And a City of Lasts…
There have also been instances of whistle-blowers demanding the ending of outdated, racist traditions within Oxford.
Have you come to see the ‘Shrunken Heads’ in ‘The Treatment of Dead Enemies Exhibition’ at The Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford? You won’t be able to visit the Shrunken Heads anymore and here’s why:
In the 19th and 20th century, the Shuar and Achuar people of South America shrunk animal and human heads for rituals and trade. They were sold to Europeans and some were on display in the Natural History Museum up until 2020. The shrunken heads, along with other human remains largely originating from Ecuador and South America, have been or are in the process of being repatriated back to their ancestors as part of a reversal of ‘problematic socio-evolutionary anthropological projects’ at the Museum.
Another example of the rejection of racist symbols is the recent uproar over the Cecil Rhodes Statue of Oriel College. Cecil Rhodes was a colonialist who attended Oriel College in the 19th century:
The university was not able to remove the statue due to legislation and policies protecting the building. However, they released a statement condemning the statue, providing some relief that Oxford university aims to align themselves with modern values of equality.
A Modern City
We’ve addressed one side of the city, and now let’s look at what makes Oxford a modern, diverse, and inclusive place of opportunity. The image below shows the experimental ‘Investcorp building’, a symbol of change in Oxford:
The shiny metal tunnel was constructed by Zaha Hadid architects at St Anthony’s college next to the classic university style building. The new construction illustrates the future direction of ‘College, University and City’: this dichotomy presents the contention between old and changing modern times in Oxford.
The numerous projects in sustainable eating and living suggest that people in Oxford are focused on looking after the environment in a way which does not destroy it for future generations. Clearly, Oxfordian’s are working hard to reduce their own contributions to one of the greatest problems in the modern world: climate change caused by food production. For more information on how we can live sustainably and the benefits of it, have a read of REACH magazine’s ‘Quick guide to permaculture for Sustainable Development’ and ‘Oxfordshire’s Farmer’s Market guide 2022’.
Ivy Farm, in Oxford Business park, is an impressive project which is focussed on growing sustainable meat in the lab using cells taken from living animals. They are ‘an inquisitive bunch of bioengineers and scientists who love animals, love the planet, but also love bacon sandwiches.’ The meat they are growing does not harm animals and does not contain antibiotics or nitrates. Predicting they will be Europe’s largest producer of sustainable meat in the near future, Ivy Farm is leading the global charge for sustainable eating practices, right here in Oxford.
If you would like to try more sustainable food options yourself, you could visit Worton Kitchen Garden in Yarnton, north of Oxford. The farm shop sells ‘an astonishing diversity of seasonal fresh vegetables, herbs, fruit, eggs and flowers’ all grown in their very own garden or sourced from local organic suppliers. This reduces unsustainable emissions created from the transportation of produce. Like Ivy Farm, Worton Kitchen Garden also believes that you don’t have to sacrifice meat to be sustainable: the menu at the moment includes sausage, mackerel and ribs, all organic and locally sourced. If you are interested in their shop or restaurant, head to their website.
Inclusion and Diversity in Oxford
Also, the excellent mental health support, re-education services for vulnerable individuals and mass of charities suggest that the city is in step with modern values of diversity, inclusion and empowerment of vulnerable people.
Bridewell Gardens is a charity facilitating horticultural training and therapy for those in recovery from serious mental illness in Wilcote. The gardens are ‘a mental health recovery service’ which provide ‘a sense of purpose’ to those attending as well as gearing them up to future employment. Following therapy, individuals often go back to old jobs or start new jobs in the community or voluntary sector. To find out more and donate to Bridewell, visit their website here. Also, Cutteslowe Garden Project is another example of how horticultural therapy is assisting vulnerable people within a garden-centre setting.
Yellow Submarine cafe on Park End St is a brilliant cafe serving very affordable (+delicious!) sandwiches and hot drinks, and is staffed by individuals with learning difficulties and autism. The charity set up a cafe-training programme in 2013 to provide vulnerable individuals with skills for later employment. Yellow Submarine also puts on social clubs and holiday trips for their employees.
The Oxford Literary Festival, a festival which has largely catered to a narrow target audience in the past, has opened up its discussion to promote diversity. On Saturday 26th March 2023, the festival is putting on a discussion of ‘African and Caribbean Voices’ with the view to promote the Africa-focused publisher ‘James Currey Publishing’, and its efforts to promulgate African and Caribbean voices. The talk involves some very big names, including the ex-Haitan prime minister Dr Claude Joseph, promising a unique and rich conversation!
PODtech and the REACH local magazine encapsulate this new vision of social enterprise and inclusion in Oxford. Not only does PODtech train vulnerable entrepreneurs to set up their own websites and provide microgrants to get on their feet, but our magazine also promotes other community focussed businesses: take a look at articles ‘Memory Lane Oxford: Bringing Singing and Joy to Dementia Sufferers and Care Home Residents’ and ‘Local pioneer, Oxfordshire Recovery College: Mental health recovery through education’. Please do help support the local businesses mentioned in this article and on the REACH website.
To conclude, next time you feel disheartened by the ‘snobby’, ‘old-fashioned’ or ‘quaint’ city you live in, remember all the exciting projects you could give donations to or get involved in – dispel your prejudgements of Oxford’s culture!
This city is changing…