The Dead of Jericho

15Aug07

church-and-canal.jpgI went for a walk today at lunchtime, down past the old Lucy’s ironworks foundry towards the canal. This, Jericho, is one of the oldest industrial parts of Oxford, with canal-workers, the Eagle Ironworks and tied houses for the workers at Oxford University Press. I remember it as one of the most left-leaning parts of the city – students, Dons and liberal parents of schoolfriends of mine all lived here. Radiohead and Supergrass played gigs at the old Jericho Tavern in its upstairs music venue. Thomas Hardy even mentions the church of St Barnabas in Jude the Obscure. It is a higgledy-piggledy neighbourhood of bright and cheerful little houses, labyrinths of side-streets, funky bars on the main streets and pubs hidden down back roads and, at its secret heart, the the canal, a cool, green tunnel of water and willows, twisting its way through the city.

Today, as I walked down to the canal, the streets rang to the sound of construction: the clang of scaffolding, the shouts of construction workers and the roar of drills. But this was not in the service of manufacturing, printing or boat repair – instead, it was the massive Waterways site, a Berkeley homes development that runs all the way from Jericho up to Summertown, and is so breathtakingly banal that it is hard to imagine how they sell any of the houses. Some effort has clearly been made to echo the gorgeous red-brick and Cotswold stone of Jericho’s original houses, but it looks like a cheap knock-off – an Asda version of a four-star meal. The Lucy’s site has been swallowed up and will soon be residential accommodation.

Houses are big business in Jericho. The area itself is a thriving, lively place, with restaurants, the Phoenix arts cinema, good pubs, local primary schools and plenty of independent boutique shops. It is within walking distance of the station, making it possible to commute to London, and close to the city centre. It is, in short, a nice place to live and work. And all this means that the price of houses in Jericho has reached the dizzying heights of over £350,000 for two-up, two-down cottages with no guaranteed parking and minuscule gardens. No wonder every house is being extended or tarted up; no wonder every scrap of available land is being bought up by developers to turn into luxury flats.

Watching a repeat of the first TV adaptation of Colin Dexter’s Inspector Morse novels, The Dead of Jericho, a few weeks ago, I was struck by how much the area had changed since 1987. Jericho in the programme was full of students and working-class people, academics and young, poor families – the kind of people I remember. The left-wing, politically aware familes whose children I played with when I was growing up, and from whom I first learned about causes such as the anti-apartheid movement, would not be able to afford to live here now. I learned to play the piano from a retired music teacher who lived on Cardigan Street, whose pension would undoubtedly fail to cover the mortgage in 2007. Instead the wealthy young families living here send their children to the Dragon and the cars parked on the narrow streets are the SUVs, Mercedes, Audis and new Minis of the well-off. But there are still plenty of long-term residents and the area has a sense of community.

boatyard012.jpgFor years, Jericho has had a working boatyard, a colourful, untidy, cheerful, bustling place where residential boat-owners could come for repairs. Lying in the shade of the beautiful, austere St Barnabas church, the boatyard and its community was the inspiration for the Gyptians in Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy. Now the boatyard has been shut and the site sold to developers, whose plans for it seem to be to build as many flats as possible, no matter whether it’s in keeping with the character of the area. Watching the end of the boatyard, it feels as though I am watching a bright flame go out, dwindling down to that little glow of red before it dies. The world is a poorer place without it.

So the world turns. The kind of people I remember from the Jericho of my childhood were very different from the print-workers at OUP, the canal-boatmen and the iron-workers of the past. But I feel a palpable sense of sadness at what will be lost when half of Jericho is turned into flats and luxury developments, with only the monolithic neo-classical structure of Oxford University Press still housing the industry for which it was built. There is a sense of history about this place; a suggestion that you are only a turn of a corner away from the people who lived and worked here in the past. There is a feeling of cohesion and of belonging, a sense of a tangible past shading into present with graceful ease. Will that all go?

Yesterday I walked down a different Jericho street – also all scaffolding, house-painting and gentrification, parking permits and resurfaced streets. A beautiful set of black wrought-iron railings outside one house caught my eye, with a plate affixed to them that said “Lucy’s of Oxford”. I felt the pride in that plaque. Looking around, there were many more wrought-iron railings, their manufacturer not named, but it would be a safe bet that most of them were made by Lucy’s in its glory days, when Victorian Oxford fell in love with the Gothic style and wrought iron. I touched the sun-warmed black paint and sensed the ghosts move around me.

Photo reproduced from the Castlemill boatyard gallery and St Barnabas Church website.

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One Response to “The Dead of Jericho”

  1. 1 Philippe

    Hello, I grew up in Jericho, I was one of those kids running wild in the streets
    and often think how lucky I was to live those times.However I have always known Jericho
    under construction, there used to be small industrial yards at the end of each street,
    and I remember going to the old St barnabus school , the knew one was just a load of derelict slums a wonderful playground


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