This is the latest in a series of articles and illustrations from our new special edition publication New Cartography. The magazine offers readers a fresh and alternative take on mapping the urban environment through a collection of articles and illustrations from a wide array of contributors. The complete magazine can be viewed here.
Several months ago, a light was shone on the gaps in my personal mental map of the city of Oxford, and in particular the more recent history of its urban planning policies. On 30 June 2012, an Oxford-based project, ‘Movement, Anomalies and Distractions’, created an informative and eye-opening tour of the city both on and off the tourist trail. Over one day, they exposed forgotten histories, places and relationships.
In particular, I was struck by a walk co-ordinated by local artist Luke Ralphs, following the underground path of the covered Trill Mill Stream, which runs between Christ Church Meadows and a lesser known spot near the Oxford and Cherwell Valley College. As we walked through residential blocks, office buildings, car parks and over road junctions, Ralphs described a forgotten landscape of monasteries, Victorian terraces and cattle markets.
This ghost of a memory represents the historic district of St Ebbes, a settlement which dates back to the seventeenth century. Traditionally, this part of the city served the town rather than Oxford University functions and was the site of markets, light industry and housing, the bulk of which were built in the nineteenth century.
However, by the 1940s most of the residential buildings were declared slums and cleared in accordance with the planning policies of the time. The clearance allowed the construction of a fast inner relief road and commercial land development, resulting in a large shopping centre and multi-storey car park, as well as the campus of the Oxford further education college. These developments – most of which occurred during the 1960s and 70s – effectively erased the historic attributes of the site in a way that current planning policies would retrospectively avoid.
The area is now a blind spot in the popular map of Oxford: a swathe of grey which, like Ralphs’ trail of the Trill Mill Stream, suddenly upends into Oxford’s better known persona as an attractive, golden-stoned university city of cobbled streets and secluded medieval cloisters. The architecture of the globally and historically renowned University of Oxford dominates the city, both physically and perhaps to an even greater extent, as the accepted visual representation of the city to the exclusion of its other aspects and characteristics, present and past.
A memory of human history
Jericho, to the north west of the city centre, could easily have been redeveloped to the same extent as St Ebbes. In many ways the original character of the sites are very similar: early suburbs that were radically developed during the nineteenth century as a result of the arrival of several key industries. However, unlike St Ebbes, Jericho retains its sense of “anthropological place”2, meaning that there is a continued relationship between the present inhabitants and the district’s past.
In contrast to the open concrete and large modernist buildings in St Ebbes, Jericho is well known for its attractive Victorian and Georgian terraces; houses lined up in rows, facing outwards onto the street, hands placed neatly behind their backs and toes squared up to the pavement.
The district’s lively day and night-time atmosphere centres on the hubbub of Walton Street: a series of vibrant cafés, restaurants, pubs, specialist shops and boutiques still in possession of their traditional shop fronts and which run amiably into the city centre. On-going residential development and the overall gentrification of Jericho has altered the area from an industrial suburb to a cosmopolitan enclave, for better and worse, but there is a crucial sense of historical continuation in contrast to the whitewashing of St Ebbes.
The idea of permanence is a key element within the concept of place, in that things and objects, buildings and streets will remain, if maintained, for considerably longer than people. They can therefore represent the continued existence of the past for those in the present.
Monuments and memorials are built to commemorate events and persons past; these memories encased in enduring materials create a sense of human history with which people can empathise and cultivate a relationship. Such physical representations of the past were taken from St Ebbes when it was cleared, meaning any sense of anthropological place was removed, both for those that once lived there and for newcomers; a blank page on which the story must begin again.
Jericho has and continues to change, sometimes quite rapidly as large new blocks of houses and apartments are systematically built along the canal in keeping with a nationwide trend to commercialise canal space. However, one could posit that the creation of a sense of enduring place depends on the on-going activity of the making of history; on events, occurrences and relationships between people. If a place were to become entrenched in nostalgia and resistant to change, it would become progressively disconnected from the people that live there as time passed, reducing it to a faded memory of a place rather than a lived one.
This idea has been described by Michael de Certeau, a twentieth-century French scholar who wrote on many topics including history, psychoanalysis, philosophy and sociology. He defined place as a “practised space”, or in other words, a space in which the activity of placemaking occurs. It would seem correct to describe Jericho as such, containing as it does an active, connected community and highly present street culture. However, to say that space is ‘practised’ in order to become ‘place’ implies many things, not just that it is acted upon by people in one way or another, but that it occurs or exists within another abstract framework for human existence: time.
Time has passed differently in Jericho to St Ebbes, where the clocks were deliberately re-set. Instead, there is an on-going struggle between preservation of the past and different ideas of what the future of Jericho should be. Designated as a conservation area by the Oxford City Council in 2011, Jericho is often caught between the development proposals of commercial ventures, the stipulations of the council for the maintenance of the area’s character and the opinions of local residents, including organisations formed by community bodies in the aim of providing alternative developmental suggestions in competition with commercial organisations.
In following the Trill Mill Stream with Luke Ralphs during the ‘Movement Anomalies and Distractions’ city tour I had become aware of a very different kind of site entombed behind a façade of concrete. Jericho’s past, on the other hand, has been preserved in more durable materials than the human memory.
St Sepulchre’s Cemetery, a Grade 2 listed site, physically represents this continued presence of that past at the heart of the district. The entrance, an unassuming gravel track connected to the northern end of Walton Street, is easily overlooked, set between the local Londis and a long-standing bike shop.
It was only very recently, after nearly ten years residing just around the corner, that I interrupted my daily walk towards the city centre in order to visit the site, slipping between the eighteenth century gateposts of Walton Manor Farm, which preside quietly over the entryway, into the shade of a heady canopy of Pollard limes. A hidden place sequestered between buildings old and new, it is a resting place for the past that can be explored alongside the present.
Reclaimed by nature
The expansiveness of the cemetery, around half an acre in size, is unexpected. The buildings stretch and groan, splintering slightly as they move aside. The canal must be rerouted and the angles of the surrounding streets adjusted in order to gain my bearings a little better. St Sepulchre’s nests within a block of buildings, its tree branches reach into back gardens and stretch up towards balconies and windows.
With the entrance to the cemetery on the west, its northern side is flanked by the Eagle Works Development; a large complex of flats and houses built on the site of the Eagle Foundry, an Ironworks & Brass Foundry founded in 1825, which would later become known as W Lucy & Co. by the end of the nineteenth century. The new buildings tower over the cemetery in much the same way as the original foundry would have done.
To the west is the canal, from which the cemetery is separated by earlier examples of residential development. These newer houses curve around the cemetery’s southern edge before giving way to the backyards of original red-bricked terraces. Time passes clockwise around the edge of the cemetery and tracks the site’s continued symbiotic relationship with the industries that shaped Jericho.
Jericho became Oxford’s first industrial suburb after the arrival of the Oxford Canal at the end of the eighteenth century, triggering rapid industrial development. W Lucy & Co. would become one of the area’s three large employers, all of which made a significant and lasting impact on the area. Alongside the foundry, many of the inhabitants of Jericho have been continuously employed for more than a century by the Oxford University Press and The Radcliffe Infirmary, which opened in 1770 to become the very first major employer of the area.
Subsequently, the early nineteenth century saw a surge of house building to meet the demand of a growing population. The housing was of a demonstrably bad quality, built quickly and cheaply on land with poor drainage. These conditions exacerbated an outbreak of cholera in 1832 and put extra strain on grave space within the city, which, like much of the urban infrastructure of the time, was already flagging under the weight of a sudden population explosion. St Sepulchre’s, along with three other cemeteries, were established in response.
In the present day, much of the industry that fed the growth of Jericho has faded or relocated, and the last burials made in the cemetery occurred more than half a century ago. Those looking down on the cemetery from their apartment balconies are unlikely to have a personal connection to the space as a burial site. Instead, the cemetery has been redefined as a green enclave to provide relief within a dense urban landscape. However, St Sepulchre’s is anything but a manicured urban garden.
Left to degrade in order to attract local wildlife – perhaps to a further extent than originally intended – the cemetery is now in the process of being reclaimed by nature. Like the midnight hand of the clock, a stretch of thick trees the colour of burnt umber run through the centre of the graveyard. The canopy beats back the sunlight creating a shadow so dark it cannot be penetrated by the blanched vision of someone standing outside in the sun.
Here nature has taken its strongest hold: the tree roots flex, shattering gravestones weakened by creepers. Underfoot, leaf mulch appears to twitch and reshuffle itself, worked upon by industrious ants and flies. However, even out in the open, the grass has grown high around the gravestones, many of which lie prostrate on the ground and can no longer remember their names. As one measurement of time moves around the borders of the cemetery, another slower, yet tireless, entropic time scale is at work at its centre.
In amongst this tumult of quiet destruction and persistent vivification is a small seating area, enclosed by raised banks of flowerbeds to form a tiny garden that pulsates with life. A humming throng of bees bounce lightly from flower to flower gallantly avoiding the more wayward dance of the butterflies. Sitting amongst the traffic of bees and insects, the sound is surprisingly loud in comparison to the expected quiet of a graveyard.
In many ways the cemetery represents the dual aspects of nature: death and creation. It is a type of regeneration that is visually pitched against the changes in the built environment that encircle it, the forces at work within it spreading through the ground and the air; ephemeral and in a constant state of flux as opposed to the staid walls of brick, metal and glass.
As demonstrated by the significant changes in Jericho, the nature of cities has altered dramatically as they have developed, dissipated and domesticated the landscape. The image of a city as a lighthouse standing strong amongst the squall of nature is outmoded in an urban landscape where settlement merges into settlement, suburban sprawl taking over from nature in the gaps between towns and cities. On the other hand, the logic of the wall-enclosed city as the home for rational man is similar to that which would clear a large area of infrastructure completely to build anew; to draw a line between chaos and order, as if time would stand still once this was done.
Conversely the city can be seen in the context of the natural environment; as a landscape that responds to pressures exerted upon it. In the act of placemaking, man is part of, as well as responding to, the forces that shape it. The urban environment can be a connection rather than a separation point between man and nature.
Continuity does not preclude transformation
Both as a wild space and an historical site within a changeable built environment, St Sepulchre’s cemetery serves as a reminder that we exist within many time scales at once: the past, the present and the future as part of an on-going natural discourse. Jericho, in contrast to St Ebbes, retains its sense of place due to its ability to house these different time scales.
As a ‘place’ it has been created continuously, adapting and progressing without losing too much of its past too quickly. In many ways the fate of St Ebbes has served as a reminder to Oxford’s urban planners of the problems inherent to the rationalistic approach which removed all traces of the site’s history.
Whilst some of Jericho’s residential streets were cleared during the sixties and seventies, replacing them with buildings that now look out of place, the district was fortunate in never being completely cleared. Additionally, the designation by the Oxford County Council of parts of Oxford as conservation areas has allowed for more measured responses to the need for development.
French anthropologist Marc Auge would no doubt classify Jericho as retaining a sense of ‘place’ and the site of St Ebbes as a ‘non-place’. ‘Non-places’ are described by Auge as those which suit and exemplify the hyper individualisation and solitude of contemporary existence. They do not relate to a community or any smaller, local sense of belonging, but are functional, convenient or commercial on a grand scale, such as car parks, shopping malls, large complexes of flats and offices that architecturally isolate people in their everyday movements.
They are epitomised by the architecture of mass transportation as people move great distances around the globe within manicured and neutral environments to equally bland offices and hotel rooms. Built aesthetically as if they would last forever they jump ahead of people’s lives, failing to create an intimacy with them. In the context of an airport or motorway, this is perhaps appropriate: they are not spaces to be lived in. People reside within them temporarily whist in transit to other, more permanent places.
However, I disagree with Auge’s statement that “Place and non-place are rather like opposed polarities: the first is never completely erased, the second never totally completed”. Auge’s idea of anthropological place seems to hinge on the idea of continuity over time, but continuity does not preclude change or transformation. The ‘permanence’ of place, I would argue, depends upon being never completely erased nor totally completed. That which is erased or completed is dead and a ruin in the making.
The location of St Sepulchre’s cemetery is a place of transition both geographically, historically and symbolically. Surrounded by walls, the cemetery is an echo chamber for the sounds that enter it; the rumble of the trains, the slap and tinny laughter of children playing on the asphalt, dogs barking, the slam of a door and the winching open of windows, the clink of crockery, laughter, the low murmur of conversation, the slow chug of tugboats on the canal, bicycle bells that ring brightly and the distant roar of traffic. The sounds of Sunday roll around the space, an echo of the present as ghostly as the past. And all the while the hum of the bees throbs in my ear and the quivering ground shifts just ever so slightly underfoot.
Illustration by Nick Hayes
The article was commissioned by The New Wolf for New Cartography – an IdeasTap-sponsored magazine.