When we moved from Oxford to Liverpool almost eighteen years ago I would joke that there were no more two different cities in the country. The only thing they had in common being the number of listed buildings they both had, with Liverpool slightly ahead.
Over the years the two cities have moved less apart and now it seems there almost as many bemused tourists thronging around Matthew Street as there are on Cornmarket or wandering up Broad Street.
We were in Oxford this last weekend and on Monday we went into the city to revisit some old haunts. We started in the Covered Market which seems to move another step closer to complete gentrification every time we go in with another old shop closing and being turned into a café or card shop. Hayman’s the Fishmongers is still going strong, as is the cheese shop and the greengrocers, and there are still a cluster of good butchers still serving the Colleges. It is always reassuring to spot a pig’s head through a window. Maybe this is the year I treat myself to making some brawn.
We then walked down The High, over Magdalen Bridge and lingered round the second hand clothes shops on St Clements before traipsing up Cowley Road. Although I have driven down it a few times since we left I think this was the first time we had walked up it. It was at once instantly familiar in its geography and layout, the cars negotiating the side streets, the ever present bikes threatening to run you down, but also hugely different. It was spruced up and cleaner, trees had been planted in the pavement and almost all of the shops and restaurants had changed. The only two that were still there as I remembered them were Uhuru , the health food shop and The Hi-Lo Jamaican Eating House.
But the good news was that although they were operating under different signs and names the road was still packed with individual shops and restaurants. There seemed to be far fewer curry houses, I remember counting 17 one day on the way into town on the bus, but they had been replaced by Lebanese, Greek, Morrocan and Turkish restaurants. There were two very good Middle Eastern food shops both of which were selling packets of Giant Couscous or Mograbiah. I don’t like to pass up on the opportunity to stock up on Mograbiah when I see it so I bought 3 kilos.
We made it all the way up to the junction with East Avenue at which point we turned back as the kids were demanding lunch. It was strange to linger outside the old Co-op Hall which had been a rather tatty room but which had now been smartened up to a proper venue. Amazing to think that only a couple of hundred yards from were we lived we able to walk down and see bands such as Radiohead, Supergrass, Therapy, Gong and Giant Sand (twice!).
With hungry and recalcitrant children to be kept on side lunch was in a Nando’s. For some of us it was our first chance to indulge in the whole peri peri experience. The verdict was probably that it could have done better but was not as bad as we had feared.
On the way back into town there was just about time for another short diversion into a record shop with second hand vinyl, good coffee and a relaxed atmosphere this would have been a home from home eighteen years ago. As it was there was a quick grab of CD’s that caught my eye – Dirty Projectors on the back of a review in one of the Sunday papers and something by someone called Carl Rowe described as a mix of Tom waits, Leonard Cohen and Mark Lanegan.