Sculpting the Elephant: An Alternative Town and Gown Tour of Oxford.
If you want a self guided tour of bits of Oxford most tourists DON’T see – here it is. If you want a guided tour, contact me and for groups of up to twelve people I’ll charge £30.
Start at the Jam Factory Oxford OX1 1HU (There are lots of buses including a Park and Ride in Frideswide Square and a car park opp Nuffield College)
The Victoria Buildings was purpose built in 1903 as the factory for Coopers Oxford Marmalade. In 1987 when my business partner Gill Hedge and I ran an art and antiques centre on the ground floor we re-named it the Jam Factory and the name has stuck. The restaurant/bar at the rear has retained the name and in some ways the atmosphere. To get a feel for the place where Harry met his business partner Kathy and the real life Ingrid Lindberg, read this interview with me for The Oxford Times. It also includes some history of the building.
This is how it would have looked when my fictional artist Harry King the main protagonist in my novel Sculpting the Elephant met his business partner Kathy and the real life Ingrid Lindberg.
Why not start your walk with coffee or a drink in the Jam Factory which Harry would love because it is also an art gallery?
These are some of the people he would have met there.
This is the real life Ingrid Lindberg with me and Gill. Her story in Sculpting the Elephant is factual but we tweaked the name of the manor house.
Cross Frideswide Square and walk down Hythe Bridge Street towards the city centre. When you reach the canal, take the canal path on the left.
Follow the canal path for about half a mile until you reach a bridge near Isis Lock.
Cross the bridge into Mount Place and turn right into Canal Street. Harry’s terraced house was near St Barnabas Church. Being an artist, Harry loved St Barnabas. It is usually open – so do go inside. The architectural style is of a Roman basilica but the decoration inside would have been modern in its time. The Combes who ran the Clarendon Press (now OUP), also in Jericho, were among the earliest patrons of the Pre-Raphaelites and were supporters of William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. They were the instigators of the building of this church. The leafy decoration and other patterns on the left could be from a Morris pattern book. The figures above them are reminiscent of Burne–Jones.
When Harry moved to this working class area of Oxford, it was only just beginning to gentrify which was why this art teacher, born to factory workers in Cowley, could afford to buy a house there. Retrace your steps and head up Cranham Street .. At the junction with Walton Street turn right. Pass the Phoenix Picture Palace. Harry’s shop, “Deco-rators”, is not one you will see but I imagined its location opposite. You come to two pubs which are important in Harry’s life. The Jericho Tavern was the scene of an exciting teenage experience watching a then not famous band called Radio Head play at the Thursday night Club Avocado .
If you buy a drink there, ask to see the room where it all happened and the mural to celebrate the occasion.
Next door is Jude the Obscure – from the title of Hardy’s tragic novel. His Christminster was modelled on Oxford. Jude, hoping to better himself, moves with his family into a house similar to Harry’s in a working class area inspired by Jericho. When Harry’s life starts to unravel, he chooses to drink at Jude the Obscure.
The spur to the story is Harry tripping over Indian historian Ramma Gupta. She is hardworking, ambitious, driven and definitely GOWN. So let us cross into that other world entering it via the Radcliffe Observatory Quarter (ROQ). It’s the largest new development in Oxford undertaken by the University. But there are two C18th buildings-one is Gown and one is Town. I like places where the two meet. Gown is the observatory -the Tower of the Winds – painted here by my friend Weimin He when he was artist in resident @ the ROQ. The TOWN building now Gown was the original Radcliffe Hospital. Outside the new Mathematics Institute next to the former hospital is the beautiful paving based on Roger Penrose’s’ everlasting pattern .
We will emerge on the other side of the ROQ in Woodstock Road. Harry would have driven up here to Professor Charles Carew’s house where he bought the well-travelled chest of drawers. Go right and head for St Giles and the Eagle and Child, which is where CS Lewis Tolkien and their ‘Inklings’ friends met to discuss literature. Harry prefers to call the pub the Bird and Baby and introduced Ramma to alcohol here. He decided to copy the Inklings by calling himself and Ramma the Etlings in honour of the deco bronze figure that drew her attention to Deco-rators.
Walk on to the junction with Beaumont Street and enter the Ashmolean. Go down to the Lower Ground floor to see the most treasured items from the museum’s early collections. Take a look at Powhatan’s Mantle. He was the father of Pocahontas. The mantle reminded Harry that mixed relationships are not new. It also attracted Jerry and Marge, the Americans who bought the well- travelled chest of drawers that is the source of the historical sub-plot.
Cross St Giles and turn left into the Broad. Head for the Bodleian where Ramma spent a great deal of her time in Oxford.
On the corner where Catte Street meets the Broad, look up. You will see an ELEPHANT. That leads us to India and the second half of Sculpting the Elephant. This building was originally the Indian Institute and is a good place to end our walk. But you can always visit Antiques on High (High Street) a few hundred yards from the Bodleian . There you may find Caroline Henney – a deco lady who along with my friend Marilyn Williams inspired the character of Kathy.