Headington history: Descriptions

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Headington in 1991

Peter Snow, Oxford Observed
(London: John Murray, 1991)

Some villages have been almost utterly swamped, a fate most typified by Headington. With its endless rows of semis, its fuming traffic jams, its long High Street straggle of estate agents, video rentals and fast-food outlets, it resembles nothing so much as a part of London – an outer borough that has somehow detached itself and floated some 50 miles to affix itself to the city of Oxford. It is a curiously muffled, insulated sort of place. Its residents say they live in Headington, not Oxford and turn their backs on the rest of the city. Yet it cannot be said to have a character of its own. It is, said one resident, the “ultimate double-glazed suburb” – although as in all such places one can often glimpse the intense vibrations of an inner life: a violent abstract on a sitting-room easel here, or a Texan ranch-style interior there. So it is altogether fitting that stuck into the dull and lumpy porridge of Headington’s suburban streets is a wide surreal sprig of garnishing — the giant polystyrene shark’s tail which local cinema-owner and radio personality, Bill Heine, has stuck perpendicularly on to his roof.

At its centre still lies the village of Old Headington. In the course of this century it has suffered a curious double fate. Surrounded by the proliferating suburban cells of New Headington, it has been both destroyed and reborn, emerging burnished and fresh-minted, a little rural icon with its village atmosphere lovingly remanufactured. Now it is exclusively middle class, but in living memory it was the home of college scouts, laundresses, gardeners and the like. From the 1930s onwards an academic influx took place, a daring North Oxford diaspora to the healthy climes of Headington Hill. Famous figures settled there, such as Sir Isaiah Berlin, the historian A. B. Emden, Lord Elton, John Johnson, J. R. R. Tolkien, and, out of the Kilns, C. S. Lewis.

Old Headington became a little intellectual Athens on the hill. Its beacons were a flourishing literary society, vigorously chaired by the novelist, Elizabeth Bowen, the Headington Labour Party, and a new and revolutionary Women’s Institute which let in men and fostered radical debate (sadly, remarked one member, the jam-making element has since won out).

Prominent among its organs is the local preservation society, the Friends of Old Headington, formed initially to combat an unwelcome development proposal from a firm of speculative builders. Since then it has been most active, publishing booklets, commissioning reports and advising on planning applications. Deep down one senses that they would rather be involved with the gardeners and laundresses. But if you don’t have a person an amenity will do, and the Athenians instead turned their high-powered faculties to the composition of paving slabs and the correct colour for lamp standards (black). Indeed, such is the darkly tasteful profusion of the lamps that the neighbourhood now resembles some strange Stygian tulip field.

Elsewhere Headington is a sprawling mishmash of a place. It mixes up medics (many in “Lakeland”, so called because of street names such as Coniston or Bowness); house-sharing polytechnic students or similar groups of nurses, teachers and academics; and London commuters who daily catch the M40 coaches down to town. There are famous schools; a football ground; hospitals galore and Harberton Mead Catholic workers’ college; and, next door, Robert Maxwell’s stately pile [Headington Hill Hall]. Further out, you find the honest working-class estate of Wood Farm and the aspiring gentility of Risinghurst with its trim rose bushes and weekly ritual of waxing the Rover.

Barton, over the ring road, presents a grimmer spectacle. Only reachable on foot by a dank underpass, on a ledge-like site slanting down to a brook choked with old prams, bottles and other rubbish, it is a scene of dreary prefabs, apartment blocks in anaemic brick and row after row of pebbledashed houses that look as if they have been constructed of identical squares of emery paper. All the tell-tale signs of council-built estate are there: the modernist pillbox of a church, the central defile of shops, grilled and shuttered, the menacing dogs (following the rule of the smaller the yard the huger the Rottweiler), the motorbikes and old bangers full of litter, stranded in pools of oil and a perpetual state of semi-repair.

Originally a hamlet of half a dozen houses (some of which are still detectable by their Headington stone walls at the top of the estate), the council expanded it rapidly after the Second World War to rehouse people from the city’s central slums. Many were “problem” families whose high index of deprivation pushed them to the head of the housing queue. (“You have to be special to get a house here”, said one early resident, showing the perverse pride people will take in almost anything.)

As such, it always had a rough reputation – perhaps justifiably. According to one social worker who knows the estate, it was dominated in its early days by a matriarch of crime, a female Fagin, who sat at the centre of her extended clan, fencing goods here, plotting a job there. Even today it can easily erupt into the wild lawlessness of a frontier town, as this description of a Barton Karnival, taken from the local Newsletter in 1987, shows:

Though the patrolling Alsatians, Dobermanns and other Very Large Dogs made it look at times like the Police Dogs’ convention, everyone was having a good time till soon after five, when fists and bodies started flying around the beer tent…. Bystanders were treated to the unusual sight of bodies flying through the air over trestle tables laden with geraniums in full bloom….

But Barton has always made an effort. This “can-do” spirit showed itself early on in the Saga of the Community Centre, an episode which had it occurred in Soviet Russia would have made a fine uplifting film propagandizing proletarian effort. Shortly after the first families trickled on to Barton’s barren steppe, a mass meeting was held at which it was decided to build a community centre. The council promised the land and materials if the residents would provide the labour. It all began in a blaze of enthusiasm but then keenness cooled and faction fomented. Eventually only a handful of volunteers were plodding on, forgotten. Then one day, they finished, and the new centre stood forth in all its glory….

Recently replaced, the centre provided a focus for a noble succession of individuals – local councillors and residents – who strove to make a go of things on the estate and build its communal life. That same spirit of self-help, of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, is evident throughout Barton in proudly kept gardens or laboriously constructed extensions and annexes. The great god of the locality is DIY, and every evening and weekend he spreads his invisible rule and Black and Decker drill over the estate. Recently, Bartonian self-improvement has taken another upward twist as residents, benefiting from government encouragement, have bought their own houses. A further fillip has come from young middle-class couples unable to break into the Oxford housing market anywhere else. Down these mean streets a gentrifier must go, and by ironical consequence the Magnet Joinery Georgian door and the carriage lamp are now taking their place even in Barton, alongside the Alsatians, Dobermanns and old bangers.

No, Barton is by no means Oxford’s worst council estate.

© Stephanie Jenkins

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