Headington history: Reminiscences

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Paul McElhinney

Memories of Old Headington (1980s)

The village of Old Headington, just outside Oxford, could have been created by Constable. So English, so civilized, so relaxing, so pleasing on the eye. To anyone living in the Oxford area or up at Oxford as a student, it would have been readily familiar as one of those charming villages dotted around the city. To the first-time visitor, it was a hidden treasure. I had the good fortune to be a regular visitor in the late 1980s when my aunt and uncle owned a cottage in Old Headington and invited me up for weekends after my working week in London. After the hustle and bustle of London, these weekends were a great respite.

I have pleasant memories of taking the famous 190 bus from London’s Victoria Coach Station which passed along the busy M40 to Headington. The steady incline out of the deep cauldron that was central London, past the Chilterns to the ‘summit’ that was Oxford, gave concrete meaning to the idea of ‘going up’ to Oxford and ‘coming down’ to London, phrases intoned by undergraduates for centuries! It was also noticeable how the temperature on the heights of Oxford were a few degrees lower than in London. Emerging from the bus at the Headington shops, this was a relief in summertime and bracing in the winter months. My aunt, a regular commuter to London on the aforementioned 190, remembers in the early 1980s at the time of the Falklands War seeing another regular commuter who became famous for his daily announcements from the Ministry of Defence on the progress of the war. I was soon to realize that Headington had a fairly interesting and eclectic mix of residents.

 My relatives (a doctor and his wife, a social worker) settled in the charming St Andrew’s Lane, opposite St Andrew’s Church in Old Headington. As it was a conservation area, its denizens protected its historical and attractive environs with great vigour in that great British tradition of heritage conservation. Old Headington was strictly delineated by old black lampposts. The distinction between Old and New Headington was brought home to me fairly quickly! In its ring-fenced exclusivity, Old Headington was quintessentially English.
Being so near Oxford, it was a favourite choice of residence for many of the dons at the university. It provided the kind of relaxing, cozy and scenic surroundings that help stimulate great artistic and academic endeavours. One can imagine an academic or a writer drawing inspiration from such surroundings. As much as the attractive and peaceful surroundings of the village, it was the collection of interesting inhabitants that made Headington/Old Headington so intriguing.

One such intriguing figure was Isaiah Berlin. Berlin, one of the brightest men in England and a philosophy don at the University, seeing the obvious charms of the village, settled there with his wife. I never had the pleasure of meting him, but had read much about him and as an academic of world-renown, he was of obvious interest to others living in the village. His property, Headington House, stood majestically on one of the village’s laneways surrounded along its perimeter by a long and impressive wall. This was known affectionately as the ‘Berlin Wall’. Unlike the real one, it still manages to withstand the ravages of time.

Berlin had had an interesting past. Directly involved in the establishment of the state of Israel and a supporter of liberal political causes, he had the ‘ear’ of many of the powerful and influential figures of his day. A story is recounted by Berlin’s biographer, Michael Ignatieff, of when an invitation was sent to a wide group of intellectuals by Winston Churchill during the Second World War to discuss issues concerning post-War European reconstruction. One was sent to Berlin but, instead of it being sent to Isaiah, an administrative error meant it was sent instead to the popular songwriter, Irving Berlin. Over lunch, Churchill reputedly turned to the famous songwriter thinking he was Isaiah and asked him what he thought was his most important piece of work. Somewhat stunned, Irving responded by saying ‘White Christmas’! Thankfully, the outcome of the Second World War did not hinge on such advice. However, people like Professor Berlin blended into the local landscape seamlessly and added a distinct flavour to the locality. His strong liberal philosophical outlook was cherished in an environment that was quintessentially Oxford.

Another character of note in the village at the time was Lord McCarthy of Headington, a fellow of Nuffield College, friend of Harold Wilson, and a former head of the National Union of Railwaymen. He would be seen frequently out walking his dog and dropping into the ‘Black Boy’ pub for a pint. The village had a number of pubs with distinct clienteles and I gather the ‘Black Boy’ (would a pub be given such a name in our current PC era!?) of the 1980s was, in those days, closer to Lord McCarthy’s proletarian roots.

Any account of local characters would be incomplete without mentioning the famous (or infamous) Robert Maxwell. It would not be unfair to say that Maxwell was larger than life. Maxwell lived in Headington Hill Hall, a fine period building rented to him at the time by Oxford City Council, apparently for some peppercorn rent. He was also chairman of Oxford City Football Club at the time, whose ground was nearby and at which Maxwell would frequently arrive for matches ostentatiously in a helicopter. Living on the fringes of Oxford probably provided Maxwell, an inveterate outsider, with the gloss of tradition and status he so desperately craved.

Headington’s physical surroundings were very attractive. Although not far from the M40 motorway, it was sufficiently tucked away from the main thoroughfare to be cosy and charming. I remember some of the pleasant English summer evenings (the best in the world) drinking Pimms on my relatives’ back lawn before dinner. This was an Englishman’s heaven. One could understand the motivation of many English people seeking to protect such a way of life from invasion, whether it was Napoleon, Hitler or excessive regulations from Brussels. The writings of Kipling, the poetry of Rupert Brooke, Blake’s ‘Jerusalem’ and Elgar’s pastoral symphonies, all identify such a world worthy of being conserved.

Old Headington was also a good vantage point from which to see Oxford in all its glory. It was only a couple of miles down the hill to the town. You would pass Magdalen Bridge and College on your way in and proceed up the town past colleges, ancient and modern. In summertime, the city centre was usually besieged by tourists from all over the world – not the best time to see the colleges – but outside these peak times, a leisurely stroll around the college quads was a relaxing experience.

Old Headington stood on the fringes of this cornucopia of knowledge, history, architecture and culture and yet was also very much part of that world ­– a gem of England’s heritage still thriving in the face of modernization. My own memories are over a fairly limited timeframe and are those of a visitor, albeit a supportive and enthusiastic one. My recollections, by their nature therefore, are limited and partial. Although an Irishman working in London, Headington (partly due to the family connection and its proximity to the University) was both a helpful anchor to a new arrival to English shores and a window for me on to the rich history, traditions, and culture of a great nation.

Paul McElhinney
July 2011

© Stephanie Jenkins

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