Edward Thomas​ called the approach to Oxford by train ‘the most contemptible in Europe’. There’s no view to speak of, and the station is a big shed with lots of glass and cheap detailing: blue pillars and PVC fascias. The city’s relationship to the railway, like its relationship to the world, is arrogant but insecure, high-minded but petty. Oxford was offered a branch line in 1837, with a station to be situated near Magdalen Bridge. It was rejected by landowners and by the city corporation, which was afraid the money from road tolls would dry up. A year later the university killed a second proposal, since if students were able to travel easily to London they would be corrupted and fall prey to ‘improper marriages and other illegitimate connections’. The Duke of Wellington, chancellor of the university, had a larger concern: rail travel might encourage the lower orders to ‘move about’.

A third proposal was accepted, and Oxford’s first station, at Grandpont, near the top of Abingdon Road, opened in 1844. This seemed a happy compromise. It suited the city because students still had to pay tolls at Folly Bridge, and the university because the proctors had the right to patrol the station: it was agreed that students were only to be sold tickets to ‘suitable’ destinations. The small wooden station was opened by Brunel as part of his Great Western Railway but it was used by passengers for less than ten years. After the GWR built a new track to Birmingham, the Grandpont station became an inconvenient spur, and was replaced by a station on the present site.

When I came to study in Oxford in 1991, there were two stations. The working one, on top of its little mound; and another, fifty yards away, Oxford Rewley Road. Closed to passengers since 1951, it belonged first to the London and North Western Railway and then to the London Midland and Scottish Railway, whose name is marked on the frontage in old photographs. It was a stop on the Varsity Line that linked Oxford to Cambridge via Bletchley, closed in 1968 though said to be reopening eventually. In the early 1990s the station had become a Tyre Services and Exhaust Centre. The main structure was still in use – the stationmaster’s office, waiting room, engine sheds – and cars and trucks in various states of dismantlement stood in the forecourt. Even in Oxford there were normal people doing normal things.

My grandfather was a worker in the Usine Camion, a metal factory in the town of Bouillon in Belgium. I spent many hours with him in his remise, a little outhouse where he kept disconnected machine parts, old tools, different kinds of handle, moulds for keys and hinges, and other things I didn’t know the names for. He’d lay them out on grey sheets in the courtyard and swap them with people who, like him, kept rather than used them, displaying their finds on boards hung with little nails or in glass cases. The sheds were tiny museums to what had once been these men’s livelihoods. I noticed that they often raised the tools to their noses and breathed in: they smelled of machine oil, paraffin and polish, of meals together and table beer and nights playing cards in cafés, of days when work was secure and communities were built round it. To me, born after my grandfather’s factory had closed, these machine parts smelled of the St Eloi fête, held on 1 December. St Eloi was the patron saint of metalworkers. The people he blessed are gone, and the work they did, like the factories they did it in, has disappeared. But the smell of the Tyre and Exhaust Centre was familiar.

Rewley Road station was a Victorian prefab and dated from the year of the Great Exhibition. It was made by the same contractors, Fox, Henderson, and with similar cast-iron components. The station was due to open on the same day as the Crystal Palace – 1 May 1851 – but was delayed by two weeks, an inauspicious start for a railway station. It was pretty basic: two lines and two platforms, linked to a swing bridge which took the trains over the Sheepwash Channel, linking the Thames and the canal. The bridge’s remains are still rotting nearby: the wheel that had to be turned to align the rails with those on the bank on the far side. Beside it, two modern iron railway bridges and a footbridge cross the same narrow stretch of water. It’s only a few metres from the station, but the trains are already picking up speed, heading north.

In Oxford Replanned, published in 1948, Thomas Sharp, a brilliant and polemical town planner, wrote that ‘Oxford stations have come to be spoken of with the kind of joke that people make to keep them from the black despair of hope continually deferred.’ The GWR station would have disgraced ‘a small Lancashire industrial town’, while Rewley Road looked like it belonged to ‘a small and decayed prairie camp’. Sharp’s book is a bold reimagining of the city. He wanted both stations demolished, with a bus station on the site of Rewley Road. Swathes of demolition and new asphalt were to link it to Cowley Road via the back of Christ Church, cutting behind Merton College and through the meadow.

That Rewley Road was Grade II listed, and built with a sturdiness belied by the grace of the ironwork, didn’t stop it being taken down in 1999. It’s now at the Buckinghamshire Railway Centre in Quainton, restored and repainted, but I preferred the building as a tyre centre: untidy, impermanent and alive. There was a burger shack outside, made out of what looked like pieces of railway shelter, that made the best burgers in Oxford. Bret’s Burgers. It burned down one night and never reopened. When the garage closed, activists squatted in the building and occupied the trees outside. After a desultory siege, police and private security guards removed them and the trees were cut down. All that was left was a bed of sawdust patrolled by men in uniforms. I’d never noticed the trees until there were people in them, but the Battle of Rewley Road now seems a harbinger of things to come: not just the bulldozing of industrial heritage or the buying-up of a city by developers, but global warming, habitat destruction, the corporate state.

Soon the Saïd Business School opened on the site, named after Wafic Saïd, arms dealer, friend to the Assad dynasty, and enthusiastic donor to the Conservative Party. It’s now the first thing you see when you arrive in Oxford. After securing the right to use Oxford’s name for its degrees, the business school immediately extricated itself from the university’s fee system. An MBA there costs £63,000. It added a new wing in 2013, a squat appendage tucked away behind the taxi rank: the Thatcher Business Education Centre. The university that refused Thatcher an honorary degree in 1985 had now agreed to have a building named after her. Outside, a brass plaque commemorates the old station. On the other side of the building an information panel says that there was a Cistercian abbey here from the late 13th century until the dissolution of the monasteries. This piece of land has been an abbey, a station and a business school. Each incarnation a product of its time and its beliefs: God, machines, money.

Stations create ecosystems, a term coined in 1935 by Arthur Tansley, Sherardian Professor of Botany at the university. Park End Street and its continuation, New Road, used to be known as the ‘Street of Wheels’. The reference is to the garages and car dealerships that sprang up there in the 1930s. No one is interested in the buildings now: tourists, ‘randy for antique’, want the Sheldonian Theatre and Magdalen Tower, and they’re too cavernous and draughty to be used as office buildings. The Cantay warehouse held three floors of books when I was a student; I bought a first edition of the New Directions Cantos there for a fiver. It now houses a high-end hi-fi shop, a nightclub and one of Oxford’s many English Language schools. Facing the station is Frank Cooper’s marmalade factory, built in 1902, with carved oranges on the façade so lifelike I can see the pores on the peel. A century ago, I’d have smelled the fruit being boiled, the beer being brewed, the manure from the dray horses and the coal from the trains.

Becket Street, behind the jam factory chimney, is bleak. As a reaction to Oxford’s visual grandeur I started to seek out places that didn’t care whether you looked at them or not. This is one of them. There are a few houses, one with a faded sign reading ‘Furey’s Hotel’, the station car park, a long fence beside the line to Didcot and London, and then you suddenly reach the Oxford Business Centre: printers, rent-a-car, more printers, Mallett’s wholesale newsagents. I enjoy the way my eye slides off everything. Relief. The site is being developed into student flats, so the few remaining businesses are watched over by cranes.

The same is happening in Osney Mead industrial estate, on the other side of the railway line, which the university plans to turn into a campus. There are at least seventy businesses here. The low-slung, Nordic-looking offices of the Oxford Mail are spoiled by a yellowish-grey brick wall and a car barrier across the front. It too is down to be demolished. There’s a video game company, Rebellion, and a company that makes beamlines and monochromators for laboratories. There’s a coffee roastery, more car hire firms, roofing contractors, a recording studio, a couple of charities, NGOs and a hairdressing school. There’s also a fish market and restaurant, and Oxford’s oldest butchers. Both used to sell in the Covered Market in the centre of town. The university claims the site is ‘underutilised’, but hundreds of people work here and hundreds more use it every day. It’s unclear when the new development will take place. It’s likely that several of the university’s big building projects will be delayed or even cancelled thanks to Covid. I hope so. Info panels for Osney Mead show the new inhabitants the university wants to see: white, young, thin, sporty and straight. The riverbank is to be blocked off by a glass barrier. The kinds of tree favoured by committees are planted at mathematically precise intervals. The buildings are sleek grey boxes laid out in a grid.

Opposite the station car park is the 12th-century church of St Thomas the Martyr. This part of Oxford was expendable: like much of working-class Oxford, its buildings were razed, but there’s just enough left to imagine what it was like. The church is surrounded by a small graveyard with lopsided headstones. One of them is for Olive Gibbs, who represented St Thomas’s ward as a Labour councillor. A few streets away, where she was born, a plaque lists as many of her achievements as it can fit: ‘defender of Oxford’s urban landscape, tireless champion of social causes, national chair of CND’. I was proud to be in the same party as her, though I owe my academic career to my failure to be elected to the city council in 1996. Gibbs was instrumental in saving Jericho, one of Oxford’s most appealing areas, from the same fate as St Thomas’s. The Jericho reimagined by Philip Pullman exists today because of Gibbs and people like her.

In 1839 a curate at St Thomas’s decided to launch a floating chapel. The Boatman’s Chapel served workers on the canal for thirty years, until it sank. Oxford’s canals are full of old boats, sunk or scuttled or rotted into murk and sludge. There’s a man in Jericho who lives as a kind of water-tinker, scooping out old bits of boat and drying them on a raft made from discarded plastic barrels. The canals and rivers of Oxford aren’t working waterways anymore, but livelihoods used to depend on them. Not far from the station, the site of the Worcester Street car park was a coal wharf and the terminus of the Oxford Canal, until it was bought by Lord Nuffield and filled in. Nuffield College now stands on the site. Oxford’s crest – an ox ‘fording’ three wavy lines of water – was a reality before it became a symbol. This part of the city is where people made things, mended things, brewed things, received and dispatched things, lugged them on and off canal boats and trains and carts and lorries, half a mile but a whole world away from the colleges.

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