A few years ago, I did some research into the 1771 Mileways Act which saw a range of ‘improvements’ made to Oxford; improvements which, unfortunately, resulted in the demolition of some of the city’s more interesting mediaeval buildings; the North and East gates, the Bocardo Gaol and Friar Bacon’s study on Folly Bridge. The streets were also repaved, and to pay for this, each resident paid according to the yardage of their property. John Gwynn, an architect who designed the Covered Market and the new Magdalen Bridge, therefore undertook a survey, in which all the frontages of all properties on the city’s streets were measured. Seeing him with his measure, residents at the time thought the worse – that he was measuring up properties so that they would be demolished; given the spate of demolitions at the time it was perhaps hardly surprising. I’ve since imagined Gwynn therefore as some kind of undertaker, measuring up the city for its doom, and image which fits nicely with my work on Broken Hayes.
The list of measurements is very interesting as it presents us with a window onto a world which has now almost disappeared; certainly those who inhabited the town (Mrs. Barret of Magpie Lane, Mr. Hedges of Broken Hayes, Mr. Badger of Fish Street) have all gone and left only their names and the size of their ghostly dwellings. But the layout of the streets (if not the buildings and their inhabitants) still remain, and so, by walking these streets, armed with a residual list of measurements, one can walk back in time and make a connection with this vanished population.
This correlation between time and distance had initially come through my thinking of how difficult it often is, to identify with people who live abroad in war-zones (Iraq and Afghanistan for example), for, even though these countries are only a comparatively short distance away, they might as well be years in the past, for it’s almost as difficult to relate to those who live (and die) there, as it is to those who lived and died, for example, during the first and second world wars, or the time of John Gwynn.