‘And that precipitated a swarm. Other searchers soon joined the first ones, and before long, thirty or more gyptian children were racing from end to end of the wharves, running in and out of stables, scrambling over the cranes and derricks in the boat-yard, leaping over the fence into the wide meadow, swinging fifteen at a time on the old swing bridge over the green water, and running full pelt through the narrow streets of Jericho, between the little brick terraced houses and into the great square-towered oratory of St Barnabas the Chymist.’
Northern Lights, Philip Pullman
Fans of Pullman’s His Dark Materials universe may well recognise the name of Jericho from the beginning of Northern Lights and as the setting for most of Lyra’s Oxford. In Northern Lights, it’s where we first come across the Gyptians and where Lyra first realises the real life consequences of the Gobblers (child-thiefs) when a gyptian child called Billy goes missing. Oxford is a city crammed full of literary secrets. I loved His Dark Materials as a child. It was one of the reasons I started writing. As an adult, Jericho is one of my favourite places in Oxford. So what better way to kick off Saward Abroad than by exploring why that is.
Jericho is an area in the north-west of Oxford, located outside of where the old city walls where. It’s thought its name is linked to this fact: in Hebrew Jericho can mean ‘remote place’ and this suburb was remote from the city, providing a place for travellers to stay if they hadn’t made it inside the city limits after the gates had closed. It’s bounded on to the west by the Oxford Canal and for much of its history it’s been an industrial area with activity centred around the canal. The canal was built in 1790, though I do like Pullman’s version that ‘is of ancient construction’ and ‘was used as a ski-road by raiding parties of northern barbarians’ – if you haven’t already, check out Lyra’s Oxford for a seriously awesome alternate history of Jericho and the canal. A big part of the industry in Jericho was The Eagle Ironworks. It was founded in 1812 and ceased production in 2005. In 1854 the company that owned the foundry bought the freehold for the site from St John’s College (the wealthiest of Oxford University’s colleges, St John’s made most of its money from property and land). During the World Wars the factory produced munitions for the war effort. The site of the foundry has been developed into flats, to much local protest and controversy.
The whole area of Jericho has been the centre of a lot of protests against development. One of the most famous, that Philip Pullman got involved in back in 2008, surrounds the development of the disused Castlemill boatyard. The boatyard has stood derelict for over 10 years as various interested parties are fighting over just what to do with it. The city council has stated that anyone who wants to build here has to make provisions for the community (building a community centre for example) but most of the business who have bought and subsequently lost the site haven’t wanted to do this. A big part of the campaign is also to preserve the historic nature of the boatyard (If you’re interested in this campaign, you can check it out here. In a city like Oxford, where we’re almost spoilt for choice with historical sites, this might seem a little bit pedantic. But parts of the Oxford Canal have already been lost to developers (admittedly as far back as the 1950s) and to me, it’s a part of the city that it’s important to keep hold of.
One of the theories behind the building of the canal is that due to the Little Ice Age that caused exceptionally cold weather towards the end of the 1700s. This lead to prolonged, heavy snowfall blocking the roads, forcing the residents of Oxford to look for alternative means of bringing goods into the city. Enter the idea of a canal. This would provide a cheap, reliable and fast way to bring coal, raw materials and manufactured goods into the city from the industrial cities that were growing up in the Midlands. The canal connects Oxford to Hawkesbury which is just north of Coventry. Until the construction of the Grand Union Canal ended in 1794, the Oxford Canal was the quickest way to get from the Midlands down to London. It’s an important part of Oxford and England’s industrial past, and we should be fighting to preserve as much as possible! I’ve canoed down from Cropedy (a village about 30 miles north of Oxford) along the canal and it’s a beautiful trip, one that I’d recommend if you’ve got a weekend spare and enjoy being out on the water.
But back to Jericho. It’s become somewhat notorious for gentrification in recent years. It follows the fairly familiar story of starting out as a working class area. Lower rents attracted students who demanded more amenities, more cafes, and driving up the cost of rent in the process. It’s now one of Oxford’s most desirable areas, full of young professionals and chic cafes and bars.
There have been a few businesses that have weathered the storm however. The Jericho Café is a personal favourite of mine and not just because of their amazing gluten free salted caramel brownie (a product which could stand alone as a symbol of gentrification). It’s got an awesome atmosphere, does a solid cup of tea, serves up hot meals and also has tables outside in a gesture that’s ever hopeful in the British weather.
The Phoenix Picturehouse has been in Jericho since it opened as the North Oxford Kinema in 1913. While it’s not still an independent cinema (having been bought by Cineworld in 2012), it still retains the feel of being one and often shows art house and foreign language films. It hasn’t lapsed back to its brief 1970s adult film days, and instead screens more family friendly fare such as taking part in the recent Studio Ghibli Forever festival.
Looking at a slightly different Jericho institution, the Oxford University Press has been here for almost 200 years ago. The Press itself is much older than the area of the city, with the University being involved in the book trade since the 15th century. The rumour is that one of the architects of the Press’ current location, Daniel Robertson, liked a drink (two bottles of sherry if reports are to be believed) and was transported around the site in a wheelbarrow. OUP is the largest university press in the world and is the second-oldest, with Cambridge beating us by a few years. One of its most famous publications is probably the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s pretty awesome as an English Lit graduate to be so close to such a massive name in publishing.
Returning to eateries, I couldn’t write a post about Jericho without mentioning G and D’s. George and Davis’ on Little Clarendon Street is an Oxford institution (even making it into a Buzzfeed article last year). It’s a small Oxford chain that sells incredible and the one in Jericho was their first of three shops. It’s also where they make all their ice cream. They have a rotating menu of delicious flavours with a few stalwarts that stick around. Luckily my favourite, the Daim ice cream, is an almost constant offering. They stay open until midnight, which as someone who often works until 10pm means it’s a lifesaver. Nothing makes a late shift better than heading out for ice cream straight afterwards. Just over the road is Natural Bread, a recently discovered favourite that sells yerba mate (a South American brew that I was introduced to by my Argentinian Spanish teacher) as well as some delicious cakes and pastries.
My final recommendation in Jericho is The Oxford Wine Café. It’s kind of pricey but that’s just drinking in Oxford. It’s got a really chill atmosphere, makes a wicked gin and tonic and I’m told also does a nice elderflower and vodka as well as (you probably guessed from the name) a wide variety of wines. They also do a gluten free, alcohol free beer which is the first time I’ve seen that anywhere. It’s open until midnight on a Friday and Saturday and is a short walk away from the city centre if you’re wanting to carry your night on elsewhere.
I hope I’ve shown you that Jericho is somewhere well worth venturing out of the centre of Oxford for. If you’re ever in Oxford, its worth making the ten minute walk up to explore this slightly less touristy area of the city.