UK Property Forums consultant and Oxford resident Hugh Blaza is a fan of Oxford’s Covered Market. Ahead of the new masterplan, he reveals his hopes and fears for its regeneration.
Until last March, it was my weekend retail therapy to drive into Oxford (yes, I know…) park up in Merton or King Edward Street and stroll into the Covered Market to stock up on provisions. And – of course – a big bunch of flowers for my beloved.
I did it for years, grateful for the valiant shopkeepers who managed to keep trading in spite of the fact that others were failing or chucking in the towel. I still miss Palms Delicatessen (now a souvenir shop) and the range of butchers and greengrocers to choose from.
But there were (and still are) enough to make the trip worthwhile and to fill the fridge with fine meat, fish, cheese, fruit and vegetables. And flowers for the vase. Coffee for the percolator. Tea for the pot. Ice cream if I could be bothered to queue. And maybe a box from the Thai or Chinese takeaways if I didn’t feel like cooking.
And always the pleasure of some lively banter with the shopkeepers. Or an exchange of grumbles, more like; the voids kept coming. Whether through natural retirement or simply because they were unable to make a go of it in the face of ever-increasing rents and rates, shoe shops, fishmongers (albeit since returned), greengrocers and a number of butchers left voids like missing teeth in the face of a much-loved friend. And always the rumours that what the council wanted to do was to pull it down and put up an office block.
But there were signs of new life before Covid struck; a beer shop next to the fishmongers, a Greek souvlaki carry-out where the Italian deli had been. The decorated cake shop was hanging in there in spite of the rumours that it was about to close. And even now, in spite of Covid, many of the market traders survive, having come together to provide a delivery service to their locked down customers.
But, as with all retailers, we’ve been fearing the worst from the potentially terminal threat of Covid to an already vulnerable sector. It was clear to all that the market was tired and needed a boost from somewhere. A no-brainer, surely: prime, truly historic retail space right in the centre of an historic city. A magnet for residents and visitors alike.
All of which makes the announcement by the city council of work starting on a masterplan for the regeneration of the market particularly welcome.
Working with Gort Scott Architects and Transition by Design, the council is proposing a major enhancement and reimagining of what Cllr Mary Clark describes as the ‘jewel in the crown of Oxford’s retail offer’ – although whether the Westgate Centre would agree with that description is not reported.
The council’s announcement tells us we can look forward to a refurbished roof (preserve the pink paintwork, please), enhanced entrances and service yard, longer opening hours and a more engaging mix of tenants including the arrival from Botley of Tap Social, promising not just beer but entertainment.
We’re reassured that there will be consultation with the public and traders as part of the masterplan process.
And yes, we can look forward to some new life in the market which will make it all the more attractive to visit.
But reassure me too that I’ll still be able to find what I need to fill the fridge and cupboards. Even if I’m going to be catching the bus into town in future…
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