Constantly changing city

A fellow came to my taxi on the rank in Abingdon on Thursday night, in the pouring rain. It was classic English autumnal weather: the headlights were on at 1430, it had been dark, cloudy and raining all afternoon. Nothing much was happening. 

As with many taxi customers in this small provincial town of 36,000 souls, we have known each other for some years by sight, though I don't know his name – addressing him as "Sir", rather than "mate" - and I don't suppose he knows mine. 

We greeted each other and set off on the short journey to south Abingdon. During the day, he had been to have breakfast at the new Westgate shopping centre in central Oxford and we chatted about the experience. 

Along with the numbers of houses currently being built around Abingdon, the new Westgate is probably the most frequent current topic of conversation in the taxi, in these pre-Christmas days after its opening, when it is a bit of a novelty, after years of expectation.  

Having grown up and attended primary school in the community on which the new centre has been built, I am frequently at pains to stress my own prejudices on the subject, before embarking on conversation about it.  

the 1972 Westgate Centre, Oxford prior to demolition in 2015

the 1972 Westgate Centre, Oxford prior to demolition in 2015

"They demolished a community" to build the original Westgate centre in 1972, I said, before relating how there are still some traces of those days left, like the church school sports field, which also served as the Rector's garden and is now occupied by Oxford City Council and used as offices. 

My customer and his son had taken tea at one of the roof top restaurants atop the new centre and he described how his tea arrived served with two scientific beakers, a container of boiling water and food grade dry ice, to envelope his beverage in fog. "I just wanted a cup of tea", he said. 

Again last week, I went on another journey through the area, on a date, where at one point we sat in my taxi on the same street pattern and thanks to the power of mobile communications, I was able to call up a couple of pre-1970s images of the area adjacent to the River Thames.  The views are completely different, with just a few elements of the formerly industrialised landscape remaining.  

You would barely recognise them, unless you knew where to look and some parts of the community like Holy Trinity church, in whose overgrown ruins we used to play as children, are no longer there at all. 

"You're really good at this," she said, before suggesting that tailored historic tours could become a taxi side line.  

It is often said that Oxford has a timeless quality and I suppose it does, if for example, you are fortunate enough to be working, as I have previously done, in seventeenth century college buildings.  

But the rest of the city is constantly and sometimes also subtly changing. It is not always for the better. 

As published in the Herald Series on Wednesday, 13 December 2017