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A Road through the Meadow

Written by Jim Godfrey, posted on Wednesday, June 30, 2021

Map of proposed road through the meadow2021 sees the 80th anniversary of one of the most fiercely contested and notorious town-planning proposals of the last century: The building of a road through Christ Church Meadow. It was the brainchild of the English architect T. Lawrence Dale, who, in September 1941, published a six-page pamphlet entitled ‘Christ Church Mall: a Diversion’. In it he proposed the building of a relief road across the southern edge of Christ Church Meadow, beside the River Thames, which would link the Iffley Road and the Abingdon Road, thereby bypassing the High Street.

Dale was responding to an issue that would concern town-planners throughout the country in the post-war years of the 1940s and 1950s; namely, how to re-design towns and cities in order to make them more suited to the needs of modern life. In particular, how to ease traffic congestion from ancient city centres unsuited to the motorcar. As a result, urban motorways and inner relief roads became something of an obsession as traffic management took centre stage.

Aerial view of the approach to Magdalen BridgeAt Oxford the issue was particularly grave, as the city suffered from another problem. By the mid-20th century Oxford had developed two quite distinct centres. The railway station, town hall and main shopping areas were all situated around or to the west of Carfax, the city’s historic centre. Meanwhile, out to the east, vast housing developments were being built to accommodate a new industrial workforce.

East Oxford was the home of the famous Morris Motor Works at Cowley, which by the 1920s was employing upwards of 5,000 workers. The only way for this new population to access the city’s amenities was across Magdalen Bridge, which funnelled traffic along the High, the city’s finest street, through the heart of the university.                                                                    

Traffic on the high streetThis route was also the quickest means of crossing Oxford given that traffic could at this time still pass along all four roads radiating out from Carfax: The High, St Aldates, Queen Street and Cornmarket. (It was at Carfax that Oxford’s first traffic lights were installed in 1934, the resulting convergence of traffic from four directions causing long lines of stationary vehicles belching out fumes into the city centre.) The situation was partially alleviated by the Oxford ring road, which was built in stages from the 1930s, though this alone could not prevent mounting traffic congestion in the city centre.   

This then was the problem Dale faced when he took up the post of Oxford Diocesan Surveyor in the 1930s. So bad were the car fumes in Cornmarket, where his office was situated, that he decided instead to practise from home. In 1944 Dale expanded his original proposal into a 60-page book, ‘Towards a Plan for Oxford City’, in which he repeated his original idea of a Christ Church Mall, adding proposals for extensions to the scheme with extensive redevelopment plans for St Clements and St Ebbes.                                                                                                        

Dale’s ideas prompted Oxford City Council in May 1945 to appoint Dr Thomas Sharp as consultant town planner to devise a plan to solve Oxford’s traffic problems. Sharp had been a senior officer in the Ministry of Works and Planning and had become something of an authority on the concept of the ‘townscape’, then a novel idea. He worked on the analyses of many historic towns and cities, including Durham, Exeter, Salisbury and Chichester, though when he began his own planning consultancy it was in Oxford that he set up his practice.

In February 1948 Sharp published his report in the book ‘Oxford Replanned’, the first complete, fully researched attempt at examining all aspects of theSharp's 'Merton Mall' map problem in detail. In it he praised Dale for doing the city “a considerable service in braving the controversy which is bound to result from any attempt to touch even the hem of the sacred Christ Church Meadow.” A rather blunt and plain-speaking northerner, he must have been aware of how contentious his report would prove to be. What he may not have realised was just how long the controversy would rage for.

Sharp agreed with Dale that the only solution to Oxford’s traffic problem was a road through the Meadow. However, he felt Dale’s road on the southern edge of the Meadow to be too indirect and, with breath-taking ruthlessness, proposed instead a road across the Meadow’s northern edge, right in front of Christ Church’s Meadow Buildings and very close to Merton College. This alternative route he called ‘Merton Mall’.

Sharp’s proposed entrance to ‘Merton Mall’ from St AldatesSharp’s Meadow Road started at the Plain, just east of Magdalen Bridge. However, rather than heading over Magdalen Bridge it deviated westward over the River Cherwell at a point just south of the Botanic Gardens before reaching the Meadow where it took a line a little to the north of the Broad Walk, entering St Aldates through Christ Church’s War Memorial Garden which had been created just twenty years earlier.

Despite the fact that Sharp’s road would be tree-lined to screen the traffic and was supported by the Oxford Union who, on 4 March 1948, voted for it by a majority of 173 to 50, not everyone was happy. Christ Church in particular objected strongly to a plan that would have destroyed the peace and tranquillity of the Meadow, arguing that the Broad Walk had been a public walking route since the 17th century. Proponents for the scheme, meanwhile, countered that any relief road would only be accepted by locals if it was almost as quick and direct to use as the High Street, thereby leaving no other option than a route through the Meadow.

With debate on Sharpe’s proposal now raging among various interested parties, the City Council resisted committing itself to the scheme. The idea of a Meadow Road, however, refused to go away. By 1955, following a public inquiry, the matter was being fought with increasing animosity. Within the University itself there was a clear divide between those collegesDiscussion about the various Meadow Road options further away from the Meadow which generally came out in favour of a road, whilst Christ Church saw in the proposals a vindictive opportunity for a “swipe in the eye to a rich, proud college”.

A major stumbling block remained however for those who advocated a Meadow Road: a vote on a road, if it ever went to Parliament, would never receive the approval of the House of Lords as the latter simply contained too many Christ Church men! The issue of a Christ Church Meadow Road was even discussed at Cabinet level, as the Oxford Mail on 25 September 1956 noted when reporting that a recent Cabinet meeting’s agenda had read : (i) Oxford roads (ii) Seizure of the Suez Canal.

The three routes considered by the Armer InquiryDespite this, by 1960 the future of the Meadow was beginning to look hopeless. Following a series of traffic surveys, development plans and public inquiries, the City Council asked the Government to conduct a public inquiry into Oxford’s traffic problems. This was carried out by Sir Frederick Armer, who declared that sacrificing the Meadow was “inescapable” in order to save the High. Three routes were considered; a road to the south of the Meadow (scheme A), a relief road along the northern edge of the Meadow, similar to Sharp’s ‘Merton Mall’ proposal (scheme B), and a compromise route right across the middle of the Meadow (scheme C).

Armer chose the compromise route, his road across the middle of the Meadow receiving a slight twist in September 1963 by the landscape architect Sir Geoffrey Jellicoe, who proposed to conceal the road by sinking it to a depth of 17.5 feet below ground level. (The idea of a tunnel had also been suggested but was dismissed as too expensive.) Jellicoe’s scheme would cost £1.7 million and required the demolition of 153 houses as well as diverting the River Cherwell and the Trill Mill Stream. Despite the Oxford Preservation Trust warning of “irreparable damage”, the Vice-Chancellor describing it as “an act of vandalism”, and Christ Church calling it “repugnant and offensive”, the scheme was approved.

However, in November 1963, just before the scheme could be implemented, the terms of the argument were decisively changed by the publication of a Government report by Sir Colin Buchanan on ‘Traffic in Towns.’ Buchanan argued for a new national policy of traffic restraint, reversing the previous assumption that the main consideration for relief roads was that they should reduce journey times to a minimum. For proponents of the Meadow Road Buchanan’s report completely undermined the assumptions of Armer’s inquiry, as, in effect, it now meant that the new relief road could actually be built anywhere.

The Meadow from the southBuchanan himself appeared at the inquiry as a witness for the University and strongly criticised the city’s plan. It was, he said, his opinion that “the Meadow in its present form and in its entirety constitutes an asset to Oxford of the most remarkable kind. I doubt whether there is another city in the world, still less a city which is a great seat of learning, which provides almost in its centre a comparable scene of pastoral remoteness and simplicity, isolated from motor traffic.” 

The Minister for Housing and Local Government at the time, Richard Crossman, a former Labour Oxford city councillor and a New College don, had been all set to approve the Meadow Road. Impatient for the matter to be finally resolved (the city’s indecision over the Meadow’s future had by now become something of a national joke) he instigated yet another public inquiry in 1965 to discuss the sunken road proposal.

Christ Church refused to yield. The College’s Treasurer, Anthony Gray, on a visit to the USA, engaged Lewis Mumford, the eminent American planning historian and theorist, to demonstrate that allowing an entire development plan to depend on the construction of a single road was at best short-sighted, and when the inquiry was postponed in 1968 Crossman finally put an end to any further plans for a Meadow Road.

One positive thing to come out of the whole Meadow saga was the creation of the Oxford Civic Society, which was formed in 1969 as a direct result of the City Council’s mishandling of town planning issues. It immediately set out to successfully resist any proposals for an Eastwyke Farm scheme, the alternative route to the Meadow Road further south along the Abingdon Road, which Armer’s inquiry had already rejected.

Donnington BridgeBy now another crossing of the Thames south of the Meadow, at Donnington Bridge, had been opened by Lord Hailsham in 1962, and was doing much to reduce traffic heading into the city from East Oxford.

A shopping arcade in Cowley Centre (now called Templars Square) had also been opened, by Crossman, in 1965. With its six-level multi-storey car park it was then the largest enclosed shopping centre in Oxford, giving an attractive alternative to travelling into the city centre to shop.

If Christ Church Meadow had avoided the worst effects of modern town-planning, the area of St Ebbe’s, to the west of the Meadow, was not so fortunate. Many of its tightly packed terraced streets were completely destroyed and over nine hundred properties demolished to make way forSt Ebbes during redevelopment in the 1960s an inner bypass, Oxpens Road. Built in 1968, it was the only part of Sharp’s original 1948 scheme to see the light of day. In the process, a once close-knit community was torn apart. It was because of St Ebbe’s experience that City Councillor Olive Gibbs mounted a successful campaign to save Jericho from a similar fate.

By 1972 the possibility of a Meadow Road ever being built was over. That year Labour took control of the City Council and instigated the Balanced Transport Policy. As part of this initiative a new solution to traffic congestion was trialled, namely a Park & Ride scheme. Experimental services were first carried out at Oxford, Leicester and Nottingham, Oxford’s scheme being officially implemented in 1974.

Today the idea of building an inner relief road anywhere in Oxford has become unthinkable. As has the idea of building on the Meadow. Today, not only has the Meadow been specified Green Belt and is in the University and City Conservation Area, it is also a designated Grade 1 historic landscape, sharing similar protections as Grade 1 listed Oxford’s Park & Ride Scheme buildings.

Eighty years on from T. Lawrence Dale’s first proposal for a Meadow Road the world has changed. Areas of open land in urban centres are now highly prized. Indeed, it would now be inconceivable for there ever to be a road through the Meadow.





Jim GodfreyJim Godfrey is one of the vergers at Christ Church Cathedral, and is the author of the current guidebook to the Cathedral. He gives regular talks about the history of Christ Church and takes a keen interest in the history of the Oxford in general.



The Road and Christ Church Meadow: The Oxford inner relief road controversy 1923-74
Dr Roland Newman (BMP 1988)

Forty Years of Oxford Planning: what has it achieved, and what next?’ Lecture given in 2009
Mark Barrington-Ward (Editor of the Oxford Mail, 1961-79)

Correspondence with John James
(Head Gardener at Christ Church 2012 - )

The Encyclopaedia of Oxford
Christopher Hibbert (Macmillan 1988)