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The Art of Heritage

A doorway into somewhere magical: Esther Lafferty explores Oxford’s Pembroke Street

“It was the lock of the door which had been closed ten years and she put her hand in her pocket, drew out the key and found it fitted the keyhole. It took two hands to do it, but it did turn. And then she took a long breath... She was standing inside the secret garden.” From The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett

Esther Lafferty, Festival Director of Oxfordshire Artweeks, explores Oxford’s Pembroke Street.

Step back off St Aldate’s, and the bustle of tourists snapping Tom Tower standing proud at Christ Church’s gate, and you’ll be amazed what you find only metres away as you head down the unassuming Pembroke Street (OX1 1BP), home to both Modern Art Oxford and The Story Museum.

Just beyond an old red telephone booth from times gone by, which has been unusually adapted more recently, you’ll come across Rochester House, an intriguing Victorian building with an unusual doorbell (courtesy of Summertown’s children’s book author/illustrator Ted Dewan).

Rochester House already sounds literary, with its overtones of Jane Eyre, and the gothic red brick frontage touched with old black and white exudes history and mystery right in the heart of the city. After several years of standing empty, these buildings and those hidden from view behind it are gradually being brought to life.


In the 13th century this was the Medieval Jewish quarter, when St Aldate’s itself was called Great Jewry Street, and it was here that the very first purpose-built student accommodation was constructed. Eight hundred years later its purpose is once more to inspire the minds of the future: enter through giant double doors into a courtyard dedicated to literary heritage and the world of story.  Oxford has a long association with authors famed globally from J.R.R. Tolkein, Philip Pullman and Lewis Carroll so where better to celebrate the city’s literary heritage?

One golden afternoon on 4 July 1862, Lewis Carroll, an Oxford don whose real name was Charles Dodgson, took young Alice Liddell and her sisters on a boating picnic up the River Thames from Folly Bridge in Oxford. To amuse them along the way he told the story of a little girl, who found herself tumbling down a riverside rabbit hole into a topsy-turvy world called Wonderland. The story so delighted the 10-year-old Alice that she begged him to write it down – the result was Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, published in 1865 and now one of the best-loved children’s books ever written which the city now celebrates with an annual Alice’s Day which proved very successful last month.

This was the  seventh  year and was coordinated by The Story Museum, a recent addition to the city’s cultural offering, and it is The Story Museum that you’ll first find tucked away on Pembroke Street, now regularly opening its doors onto a brightly coloured courtyard, the first stages towards realising an imaginative vision for the future.

This secret courtyard, once stabling for an old inn, complete with a writer’s garret in a rickety attic, is surrounded on its other sides by twentieth century buildings that stand behind the city post office and once housed Oxford’s sorting office and first telephone exchange and I’ve learnt some of its secrets. For example, behind a giant shutter, there’s even a hidden passage through to St Aldate’s, through which The Story Museum staff hold ancient rights to drive a horse and cart. When the team at the Story Museum signed the contract for building in 2009 they were given a bunch of 183 keys, yet they have only found three which fit keyholes. Meanwhile, on the ground floor stand several giant strong rooms of which two remain locked. Apparently during the second world war, gold bullion was stored in safes around the country in case London fell to the enemy and it is speculated that this was one of the places. It’s a wonderful thought that there’s a real Smaug-worthy stash of treasure befitting the ancient stories of dragons who live deep in the ground beneath the city!

The old Post Office buildings also housed a postal workers’ canteen high in the heart of the city’s skyline, giant windows giving a panoramic vista. Now however, the building has sprung back to life with magical characters to whisk you away into the imaginative stories of your childhood, and instead of postmen enjoying a bacon roll before their round you’ll find Rupert the Bear, Mary Poppins and Peter Pan.

This is part of a striking exhibition of ‘26 Characters’ which runs until 2nd November in which leading children’s authors have been captured in the guise of their childhood heroes by celebrity portrait photographer Cambridge Brown. And I was delighted to find that each and every photo was encapsulated in its own little world reflecting the story from which the character is plucked.

With my own little band of merry men, Just William, Harry Potter and Pippi Longstocking (aged from 9 to 13), we found Merlin in an ivy-clad castle-turret, peered into a cupboard that houses The Borrowers, visited Max’s Bedroom from Where The Wild Things and pushed through a fur-lined wardrobe into a Narnian Wonderland, and invented fantastical titles for ourselves seated on an amazing speaking throne.

Words and their importance in society’s more recent history are also on show, just metres way, in the more contemporary premises of Modern Art Oxford which is currently hosting an exhibition of recent and site-specific work by internationally acclaimed artist, Barbara Kruger whose dramatic juxtapositions of bold lettering and images present a thought-provoking take on popular culture today. Alongside her iconic 1980s paste-up works, Kruger’s new installation emerges in direct response to the distinctive quality of space and light in the gallery and life in the city using green, a colour that has seldom appeared in her repertoire before but reflects perfectly the hidden quadrangles of Oxford’s architecture.

The Story Museum presents 26 Characters until 2 November. Modern Art Oxford presents Barbara Kruger until 31 August 2014.