Lofty Heights – Paul Sellers’ Blog

Oxford’s a place that will never be built again. Streets paved with educational gold, one street after another built of solid stone, stone on stone clad above by slate roofs draining rain into lead gutters, catchments and drainpipes. The carved handwork in stone and wood takes the eye in every direction and even then you miss 99% of what’s on the outside and ten times more on the in. There it stands, plumbed, set square one block to another and each building to another and every time you go there you wonder how you didn’t see this and that before and then what lofty heights those designers of fine buildings went to in their minds to design and then build what would last for centuries yet after centuries show little sign of collapse or decay.

Future-proofing buildings in weather like ours was the universal forethought of architects with access to mass of both materials, stone and slate, and then those man-makers building three-dimensional realities into being and then who saw generations in the same families take up trades taught to each passing age by grandfathers and fathers. We don’t think in those terms any more. I doubt the architect in IT is wishing the craft for his or her children and grandchildren because nowadays they think of generations of software upgrades minute by minute at speeds the speed of light. Back then it would have been greater investment in survival for each as an artisan and the passing on of trades from father to son and mother to daughter. The buying of people to build and make for the lowest possible wage kept the rich rich as they bought the poor and kept them in their place for centuries. Go back as little as a hundred years and then think mid-1100s when Oxford as a university town is first mentioned. A thousand years of building a University that stands reputedly amongst the most prestigious in the world.

Cobbled setts and cobblestones outlive tarmac a thousand years to one.

I look in corners behind the metal and wood and stone for my information and the intelligence of the man-maker making the work of the architect stand 300 years in front of me. I see doors too heavy for hinges alone and trace steel tracks in the stone setts and cobbles now operated by electric sensors answering the calls from the cars remotely to gain access and close behind them.

The University expanded rapidly from 1167 under the rule of Henry II who banned English students from attending the University of Paris. The returning students settled in Oxford and from those days of small beginnings, we have Oxford’s City of learning.

What still stops me in my walks around town are the hidden gems in the seemingly endless masses of massive oak entryway doors. To the visitors, they are conscious of the antiquity of the buildings in a bemusing sort of way but I search out the twin tenons on 4″ thick stiles and then just how much quarter-sawn oak was used in this one town’s exterior doors alone. Thank goodness for tempered glass without which Britain would indeed be treeless. We don’t realise just how much tempered glass allowed for skimpy aluminium and plastic frames to make doors pretty much frameless and so too shop fronts on a massive scale — frameless and characterless I should say.

Twin tenons and then double twin tenons on the bottom rail

Here is one of my favourite bookshops. It’s been here in central Oxford on Broad street since 1879 so the relative new kid on the block compared to the ancient colleges of the campus-less university encompassing Oxford’s Colleges.

It’s the Blackwell’s cafe I like to work in mostly. Here I can sip at my coffee and draw and write amongst the budding future. Background noises seem always filled with “I” “I’m” but it’s always the white noise that more helps me than silence. I’m still writing longhand in my journals to record happenings and thoughts, ideas and completing sketches from the wilder places nearer to home. Of course, there are no truly near-to wild places in middle England any more. Unless you include conflicts between cyclists and runners in bright high-viz along with dog walkers throwing balls for dogs and arguing with cyclists trying to pass people and their dogs on extra-long leads spanning the paths as they go.

A friendly face came to ask me, “Are you Paul Sellers?” as I worked on my laptop. He’ he’d been enjoying some time in Oxford with his twin daughters and said he enjoyed our woodworking channels online and originates from Slovakia. He’d studied economics here at Oxford and settled to married life in the UK. We enjoyed our chatting for 20 minutes. It was nice.

In Oxford, we also have one really fine art shop just across from Blackwells called Broad Canvass, hinting at the street name Broad Street in the shop name, where I buy my art supplies. The staff are so knowledgeable and willing to help and you can search and buy online. If you are like me and find what supplies you like to work with you want to have a consistent supply. I have but a four-year supply of my Barns and Noble sketchbooks left because, as it is with all good things, these came to an end a couple of years ago when B and N stopped selling them. Thankfully, I’d bought a ten-year supply. They have smith-sewn permanence but extra fine and unnoticeable perforations if indeed you want to take out a page. Hannah sewed me a leather cover that has been so welcome in keeping the innards safe and stowing my pens and pencils in the front holder for quick sketching and notes.

The outer walls belie the interior blocks comprising Oxford colleges. The University has 44 colleges which include five permanent private halls, each founded by various Christian denominations and all of which retains their religious character. These colleges are small, multidisciplinary communities operating independently but under the headship of Oxford University. Each has its own gathering of students, academic staff and administration.

Just one of the enclosed lawn areas Oxford is well known for. Imagine the forethought that went into the buildings and then the protective element the building brought long-term.

It’s hard to convey the mass of stonework there is in Oxford. The sense of presence permeates every ounce of space to tell you of its significance as a university town and then too the Greek influence ever hovering in the backgrounds of buildings and woodwork and of course education.

In man hours, a building like this would take many lifetimes were a single man to build it alone. I’m thinking a few hundred years.

I wonder how self-important those patriarchs felt through each generation and century. Imagine those slide rules and parallel rulers slipping across sheets of paper to trace out their lines to create windows and levels and doorways to be carved out and shaped by unknown stonemasons, carpenters and blacksmiths shaping the protection of the academics who’d never lift a finger to manual work. And there was such great conflict between the town folk taken over by the scholarly; those academics fearful of injury and even life fled to Cambridge and started Cambridge University.

Cars are disallowed the more in major cities in Britain and so too through the streets of Oxford which in size (160,000) is little more than a good-sized town. Bikes can be a real issue for pedestrians who now wander mid-street to meander more than stride with purpose. Bikes assert rights no matter where you are on path or roadway and interweave in their silent passage to skim shoulders as they pass by in their annoyance. Not too well thought through at all and with near-zero policing it’s surprising that more conflicts don’t occur. I’m glad I can ride in by bus. It’s a ten-minute abuse ride for me and no parking issues so I am glad for that.

Only an odd car passes through which makes it healthy for walkers. In summer you can barely move for the tourists looking ever-upwards and taking selfies.

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