Sheep Street - Part One
Updated: Oct 21, 2020
When I first moved to Bicester last year, I was tasked by my PhD supervisor - Professor Will Self - to write a couple of creative pieces about the town. The subsequent pieces were designed as an assignment to practice psychogeographic writing and to see if my standard had improved since my Masters degree. We also wanted to see how much of an impact and influence my early PhD reading had on my writing style, especially when comparing my prose to those such as Iain Sinclair and Nick Papadimitriou. I'll be releasing the pieces in parts here on my blog. Starting with this first half of a piece about Sheep Street. The second part will be released next week. Then my - what I believe to be - stronger work on Bicester Village will also be published. Stay tuned!
Part Two is now available to read here.
Sidney George Hedges - known as S.G. by locals - was a British author of books and articles concerned mostly with swimming and diving for young people. He did occasionally dabble in other forms of literature. Hedges was born in Bicester, a small town in Oxfordshire and was the second son of George William Hedges and Mary Ann Hedges. He married Mary Dixon in his hometown in 1929 and their son Anthony Hedges was born – also in his hometown - in 1931. ‘Bicester Wuz A Little Town’ – the title of S.G’s book about Bicester is filled with information and tales about a place so dear to him. It contains a record of Bicester families and “folk”, maps of the settlement, photographs from the town’s past and more. These features supplement the vast array of information in the literature to create a vivid picture of the town’s history. When delving into the book, you find that it covers everything from local dialect and songs, to trades, societies, clubs and notable residents. Hedges was a well-known figure in Bicester and was a keen local historian. Since his book about the town was first published, his history of Bicester has become "the" history of the town. But despite the title echoing the thoughts and feelings of many of Bicester’ long-term residents, S.G.’s writing in fact dates from the 1960s.
‘Bicester was a little town’.
These are the words muttered by many of Bicester’s dwellers for the past fifty or sixty years. I’ve overheard it a couple of times myself when I’ve visited the area. The only change from S.G.’s original title is that the Oxfordshire accent has deteriorated over time – mostly because of television and other outside influences - it now sounds much more like stereotypical Estuary English. “Wuz” has become “was”, but the sentiment stays the same.
My copy of S.G.’s book - that I’ve borrowed from the newly renovated Bicester Library - was first published in 1968 and he prefaces his book with the question of ‘When is a Bicester person?’ From what I’ve seen it appears to me that not only has the place changed, but its occupants and visitors have too, and one can see this when retracing the steps that are mapped out in Bicester Wuz a Little Town. And that is what I’m going to do in a couple of particularly important places within Bicester.
I’m going to start by walking down Sheep Street - viewable on page 178 of Bicester Wuz a Little Town – which I have stored away in my backpack. It’s Bicester’s High Street so-to-speak. It’s traditional hub of shopping and business. I’m about to “dérive” this street to see exactly how it has changed and what modern day Sheep Street smells, feels, looks and sounds like compared to Hedges’s own tales. Sheep Street has a lot of focus in Hedges’s book – as it is the main street of the town then and now – and the street is heavily covered throughout his writing. Pictures and photographs of the street are plenty in the book too - all great tools to compare what I see, to what has been seen. A now pedestrianised high street full of the usual corporate multinational companies – a Costa Coffee, a New Look, an Iceland Foods, a Wetherspoons and a Halifax amongst others – I could be in any British town. S.G. mentions ‘George Goble’s shop on the left of Sheep Street’, Gobles did not become a chain.
With the Bicester Methodist Church on my left – a large multicoloured stained glass window dominates the centre of the otherwise quite generic red brick-built building - I start at the north-end of Sheep Street. This is where the pedestrian portion of the street begins and is where I chain my bike to one of the many sets of cycle racks in the town centre. Bicester is known for bike thefts, like much of Oxfordshire, so I’ve purchased an extra bike lock for my time here, taking the total to two currently securing my bike. I was told by one local who fixed my bike on a previous visit here that it’s because Oxfordshire is so easy to get around by bike that it makes the thefts more appealing. He also mentioned that because of the high abundance of bikes it also makes the theft statistics rocket anyway. I can hear the clinking of other bikes being locked to the racks next to me by fellow cyclists. There’s also a dog barking, a small creature nipping at one of the cyclists as they lock up. At this end of the street there are three metal automatic bollards with a traffic light system that lower when an appropriate vehicle arrives – mostly shop deliveries and market salesman in vans. On my right - opposite the church - is the Saxon Pub - with an impressive golden and black theme on its signs. There’s a Chinese restaurant next to it within the same white building – looking more generic with a simple plastic sign on a blue background above its door.
Bicester is known for its unusually large amount of Chinese tourism. Considering the town neighbours more typical tourist hotspots such as Oxford and the Cotswolds - with London also not far away. It is a fascinating phenomenon. It's claimed that only Buckingham Palace receives more visits from Chinese citizens. Their pilgrimage to a series of designer outlets in the Oxfordshire town necessitates announcements in Mandarin at the local railway station and even sixty miles away in London Marylebone the same messages can be heard. Bicester Village was established in 1995 by an American by the name of Scott Malkin and is the only shopping complex in the UK visited en masse by Chinese tourists. Bicester Village employs hundreds of Mandarin speakers and when walking around the town, you can witness the impact The Village has had. A new cinema, several budget hotel chains and more bus operators are some of the services that have been brought into Bicester over the last decade to cope with the increase in tourism. It’s somewhere I am going to dérive around next whilst I’m here.
There is a fresh Autumnal feel in the air, that atmosphere you associate with November or October nights around Guy Fawkes or Halloween. The cold wind becomes intrusive to your nostrils and creates its own kind of smell, one that’s mixed amongst the scent of a cigarettes coming from a couple ambling past me. It makes my legs feel chilled, especially around my ankles as I walk - continuing down the street. I go past some black stone bollards that have been sculptured into the shapes of sheep’s heads. The street was so called Sheep Street because the eponymous were herded down to the market square at the end of the road to be sold. Being careful of the slippery leaves under my feet - making my progress slightly hindered - I pass by Bicester Toys with its blue, red and yellow paint job - on the left, it’s an independent toy store with the first coffee shop of the street next to it – Coffee #1 – fittingly named for the first one I encounter down this end of the street. Is Coffee #2 the next one down the way? I wouldn’t be surprised; coffee shops have grown in popularity over the last few decades. The rise of Starbucks is a phenomenon that has been written about by many a journalist. Coffee drinking was more of an American past-time, its synonymous with New York and American Sitcoms such as Friends for example. Tea is the British past-time and if you had rocked up to Sheep Street during the 30s in your New York Yankees jersey and baseball cap and asked for a cappuccino you would have been laughed at. Hedges most certainly would have sat and had tea, none of all that. It’s another result of Americanisation and globalisation and even in a small town like this you can see the impact. Tea Rooms and Cafes are still a thing, but they must share their street with the coffee giants. Even shops such as Coffee #1 which attempt to be an independent, anti-authority, alternative to the big names are still a result of the American influence. If they truly wanted to be fighting against Starbucks and Costa, they’d be called Tea #1.
The coffee shop is squeezed between the toy store and the local Wetherspoons which is called The Penny Black. Or ‘The Penny’ as known to the locals who frequent it. A symphony of clinking glasses can be heard outside the pub as a waitress collects up the empties. It gives me a slight feeling of thirst, especially after my bike ride. The Penny Black is an impressive building – taller than most along the street. Like other Wetherspoons across the country its housed within a structure that used to be something else – this time an old Post Office. The old Post Office sign still sits above the door in golden letters, alongside newer Freehouse ones that have been created in the same font and colours. There are four large rectangular windows on the front of the pub, making the building look very symmetrical. In Hedges’s book you can see a picture of the old post office and you can’t really see through the windows to see what it once looked like – a peek through today shows an entirely different scene to what I can imagine it looked like as a working Post Office back then. I have a quick look in my copy to try and compare. Mail and parcels are replaced by pint glasses and curry night adverts most undeniably.