Sheep Street - Part Two
Part Two of my creative piece about Bicester's Sheep Street. See Part One here - with more information about the creation of these Bicester episodes.
There is a market on today in the street. The voices of salesman shouting their daily deals at the top of their lungs fills your ears. The typical fruit and veg ones hitting the highest decibels. Much like many across the country, it has been moved from its old market square setting to being along a busy street, pushed to the pavement and arranged in lines as a substitute. It reminds me of Colchester, my hometown, where the market suffered the same fate - to much antagonism by residents. A quick comparison to the market pictures in Bicester Wuz a Little Town confirms the stark difference. The way the market is laid out was much more close quarters in those days, compared to the big gaps between stalls I can see in front of me right now. Although many of the stalls still look familiar, the trade itself hasn’t changed much and I must respect those who have carried on in Bicester with the threat of a super-wealthy shopping village around the corner. The market is currently packing up and closing for the day, the classics of a butchers and a bakery stall are a part of the spectacle with different coloured awnings sparsely covering the street. There’s also a battery and watch repairs salesman wearing a brown apron in a what appears to look like a small wagon. I wander over to and ask what he sells.
“I can fix your watch, cut keys or sort out some batteries” he replied.
I continue to query his prices and he rattles off some of his deals – 3 keys for 5 pounds for example. I also ask him about the wagon, a small portaloo-sized yellow and black, wooden structure on wheels, with a caravan-like connector on its front. It’s very unusual and creaks slightly as the man moves around within it.
“Easier to park up” the salesman laughed.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s been a mainstay of the market for years. I did consult Hedges’s book to see if he was mentioned but there was nothing. There are not many stalls apart from the battery-man who appear to sell anything other than foodstuffs from what I’ve seen so far. You can smell the spices of curries being served up, vegetables and fruit left outside and freshly baked bread. I’m sure I will still see some Del-Boy characters selling dodgy knockoffs of Bicester Village’s Gucci or Prada products as I continue. I say thank you to him and continue. On the right I see a building called Pevensey House, its name engraved above its impressive white wooden door. Another of the taller buildings along the street, its lower section houses a nail bar and an estate agent.
Continuing past Pevensey House, I then reach a section of the street that appears to have a high frequency of charity shops. There’s a British Heart Foundation, Sue Ryder, Salvation Army and an Age UK. These are cuddled in amongst the Turkish Barbers and vape shops that have – in recent years - become commonplace in British towns and cities. Here the street is split in half by stonewalled flower beds full of an array of different coloured roses – red, yellow and pink amongst them. A “Welcome to Bicester” sign is on top of the wall and tells any curious so-and-so like me the details of a discovery walk throughout the town. It mentions that the “blue line represents a circular discovery walk helping you to fit fifteen to twenty minutes of exercise into your day whilst enjoying a change of scene”. Bicester is one of a few towns that have concerned itself with becoming “green” and “healthy” with extra bike lanes and blue lined running routes emblazoned across many of the pavements and roads around the town. Apparently, it gets the council extra government-lent money to reinvest.
Now on the left is Torino Lounge, a modern looking, slightly hipster bar and restaurant and next door is a contrasting classic British butcher shop. Torino Lounge has a colourful red and yellow tiled Italian looking frontage that looks authentic yet rustic at the same time. It stands out from the rest of the shops and looks out of place in the British street. In contrast, next door is Nash’s Bakery – a understated quintessential British bakery that’s mentioned in Hedges’s writing - that states on its faded yellow signs that it has been in Bicester since 1930. A quick look at the information pamphlets in the shop window tell the story of how a William “Will” Nash moved his wife and the first of their 9 children to Bicester where he bought a shop and founded Nash’s Bakery in 1929. In 1971 Will officially retired and handed over control to his two sons Trevor and Graham. In 1998 Graham was appointed President of the National Association of Master Bakers. This is one of five Nash’s bakeries now in Bicester and the surrounding villages. There’s a news article in the window that states that Will Nash passed at the age of 103. He still helped in the bakery well into his nineties. Yum-Yums, hot cross buns, doughnuts, sponges, iced fingers – all the sweet goodness is in the window and you can smell the baking process whilst you gaze through. It makes my stomach rumble as I’ve not had much to eat yet today. I decide to pop in and grab a doughnut to keep me going.
“How long have you been here?” I ask the lady behind the till as I pay for my custard filled variety.
“Oh, donkey’s years” she replies.
“I was reading the signs outside, apparently you’ve got five stores?” I query, despite already knowing the answer. The lady replies, rattling off some of the street names in the town - most I’ve never heard of - that house their other stores. I say thank you and move on outside to eat.
As I tuck into my custard doughnut I wonder if Nash and Hedges knew of each other – it’s delicious by the way – I then take another inspection around the area. On the righthand side of the street - opposite Nash’s - is a walkthrough called Crown Walk that leads through to Pioneer Square. This is where the new Vue cinema, Sainsburys supermarket, Nandos and a couple of other chain restaurants have been built to aid Sheep Street with the increase in population and tourism in the town. This area seems busier than Sheep Street and didn’t exist in Hedges’s time. The cinema and Sainsburys pumped a lot of the money in to create this new area of town, including a giant multi-storey car park that can be seen for miles across Bicester. Two hours maximum stay though doesn’t sound very useful for a cinema trip. The archway that opens the walkthrough is impressive and looks like the traditional stone that embraces the flowerbeds that still split the street behind me. However, despite this similarity, when you peer through the archway you can see the contrast to Sheep Street down this modern shopping alley. Its cleaner, fresher and brighter and pushes your mind forward in time. It feels more tempting. You can see a Coles bookshop alongside a recently closed Thomas Cook branch. I do wonder what Hedges’s would have had to write about this new area, especially as it feels as though it’s taken the crown of being the town centre away from Sheep Street. In the maps within his book, it’s mostly old housing and some country lanes passing by the outskirts of the street beneath my feet. I have quick look on Google’s street view tool and move the timer to 2010, even then the area doesn’t exist and is just the home to a giant flat – instead of the new multi-storey – car park.
There’s another bakery on the right as I leave the entrance to Pioneer Square behind me, this time called Warrens. An orange and black theme dominates this one, contrasting with Nash’s. More banks appear on this side of the street and there’s the second of the Costa Coffees where the sound of crockery and china being cleaned can be heard. That dry thirst hits my tongue and mouth again. There are also people sitting outside in winter clothing enjoying a warm drink. Alongside them is a stack Halloween themed coffee cups yet to be collected. The aromas of pumpkin spice and coffee hit me as I pass. The road is still split in half by stone, flowers and now some apple trees. I now take the left-hand side of the street and notice one of the trees has a plaque with Roman numerals adorned on it – ERII – MMXII. There’s also another – more modern – silver sign on the stone next to it. This says – and gives more context to the previous plaque - ‘Acer Campestre – Queen Elizabeth. Planted to commemorate the Diamond Jubilee of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II’. More of the market is still packing up, but again it’s mostly edible goods.
Speaking of edible goods, I’m surprised to not see a McDonalds down this high street. The golden arches of the famous American brand are usually visible anywhere you go. Especially with the array of familiar logos and shopfronts I’ve already spotted walking down here. Fast food seems to be the one area that is lacking – perhaps a good thing – but a surprising thing. No KFC, No Burger King, none of those. I decide to question this and ask a passer-by where there is to eat quickly – insinuating that I mean those brands when I do so.
“There’s a Subway around the corner by the cinema, and a Wimpy up the other end” the young man - probably about my age - gestures South whilst answering.
“Is there a McDonalds, do you know?” I reply.
“There’s not one in town but there’s one over by the big Tesco near Bicester Village.”
I find this unusual, only one McDonalds in a town which is receiving such large amounts of tourism in the last few years. The McDonalds the man speaks of I am familiar with, it’s on the way into Bicester when you pass the famous shopping village. Around a 20- or 30-minute walk from where I am now. I query this further, asking the man why there isn’t one in the town centre. He shrugs and replies.
“Apparently it’s something to do with Bicester Village. They’ve been talking about it for years, but it hasn’t happened yet. They want to make the high street full of fancy brands on – like – two levels and a McDonalds doesn’t fit into that.”
“So, Bicester Village want to invest into the town?” I ask back.
“Yeah, they want to make the town centre more like The Village, especially for the tourists. Whether it happens or not, I don’t know”. The man shrugs and I thank him for his information. I go inside my own head for a moment to imagine the high street of Bicester resembling The Village, it feels as though it would look more like a street out of London than a rural Oxfordshire town. Perhaps this is exactly what Scott Malkin would want. Perhaps it’s already beginning with the contrasting Pioneer Square complex. Perhaps therefore that’s why the locals are saying Bicester was a little town. I also start to imagine a scenario where my guide Hedges meets Malkin. What would those two have to say to each other. They come from such different worlds – or even times. Walking can be such a tool of time travel.
Now on my left-hand side as I leave my thoughts behind is an exceptionally sized Coral betting shop and opposite on the right is the building of Spratt Endicott Solicitors. This is an equally exceptionally sized construction. Coral’s looks as though it was originally some sort of living arrangements, whereas the solicitor’s looks like an old church. It’s built out of a light-sandy looking stone with large arching windows that I reckon used to hold stain glass varieties. It beckons back to the Methodist Church at the beginning of my journey. Above its large door is a stone sigil of two lions with a crest between them. Outside Spratt Endicott’s is the first clothing market stall I’ve seen today - selling cheap hats. Some of that Del-Boy trade I mentioned earlier. I do wonder if Bicester Village does help salesmen such as this. Could selling knock off versions of what is within Malkin’s castle to unaware tourists be fair game to them. Sometimes you can’t tell the difference, especially if you’ve flown thousands of miles from China. It does feel very British, it’s that “keep calm and carry on” spirit in the face of problems. In contrast to the British stereotypes I can hear a family speaking in German walking past. It’s not the only foreign tongue I’ve heard when striding down the street today. Chinese, Arabic and possibly Polish have been picked up by my ears – not unusual for any high street – but it does make you wonder if they are tourists here for The Village.
I’ve nearly reached the end of Sheep Street and my dérive now where there is another pub that claims to show Live HD Sky Sports, this time called The White Hart. It’s on the left-hand side of the street, much like The Penny. However, this one appears to have an Irish theme - “McCafferty’s” is emblazoned across its umbrellas and tarpaulin. Music can be heard from inside. Outside the pub, where the pedestrianised zone ends are some more of those sheep-headed bollards. There’s also a collection of stone sheep immortalised as a sculpture where they’re huddled together. Like sheep scared to go to market perhaps. These are placed here marking the end of the street, or conceivably the start if you’ve decided to head in the other direction. I’m now questioning which way the sheep were herded. Both ways if you really start to think about it – to the market to be sold and away from the market to their new owner. Proof that a single street can have different meanings to those heading in different directions. My thought process is starting to become very deep for something that started with sheep. You can hear more traffic this end of the street as the pedestrianised area now ends, replaced by a road that has obviously bypassed around Sheep Street. Whereas traffic would have previously gone straight through. There’s quite a constant stream of traffic weaving around, giving my ears a different experience to where I started. If I were to carry on past this point, I’d head past some more barbers and a fish bar called ‘Market Square’. You can smell the fish and chips from yards away. This is of course where those herded sheep would end up, the place of the original market before it was moved. S.G.’s book is full of pictures of the original square, strangely it doesn’t look dramatically different as I have a quick glance through now. There’s a hotel that overlooks the square that is present in both the book in the 1920’s and in my current view. The only change is the lack of market stalls, now in their place is a taxi rank and yet another bike rack, I could have parked here.