If Leicester can find Richard III under a car park I wonder what Oxford will find under the old Westgate car park? A couple of days ago we went to find out.
Oxford’s Westgate car park was demolished at the start of 2015. Few will miss the demise of this 1970s monstrosity. It may have been convenient for the city centre but paying a small fortune to park in a damp and decaying building and walk its urine soaked stairwells will not be missed. I vaguely recall running up and down its moving walkway when I was a kid but this has been out of operation for at least 30 years.
So good riddance to Westgate, hello to a sparkling (hopefully) new car park and John Lewis store. In the meantime archaeologists from Oxford Archaeology have been let loose to discover what lies underneath this part of the city.
Previous excavations were carried out back in the 1960s before the Westgate car park was built. These found medieval street surfaces, parts of the city wall and the entire church and fragments of cloisters from Greyfriars Abbey. It’s hard to believe the Westgate car park was ever deemed a suitable replacement.
The present day dig has been split into 8 different areas with each area focused on a separate investigation. We visited area three which was temporarily opened to the public as part of the nationwide Festival for Archaeology. The dig in area three examines an area around the Trill Mill Stream.
Ten thousand years ago the area would have been a floodplain for the River Thames. Water flowed down from higher ground into the Thames via a series of channels and streams. One of these was the Trill Mill stream and the excavation has uncovered various culverts, medieval river channels and sluice gates. Given Oxford’s recent flooding history it’s sobering to remember the city has always experienced such events.
We walked with one of the archaeologists around the site. They’d helpfully labelled notable parts of the trenches and provided us with an information sheet so that we could identify the various parts.
The most exciting find for us was the skeletal remains of an ox embedded next to one of the river channels. When you think about how Oxford got its name (Ford of the Oxen) it’s tempting to imagine the city being named after this very animal. Almost as interesting as royal bones!
Other finds were laid out in trays across the tables. They included clay pipes, fragments of pottery, leather shoes, coloured glass and assorted bits of bone.
We were also able to see core samples which showed the different layers beneath our feet. By investigating the presence of microscopic algae and snail shells the archaeologists could determine whether, for example, the stream was flowing fast or silted up.
Almost impressive as seeing the archaeological findings was hearing from one of the Laing O’ Rourke contractors as to how the new buildings were taking shape. The huge hole in the ground in the photo below will become an underground car park and we were standing where John Lewis was to be built. The kids were interested in the high crane in which the operator sits for 6 hours per day. When I asked how he went to toilet I was told ‘you don’t want to know’; this of course meant the kids came up with some (not very) suitable solutions.
We enjoyed our insight into the excavations and I’ve enjoyed watching the building progress. Have you visited?