By Christopher Gray on an ambitious project by
Christ Church Cathedral School.
Readers who have been in Brewer Street, Oxford, over the past few days have perhaps noticed that Christ Church Cathedral School is turning a bright new face upon the world. Handsome Victorian railings – which had been removed like so many others around the country to supply metal during the Second World War – have now been restored in front of the elegant school building.
This is a transformation, I am delighted to say, in which this column played a minor part. Nearly three years ago, in an article alluding to Edwin Luyens’s Campion Hall, which is next door to the school, I printed the picture on the right. As you will see, it shows a section of the school railings. The picture was seen by headmaster Martin Bruce and other members of the school staff including the bursar (and former pupil) William McLean.
They thought it would be an admirable project to put things back as they were. Admirable, and expensive. Though nobody wanted to tell me exactly what the job cost, it was agreed that I might call it a “big five figure sum”.
the money came from various sources, including old boys, parents and teachers. A considerable sum was raised by a “sponsor a heart” campaign, hearts being a motif in the design of the railings. Work on the job, by Witney-based Cooper Construction Ltd, began in July and has been finished over the past few days. Now a new recreation area for pupils is being provided in the now-safe front garden. The architect responsible was Colin Rae, of Oxford-based Roach Architects.
Of crucial importance to the success of the scheme was the existence of the specialist company, Oxford Railings. Over the past 20 years under its boss Richard Todd, the company has built up a valuable collection of mouldings and patterns.
Mr Todd told me: ” I’m focusing on cast iron, which is quite a different material to work with. It requires special skills.”
The project was carried out with the collaboration of Sarah Billam, a conservation officer with Oxford City Council, who is an expert in the field of railings and has written on the subject.
During the course of our conversation yesterday, Mr odd happened to mention that he had mouldings from the railings in Park Lane, Oxford. This was of some interest to me, because I was present at their ‘reopening’ if that;s the right word, in September 1975.
The ceremony was especially memorable for me for having been performed by John Betjemen, the Poet Laureate and an authority on Victorian architecture. He, in fact, had contributed money to the project and given advice during the work.
I felt privileged to have a long conversation with him before the ceremony and afterwards at a tea party at Beech Lawn School. Its principal theme was his love of North Oxford, which he developed during his time as a pupil at the Dragon School. He remembered with particular affection the shops of North Parade which he reached through the arched entrance in Park Town’s Crescent.
As a footnote to all this, I should perhaps mention that the wartime sacrifice of of so many railings was largely in vain. Mr Todd told me that impurities in the metal made it unsafe for munitions. There ware a number of instances of guns exploding with a sad loss of life.