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Oxford Cornmarket

Home > Oxford > Shopping | Street Art | Street Performers
by Cressida Ryan (subscribe)
Classicist and traveller
Published September 10th 2014
From one of Britain's worst to a vibrant thoroughfare
Walking down Cornmarket, a pedestrianised stretch of street in the centre of Oxford can feel daunting; it's jam-packed and boisterous. Take a deep breath, and imagine yourself back in the mists of Oxford time, and you get a sense of the continuity of the city, its medieval heritage, and the vibrancy of the city.

In 2002 it was voted the second worst street in Britain, but since its pedestrianisation in 1999 it has been steadily improved, and is now a jostling, bustling hub of life for tourists and townspeople alike.

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White Rabbit cyclist blowing bubbles!

People of all ages can be found out on the road. It's not just the university students in Oxford who are talented. You might find students playing Classical music, but then again, you might stumble across a street dance group.

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Street dance on Cornmarket

Tightrope walking violinists, flame-thrower and unicyclists are all acts you might witness. Charity collections, people holding advertising boards, restauranteurs offering free samples, and employees from the golden arches of MacDonald's giving out vouchers are some of the more mercenary aspects.

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A busy, bustling street

Particularly at the weekends, religious groups will come out to educate, inform and evangelise. Christian denominations hand out publications alongside Muslims and Jews, while individuals frequent shop doors, preaching for anyone interested to hear. Other faiths or community groups are often represented too.

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Faith stalls on Cornmarket

If there's a campaign running nationally for anything then you may well find protest and interest groups out in force. Some of them are even coordinated by the shops along the way, with Lush, for example, spilling out onto the street for events.

The street itself turns into a work of art. Quite often people have chalked illustrations on the pavement, whether 'simply' as art or to point directions to other places. One local artist sits on the street creating images of Oxford to sell to tourists, while another carves sand sculptures.

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Artists working on the street

The shops themselves aren't necessarily interesting, drawn from a range of chains, but there's a good selection if you want to browse. On the corner of Ship Street is a 14th-century timber framed building now housing a branch of Pret a Manger which boats free wifi for customers; what a culture clash.

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a 14th-century home for a modern eatery

The largest department store in Oxford, Boswells, which dates back to 1738, sits on the corner with Broad Street. If you can't get it in Boswells, you can't get it anywhere, or so people say. Amongst the shops is also the Saxon church of St Michael at Northgate, the oldest building in Oxford, whose tower is open for tourists to climb. On the street itself are usually a number of stalls. Some are semi-permanent, selling skirts, shawls and jewellery.

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Stall on Cornmarket

Others pop up, opportunists hawking the latest popular trinket, from garlands to mini-kites, air-spray tattoos and personalised t-shirts.

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Loom bands for sale on Cornmarket

Cornmarket also opens out onto a number of interesting avenues. Wander down Market Street to the covered market, or through the Golden Cross arcade as a back route. On the other side of the road, head under the arch to the Crown Pub.

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The Crown Pub

Late at night, as a pedestrianised space, it becomes a safe place for groups to spill out of the clubs, pubs and bars around the area. it can get quite lively. As dawn breaks, a few hours later, street cleaners arrive to wash away the accrued weight of mess, ready for the blank canvas of the broad street to face another day.

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A brass band plays on the corner with Queen Street
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Why? From worst street in Oxford to a carnival thoroughfare
Where: Cornmarket, Oxford
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