Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Thursday, 2 December 2010

The Somerville Landscape

When our new Principal, Alice Prochaska, arrived in August to take up her post, I decided it might be a suitable juncture at which to read to the history of Somerville, Somerville for Women: An Oxford College 1879-1993 (1996) by our emeritus librarian Pauline Adams. All new Fellows are presented with copies of the book when they arrive, which I think is a nice touch.

The book has (among many other things) changed my sense of the college itself as a historical/geographical space. Somerville has at first glance always seemed an architectural hotchpotch (I think our current architect at one point politely called it ‘episodic’). It was never clear to me why 1970s buildings abutted late 19C brick halls, or why the 1930s stone-roofed Darbishire quad has a fantastically ugly 1950s structure alongside it. I didn’t understand why our enormous, green main quad has paths crossing it at such peculiar, slightly un-functional angles.

But from Pauline’s book I now understand that the entire site grew out of an early 19C north Oxford villa and its grounds, and things make much more sense. ‘House’, our core and original building, was indeed just that: Walton House, built in 1826 and the home of Captain Mostyn Owen, Chief Constable of Oxfordshire. Pauline’s maps reveal that our modern tarmac paths still follow the line of the original pathways which once led through Captain Owen’s orchard, lawns and vegetable gardens. So, as I have been criss-crossing the snow sprinkled quad this November (the one shown in the blog signature photo), I have begun to feel the presence of that early 19C north Oxford house and estate, like a ghost. The library, hall and accommodation blocks which transformed this semi-rural Victorian garden into a busy Oxford college can sometimes be imagined away; one of the trees in our quad might, I think, have been part of that original domestic parkscape.

My favourite museum in Rome, the Crypta Balbi, takes as its subject the historical geography of one block of the city, near the Capitoline hill – visitors are shown how the recently excavated Roman theatre several metres underground in late antiquity morphed into residential quarters, which in turn had medieval churches built on top of them. Somerville hasn’t of course accumulated such dense and thick archaeological layers, but even an Oxford college founded in the 1870s is itself, on one level, simply a historical landscape.

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