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OXFORD STREET


Streets ahead A


cart trundles along a pitted London street. The journey is far from smooth as the road surface alternates between flags, cobblestones, oyster shells and


mud. It has been largely unchanged, except by neglect, since the Roman army built it as Via Trinobantina over a thousand years ago. The driver is stern, the passenger


in a trance brought about by alcohol and fear. The crowds – several thousand people – are reminiscent of those at a Mardi Gras parade. They drink and dance and shout and occasionally throw things. This street is not just a street. It is a destination. The thronging crowds know this


thoroughfare as Tyburn Road – the two-mile stretch between the prisons on the Fleet to the hanging tree at Tyburn, on the northeastern tip of Hyde Park. Some 400 years later, the crowds


are still there. In fact, they have multiplied. The street is still a destination, as it always has been.


Only now we call it Oxford Street. Ask an historian what makes Oxford


Street special and they will point to this curious continuity of popular appeal over the best part of 2,000 years. Ask a practitioner of English Wicca


(we did) and they will tell you that it is because it is built on an ancient ley line. Ask a lettings agent what makes


Oxford Street special and you get a more prosaic answer. They will tell you about retail density and footfall and overseas visitor numbers and brand and top grade-A quality retail space. “But the thing about Oxford Street is


the sheer volume of people,” says Mark Smith, head of central London retail at Jones Lang LaSalle. “Regent Street is a great shopping street, but it doesn’t have the numbers.” Indeed, Regent Street’s footfall


is estimated at around 90m people annually, and growing. When compared with, say, Westfield White City’s 25m, that is truly impressive. There are no accurate figures for Oxford Street, but estimates start at 200m.


“It is the dominant commercial street in the UK,” says Smith. He is being coy.


According to research by his own firm it is the dominant commercial street in Europe, and in the global top five. Oxford Street has been a shopping


street since it first took the name in the 19th century. But the shops were really showrooms, or parlours, for merchants next to their townhouses. It was also popular for bear-baiting and what industry historians coyly refer to as “pleasure”. It was not until Selfridges opened its


doors in 1908 that the modern tone of the two-mile mall was set. As FHW Sheppard’s Survey of London puts it: “The impact of the unified department store was felt, and commercial pressures began to build up.” Today, the department store is king.


Between Oxford Circus and Marble Arch there are no fewer than six giant department stores, as well as a score of flagships. “It is best to think of Oxford Street as a charm bracelet, not a string of pearls,” says Smith. While Selfridges and John Lewis


may dominate the street, with Zara and Primark rapidly closing the gaps, Oxford Street is not about high-end fashion, luxury, or even particularly high


16


Summer 2013 www.estatesgazette.com


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