Yesterday, the UK’s newest Mall opened in the beautiful spire-filled city of Oxford. Oxford’s many historical buildings and world-renowned colleges certainly make it a primary destination for anyone wanting to experience the best of traditional Britain, but a modern Shopping Centre with great brands has always been amiss. This is astonishing considering that the city is the home of two universities and many colleges filled with eager student shoppers. It has the requisite High Street and a wonderful indoor market (which incidentally I used as a surrogate for the lack of a decent Mall when I lived there!), but Mall-wise it was a tad sad - there was the old Westgate Shopping Centre, but to be quite frank it wasn’t great and became the hang out of many of Oxford’s ne’er do wells.
However, when I visited the brand new Westgate Oxford yesterday, the old Dirt Mall at the tail-end of the High Street was forgotten within seconds - this is a different beast all together. After about two years of work, the new Centre is officially open and is incomparable. It is a modern, beautiful Mall which stands up comfortably against the best in England. The day before the opening, the site was still a hive of activity, with hard-hatted workers scurrying around, getting the finishing touches done. Despite this, the Mall already looked enticing - the huge windows and glowing lights within made me almost want to break in and explore then and there!
Balloon acrobatics handshake
The first thing one notices is the scale of the new Westgate Oxford - it is significantly larger than its predecessor. This was starkly accentuated as people finally got the chance to enter the courtyards of the open Mall - the space is breathtaking, and as the natural light streams in from the arched steel and glass roof it feels cathedral-like. The Oculus of New York City is one of only a few other Centres which have recently given me this sensation. This was helped no end by the addition of a giant white hot-air balloon which floated in the space, dangling a graceful moustachioed female acrobat beneath it. As the balloon drifted to meet and interact with onlookers watching on the upper levels I could only stand and stare.
Along with the balloon, there were many other attractions dotted around the Mall, all based around an ‘Alice in Wonderland’ theme - an homage to the great book written in Oxford by English literary treasure Lewis Carroll. These included a full-on lawn on the upper terrace with an interactive ‘eat me, drink me’ attraction, surreal tours of the Mall and the Mad Hatter, along with his equally insane rabbit sidekick, were running around the Centre causing havoc. There was also an unreal walk-in kaleidoscope, made to represent going into the Carrollian rabbit hole. It was all great fun. All of the opening day events aside though, I could easily see myself spending an entire day (which in the case of Westgate Oxford is 10am to 8pm on most days) at this Centre from the outset.
The new Mall is beautifully finished with quality materials - a plethora of which were used, from glass, to bare brick, to plaster, to muted woods. The various textures really keep everything fresh and make it interesting to the eye. The layout is a simple grid and this certainly helps to keep that awesome central atrium open. The upper terrace level is open-air and, when mixed with the clear glass banisters, provides a serious rush. It also allows one to check out the breath-taking cityscape of Oxford. Access to the upper level is provided by a steep escalator which is great fun to ride. Off the main atrium, there are store-filled hallways with lovely arched ceilings, giving the Centre both the open feel of a modern Mall as well as the cosy aesthetic of more traditional Shopping Centres; truly the best of both worlds.
The Centre consists of three levels - two shopping levels and an upper terrace. These levels have around 200 stores stuffed within them, amazing considering there are only two main levels of shopping - this should give you an idea of the Centre’s ample surface area. Many great local and international brands are accounted for, including a gloriously immense flagship John Lewis department store, but I just want to talk about a few rarities in this beauty. Firstly, there is a Blackwell’s bookstore; if you are unfamiliar, it is a famous Oxford book seller which focuses in particular on books for students and it is one of the best I have come across. Another rarity within UK Malls is the massive Uniqlo store - ubiquitous in East Asia but not so in Europe. So to see one of such size in Westgate Oxford really made my day. Other folks seemed to agree because the queue for it on opening day was lengthy, to put it mildly!
Entertainment-wise there is a Curzon Cinema in the Mall, rare because the brand normally concentrates around the London area. The Cinema focuses on smaller, independent and international films, but of course the latest blockbusters are present. Opening soon is the crazy sounding Junkyard Golf Club, which appears to be a mixture of bar, octagonal UFC cage, treehouse, slip n’ slide, hall of mirrors and mini-golf course. It sounds utterly insane and we can’t wait return and check it out! If you want more relaxing entertainment, certainly head up to the terrace, relax and take in the view. Other stores and experiences have not yet opened, but should be doing so in the run-up to the busy Christmas season.
The food in the Mall is fabulous, from pho to peri peri chicken to Japanese yakitori to pizza to Indian food - even Nordic food is available. Many restaurants are found on the terrace for a fantastic dining experience. Just one word - there is a Shoryu restaurant opening at some point in Westgate Oxford. If you are in the Mall and come across this ramen joint - please have lunch there; there are few ramen-ya in Britain which can match their tonkotsu! Of course if you have any mid-Mall hunger pangs, you can grab a delicious crepe or doughnut. If you are having any trouble locating something, there is an unmissable information desk with it’s own little belfry; now Oxford can boast yet another dreaming spire in its repertoire!
View from the rooftop terrace
It was a tough few years for Westgate Oxford - getting Council and local permissions to go ahead and develop a project with such a large footprint in such an historic City was never going to be easy (especially considering the fact that the site was once the home of a first millennium Frairy); but the perseverance has certainly paid off. It was right to the last minute, but now that this incredible Shopping Centre is up and running, it is crazy to think that something like this never existed in Oxford before. It just makes perfect sense and we are certain that the many thousands of Oxford students, and Mall fans in general, who will make this their local Mall will treasure their new Westgate. Of course thousands will also have new part-time jobs available to them and can experience the wonders of working in a Mall. With so much more still to come, it is an exciting time for Oxford Mall fans. Lucky devils!