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  • Writer's pictureAlex Beeton, PhD

A Brief History of South Park in Oxford

What is South Park?

South Park is Oxford’s largest park. It opened to the public in the 1950s and has sweeping views of the city centre.

South Park in Oxford

South Park History

South Park offers one of the most idyllic and panoramic views of the city. From the highest point, looking west, you can see the famous dreaming spires of Oxford at their very best. The church towers, college buildings, and the city itself are all laid out in a truly spectacular vista, especially on a sunny day. Understandably, this is one of the most popular views of Oxford and its university, and photographers and film-makers make full use of it.

South Park is Oxford’s largest green space and a very popular part of the city’s landscape. It was here in 2001 that the band Radiohead played a concert to more than 40,000 people, possibly the largest public gathering in Oxford’s history. But even without a superstar band to attract them, people love to use the park: some exercising, some enjoying the views, others the greenery. In summer, it becomes a popular picnicking site and in winter a good place for sledding. Several annual events make use of the space and its proximity to the city centre, with the Lord Mayor’s annual parade being the most prestigious and the annual fireworks display perhaps the most popular.

The hill has also played an important role in the history of Oxford. The commanding views of the town it offers made it the perfect place from which Parliamentary forces could besiege Royalists during the British Civil Wars. It’s also the site of Headington Hill Hall, a famous local house where Oscar Wilde, dressed as Prince Rupert of the Rhine, attended an all-night May Day ball in 1878. In more modern times, it was the home of disgraced media mogul Robert Maxwell and is now the Oxford Brookes School of Law.

The hall and park are both closely tied to one of the most important Oxford families of the last few centuries, the Morrells. Their brewing company operated from 1782 until the very end of the 20th century out of the Lion Brewery in St Thomas Street, with its waterwheel powered by the Castle Mill Stream. They owned many pubs in the city and further afield before, unfortunately, the company was dissolved in acrimonious circumstances in 1998. Decades before the closure, however, they were the owners of Headington Hill Hall and what is now South Park was their estate, then used as farmland. This was bought in 1932 by the Oxford Preservation Trust, to protect it in perpetuity as open space, the purchase commemorated by a carved stone near the park’s west edge. The trust then gave the park to the city in the 1950s.

At the bottom of Headington Hill, where Headington Road and Morrell Avenue meet, is the Oxford Spanish Civil War memorial, unveiled in 2017 and dedicated to six local residents who travelled to Spain to join the International Brigades and died there.

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