In an otherwise unremarkable day, yesterday I filled up my car with fuel and – in the course of doing errands and seeing people – I ended up in Bicester, twelve miles or so up the M40 beyond Oxford, visiting my daughter and her partner for a pizza meal and general catch-up.
I’m not quite sure of my facts here, but my impression is that until maybe twenty years ago Bicester was little more than a market town out in the sticks. Since then, however, it became the host of the fashionable ‘Bicester Village’ shopping centre and then a rapid expansion (one would hesitate to say ‘explosion’), almost as if some planning authority or another had made a conscious decision that it could and/or should become another new market garden city in the style of Welwyn Garden City or similar, as first devised and then put into practical effect by Sir Ebenezer Howard (1850-1928).
Travelling to Bicester by car from my home ordinarily requires me to depart via south-west London down the M3 to the M25, around that in a clockwise direction to the M40 turn-off and then driving about another forty miles.
In order not to disrupt neither my daughter’s work and sleep patterns nor my own, by habit we rendezvous at her house at 6.30pm and immediately go out for our bite to eat, finishing that at some point between 7.45pm and 8.15pm, before I drive home again.
To arrive at her place by 6.30pm therefore inevitably requires that I have to set off and travel most of the way to Bicester in the afternoon rush-hour exodus from London. A journey that made at the dead of night, or even very early in the morning (i.e. when there is little traffic on the roads), would never take more than 75 minutes in total thus takes me anything up to two and a quarter hours. But hey, I’m an old and retired gentleman – going to see my daughter is a thing I like to do – and I can bumble along listening to the radio, so what’s the hardship in that? Well, apart from the frustration factor of (randomly) discovering myself stuck in an M25 gridlock travelling past Heathrow and then the M4 turn-off … or, if my luck holds, not.
Yesterday I had allowed nearly two and a half hours for my trip to Bicester and by chance, with one or two ‘slow moving passages’ along the way, I reached my destination with half an hour to spare. Killing time, I chose to drive to the famous Bicester Village site and, pootling about, noticed that the Tesco’s supermarket on the edge of the area was all boarded up, with signs saying that it was now the venue for a series of brand new units that were about to be built.
I was still fifteen minutes before my rendezvous time and, when I reached the next roundabout, noticed a sign announcing ‘new superstore’ beside the road. I followed it and (lo, and behold!) suddenly the sight of a massive new Tesco’s superstore hove into view on the left.
I drove in, parked up and walked to said building. I’m familiar with large supermarket chains, of course, but here everything was upon a truly grand scale. The car park was vast – even the exit lane back out to the dual carriageway was four (I repeat four) lanes wide.
I walked inside. It was simply enormous – think an aircraft hangar designed for a Boeing 747 or something like that. For a minute or two I just stood there, taking it all in. You could have driven a large 4 x 4 utility vehicle down any of the aisles. Everything seemed fresh, inviting and new.
Eventually I walked up to the customer services counter and, engaging the staffer on duty, discovered just how new.
“We opened last Friday – we’ve been open less than a week …”
I expressed my amazement at the set-up, and my indeed my admiration, before returning to my car and going on my way.
Without wishing to endorse Tesco’s, or indeed any other supermarket operator, you have to take your hat off to those at the helm of organisations as large as those must be.
I have no idea how big Bicester is currently planned to become – everywhere you look the surrounding (previously farm or rural) land seems to be spouting huge estates of uniform box-like medium-range houses with handkerchief-sized gardens – I joked over my later pizza that many of them seem to resemble the (green) ‘houses’ that players get issued when at the Monopoly board – but I’ve heard rumours of numbers of dwellings-to-be running into the many tens of thousands.
New populations coming to the area on that sort of scale requires the building of new massive infrastructure projects – roads for access, sewerage, utilities, shopping, places to eat out, and so on. Somehow the area needs to gain its ‘soul’ – or should that possibly be find a new one, because those who’ve lived in the area for thirty years or more must be deeply nervous that this coming influx of humanity will destroy or affect adversely forever that which existed in and around Bicester previously.
Naturally, when it comes to food and other essential shopping, Tesco’s decision to build a brand new unit roughly about the size of Surrey, dominating the horizon as you drive into Bicester from the M40 turn-off, makes total sense. It was spectacular in the extreme – not dissimilar to wandering onto the set of some blockbuster CGI-generated sci-fi movie set – but (of course) I can say that safe in the knowledge that I live 70 miles or more away and visit only occasionally.
The world north-west of Oxford is certainly hurtling into the future.