Last edited 22 Dec 2021

Main author

Institute of Historic Building Conservation Institute / association Website

Reorganising and conserving Oxford's Mitre site

Reorganising and conserving the buildings on Oxford’s Mitre site will free students from the experience of living with ancient bathrooms and medieval wayfinding.

Mitre site Oxford.jpg
An 1825 engraving of the Mitre, by J Fisher (Spiers 1926).

Situated in the heart of Oxford on the historic High Street, the Mitre is a historic coaching inn which has been in the ownership of adjacent Lincoln College since 1474. The site encompasses both the pub which fronts the High Street at the corner of High Street and Turl Street; 16 High Street (part of the Covered Market); 17 High Street (a medieval infill building); 3–7 Turl Street (a row of shops with medieval origins); and 144–155 Turl Yard (a 1920s building with no street frontage). The various buildings are listed at Grade II* and Grade II, and the site shares a boundary to the west with the historic Covered Market (listed at Grade II). It is also within the Central and University Conservation Area, which is one of a handful of conservation areas in the country which must be considered of more than just local interest.

Within the site there are standing remains from the medieval period (in the cellars beneath the present pub and Turl Street) and from the 16th– 20th centuries, making it an extremely complex, multi-phased site of exceptionally high significance. It is not only very intricate in terms of the phasing but also in terms of the arrangements of leaseholds and flying leaseholds: the cellars, ground and first floor of the Mitre itself are in the tenancy of the brewery company Marston’s; the upper floors of the same building are student accommodation in use by undergraduates at Lincoln College; the shops on Turl Street are separately tenanted by the retailers at ground floor, and in use as student accommodation at first and second floors; and the Turl Bar on Turl Yard contains a lecture space on the ground floor and student rooms above.

Donald Insall Associates acted as heritage consultants and conservation architects, and TSH Architects acted as lead architects and designers. The project involved upgrading the student rooms only (not the pub – although separately Marston’s decided to repair and refurbish this part of the site as well concurrently – and not the shops on Turl Street) and set out to solve some major issues.

These included to increase the number of bathrooms, and the number of rooms with en suite bathrooms within the areas in use as student accommodation (in some cases up to six rooms used one bathroom); if possible to increase the number of student rooms across the site; to rationalise and simplify the routes used to escape the building in the event of an emergency, many of which were tortuous; to improve the energy efficiency of the building by streamlining the heating and hot water systems, which were labyrinthine; to provide a clear route into and through the student accommodation via a new stone-clad entrance building in a gap within the Turl Street frontage; and to undertake all necessary repairs to the highest conservation standards, in accordance with Lincoln College’s commitment to its historic building stock, which included making sure that the buildings were put into an excellent state of repair suitable for the next phase in their life.

Allied to these not-inconsiderable challenges was yet another set of principles, which was to move much of the internal circulation space (which had often been achieved by carving up historic rooms) externally by providing a new ramped access to the rear of the pub. This opened up the interior of the site and allowed individual historic rooms to be restored, and simplified general wayfinding. It has also enabled the removal of superannuated air-conditioning equipment and ductwork from the important rear facade of the Mitre and has allowed this 17th-century jettied elevation to be revealed once more. To add to these complexities, all this needed to take place while the shops on Turl Street continued to trade, and without impeding access to either Turl Street or the High Street.

As part of the investigations into the site, thermal imaging was taken of the High Street elevations by Robert Demaus. This clearly showed that beneath the later stucco render were almost-complete timber frames, which are likely to date to the 17th century. We also provided the first comprehensively researched history of the site, which drew together all the known and archival sources relating to the buildings, and described, dated and photographed each room and the historic features within it.

The oldest part of the site is the medieval cellars, which have ribbed vaults in part; there are also a number of 16th- and early-17th-century stone fireplaces; panelling from the 17th and 18th century (some in situ but much having been moved here from elsewhere); stucco-clad beams with a pomegranate decoration of the later 16th or early 17th century; a fine flight of stairs from the 17th century above another from the late 19th century; and wide elm floorboards, also of the later 16th or early 17th century. For an architectural historian the buildings were a veritable treasure-trove, often with interesting historic features overlaid one on top of the other. There were also some horrors: a 1950s staircase which brutally cut through a 17th-century room and crude modern partitions which in some places hid or rudely abutted the stucco-clad beams. The scheme resolved some but not all of these problems.

Our research uncovered a number of key documents hitherto unknown, including plans from 1922 which showed how the building was altered at that time to accommodate a new billiard room. These gave us crucial evidence of the layout of the site at that point in time and in many ways helped to unlock the regeneration of the site. A collection of photographs from the early 20th century was found by chance, uncatalogued in a cardboard box in the Oxfordshire History Centre.

Throughout, Lincoln College remained an enlightened and model client, highly conscious of its role as custodian of the historic environment, its desire to be an excellent landlord to its tenants and always interested in what was discovered as the works progressed. It has commissioned both a short film (featuring TSH project architect Miles Philips and me discussing the project and looking at some of the more exciting features within the site, an experience which I am not entirely sure I would want to repeat), and a coffee-table book on the history of the Mitre site to explain to potential funders and alumni both the interest of the buildings, and the ways in which they are improving and conserving them.

The approved scheme managed to hit all of the key points of the brief, with the exception of increasing the overall number of student rooms, which could not be done without (what was considered by the team) to be adding undue pressure on the historic fabric. The result is that the history and development of these buildings is now much better understood; and the presentation (and therefore interpretation) of the historic buildings will be much improved. It is anticipated that the student experience of living in such ancient fabric will no longer be compromised by equally ancient bathrooms, antiquated hot water systems and medieval wayfinding.

This article originally appeared as ‘The next phase in the life of the Mitre’ in Context 166, published by the Institute of Historic Building Conservation (IHBC) in November 2020. It was written by Helen Ensor, an associate director at Donald Insall Associates and office leader of its Oxford branch.

--Institute of Historic Building Conservation

Related articles on Designing Buildings

Designing Buildings Anywhere

Get the Firefox add-on to access 20,000 definitions direct from any website

Find out more Accept cookies and
don't show me this again