Vegan life in Oxford

The city of “dreaming spires” is famous throughout the world, synonymous with superb architecture, its ancient University, an evocative and instantly recognisable skyline, and as the location of the celebrated TV series Inspector Morse, which in the late 1980s and early 1990s established Oxford as the (albeit fictional) murder capital of Britain.

One of the real oddities of this city is the glaring lack of exclusively meat free restaurants – a bizarre situation that has existed for decades. In fact, there are only two totally vegetarian eating places. Firstly, The Gardener’s Arms in Jericho (39 Plantation Rd) with a good menu which includes several vegan items. Secondly, on the other side of the city in East Oxford is The Magic Cafe (110 Magdalen Rd) which opened in 1997. It offers a slightly limited choice but the food is good, it’s cheap and unpretentious. Considering the cosmopolitan profile of its citizens, and the bulging student population, the absence of a mid-range or up-market vegetarian restaurant in the city centre seems especially odd. For example, Bath has Acorn (formerly Demuths), Brighton has Terre a Terre, and Edinburgh has Hendersons, but Oxford has nothing to rival these.

Nonetheless, there is plenty of choice in the centre of Oxford with several places that offer a ‘mixed menu’; veggie & vegan items alongside the meat dishes. These include The Nose Bag (a long established restaurant in St Michael St), Greens Cafe in St Giles, and The Vaults & Garden (at St Mary the Virgin in the High St) which has a delightful view of the Radcliffe Camera when eating outside. More recently opened is the Organic Deli Cafe (Friars Entry) which includes a whole foods store. For £6-25 you can have the “all day vegan breakfast”, with sausage, tomatoes, mushrooms, roasted vegetables, baked beans and artisan organic toast. I would also recommend the following Lebanese restaurants as they all offer a good variety of veggie and vegan options at reasonable prices: Pomegranate (126 Cowley Rd), Al-Salam (6 Park End St), and Al-Shami (25 Walton Crescent).

Unsurprisingly, the really interesting food and entertainment options are located in the vibrant and diverse community of East Oxford. OK, I have to declare a bias because I’ve lived and worked in this area for decades, but in sharp contrast to all the dreary corporate chains that dominate the city centre there are numerous independent shops, cafes and restaurants. These include Uhuru Wholefoods (48 Cowley Rd) which has been a fixture since the 1970s. You can order a box of a specific brand of vegan sausages at Uhuru: try doing that in Tescos! On Saturday morning (10am to 1pm) the small East Oxford Farmers’ & Community Market offers local fruit & veg, and fantastic bread that sells out quickly. It’s situated behind the Tesco car park, and on BBC Radio 4’s Food Programme the market was described as being “located in one of the city’s poorer areas”. They obviously didn’t check any of the local estate agent’s windows! Another community and cooperative food venture is Cultivate. The produce is mainly grown in the Oxford area and it’s available via the ‘Veg Van’ (“Oxford’s Mobile Greengrocery”).

One of the great advantages of Oxford is the eclectic range of societies, community organisations and assorted campaign and pressure groups. You could probably attend some sort of event, talk, or meeting every night of the week. Apart from OxVeg, within the University and Oxford Brookes University there are several vegetarian/vegan and animal rights related societies. During term time there will be talks (usually open to everyone) on animal rights issues with guest speakers from all over the world. The issue of vivisection is a hot topic in Oxford owing to the University’s notorious animal testing ‘facility’ that opened in 2008. In fact, vivisection has been controversial here since the 1880s when the University’s first physiology lab was proposed and subsequently built. More recently it has been discussed several times within the hallowed Oxford Union where the good, the bad and the downright ugly have locked horns.

I arrived here in 1977 as a student at the old Oxford Poly. During my second term I was a founder member of the college’s first student vegetarian society. Our first mini-achievement (after lengthy negotiations with the bemused catering staff) was the provision of one veggie meal option on the canteen’s daily menu. The issue of animal rights is deeply rooted within the history of Oxford. I’m proud to be a very small part of that distinguished legacy, and I’m especially honoured to have met and worked with so many outstanding individuals that continue to fight all the appalling cruelty and injustice against sentient animals.

Paul Freestone


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