Collection of maps trace city’s historic events

Hitler had plans for Oxford. For proof, check the walls of the Old Parsonage Hotel. On display: a starkly elegant map – or “Stadtplan” – of the city, prepared by the German army. Possibly it was just for the use of invading troops; maybe as some historians have speculated, the Fuhrer wanted Oxford for his capital once British resistance had been subdued.

That’s just one of the intriguing historical insights to emerge from the collection of 17 maps that now decorate the walls of the hotel, copied from the originals held in the Bodleian Library.

Some are strictly functional – try the 1872 map of Oxford’s sewers – others gloriously evocative of the time of flowing gowns and mortar boards. But when combined they chart the history of Oxford – social, academic and political – over more than 400 years, as the tidy grid-plan settlement of the early Middle Ages morphs into today’s sprawl.

What’s clear is that Oxford, whatever its ivory tower reputation, was never quite isolated from the mainstream of the nation’s history. “Oxforde as it now lyeth fortified by his Majesties’ forces”: a map of 1644, depicts the elaborate fortifications constructed during the Civil War when Oxford was the Royalist capital, often under siege from Cromwell’s army. Cannon are shown in the gardens of Magdalen College; cavalry horses graze in Christ Church Meadow.

Nor was it ever free of the vices that blighted other more workaday cities. An 1883 “Drink Map of Oxford” shows no fewer than 125 “beer houses” and 143 other “licensed houses” at a time when the population of the city remained at a fraction of its modern size. And death was never far away. Dr Acland’s cholera map of 1854 shows the scattering of sites around the city where cases were recorded.

Above all, what emerges is a city that adapts, however slowly, to the times. Take the plans for the elegant northern suburbs, built for the expanding bourgeoisie of the Victorian era or the more working class districts to the northwest, thrown up in just a few decades to house the workers of the university printing works. Those famous dreaming spires still look down over a city that’s somehow ever changing – and changeless.