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Alice in Westgateland

James Ashworth

‘It doesn’t feel like I’m in Oxford anymore’, said a lady I overheard on the escalator. And with the new Alice in Wonderland-themed opening, perhaps that’s what is intended. I am of course talking about the opening of the new Westgate centre on Tuesday 24th November, finally opening its doors after 2 years of construction. Camera crews and shoppers alike descended on the new complex, eager to explore the building we have spent so long waiting for. Has the wait been worth it, or is it yet another impossible thing to believe before breakfast?

The first thing you notice about the Westgate Centre is the size. It certainly must have indulged in some of the ‘EAT ME’ Cake, because although I never saw its predecessor, the building itself is enormous. It reminds me of Cabot circus in my native Bristol, with large open spaces and floors galore; all with a sleek modern finish of glass and steel. Its size also means you can also use it as a handy shortcut to go to all manner of places, from the Castle to Modern Art Oxford, and unlike Alice, the signs are quite clear in where you must go. There is also a new rooftop terrace, though The Varsity Club won’t be packing it in just yet, as it’s not close enough to the centre to get the big name sights. You can just glimpse the top of Tom Tower, and a couple of distant spires, but that’s about it.

Has the wait been worth it, or is it yet another impossible thing to believe before breakfast?

In terms of the shops, there’s a little bit of something for everyone. Juice bars sit next to milkshake shops, a giant Superdry sits next to Sainsbury’s while the centre even boasts a crazy golf course! For the conscientious student, a new branch of Blackwell’s and a French Bakery are present, while the more modern student may wish to explore the new Primark, Pret, and perhaps have a cheeky Nandos next to the cinema. Unfortunately, some of the shops are late for a very important date, with many not yet open, including some of the large, big name stores. Some of the signs of the desire to open early are also still present, with builders’ cabins, the odd broken pane of glass and some unfinished sections, like the library, still visible, but as it gets up to steam and more shops open, these should disappear.

In terms of the spectacle of opening itself, they do know how to put on a show

In terms of the spectacle of opening itself, they do know how to put on a show. Perhaps the most impressive was the aerial dancer hanging down from a balloon in the Leiden Square section of the shop, soaring above the customers to the strains of various classical pieces, and even coming down to shake hands from above as well. In addition, there was an audio-visual experience. After being shepherded into what looked like a small gazebo, it began to spin around you, with lights of many colours reflecting off the small pyramids in the walls, until you lost track of whether it was you or the walls that were spinning. This was accompanied by pipe music and a Mad Hatter-esque fellow jiving, or perhaps it was the Futterwack, giving an unusual but nonetheless interesting experience.

Overall, the Westgate centre looks like it promises to be the new hub for all your shopping needs. Providing everything from donuts to furniture, it remains to be seen if there are any knock-on effects on other shops in Oxford, and what they will be. While the opening may have been a bit mad, it doesn’t really matter, because all the best openings are.

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