The storytelling pilot project “Re-imagining the high street through your stories” explores people’s stories of life on Oxford Road in Reading. Through community engagement with local residents and businesses it gives them a key role in deciding what they want to see happening on their high street, celebrating local heritage and the rich multicultural history of the area.

In the brief windows of relaxed Covid restrictions in autumn 2020, a small team from the University – Alice Mpofu-Coles and Robyn Woronka (PhD researchers in Human Geography) and Toby Barlow (a 3rd year Architecture student) – went to meet local residents, business owners and community groups on Oxford Road in west Reading. They listened to their stories of Oxford Road as a place and what it means to them, and how they would like to see it celebrated through art and heritage projects. Some of the conversations were informal, and others were conducted as interviews through Zoom video meetings or telephone conversations. A group of four young people preferred to record a storytelling podcast on what Oxford Road means to them as Reading residents. The participants also shared memorable pictures with the researchers and were involved in commissioning the artist.

The result of these conversations is collated in an online exhibition at the Reading Museum and three community art installations Recipes From My Ancestral Home’ (by Caroline Streatfield), ‘Look, Hear – Discover Oxford Road’  (Baker Street Productions) and a mural ‘Through your eyes’  (by Gemma Anusa). The artworks showcase the residents’ stories, demonstrating the impact of community engagement and storytelling as a research method. It has helped secure an additional grant from Historic England of £85,000 to create and deliver community-led cultural activities over the next three years as part of the High Street Heritage Action Zone.

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The Oxford Road Storytelling pilot project “Re-imagining the high street through your stories” was carried out through the University of Reading. It was led by Dr Sally Lloyd-Evans, Associate Professor in Human Geography, Public Engagement with Community  Research Fellowship, collaborating with Reading Borough Council and Historic England.