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Oxford Castle

Visited February 2011


Location Centre of Oxford
Entrance Fee Yes
Railway Station            Oxford Station, approx. 1/2 mile
Parking Yes- city car parks nearby
Facilities Museum, Toilets, Shop, Guided Tour






As you can see from the above picture, Oxford Castle has a very high motte. Dating from the time of the Norman invasion, it is an impressive sight and  as it stands right by the entrance to the castle you can't exactly miss it! However, pre-dating the Norman motte is  St George's Tower, a Saxon tower which was once part of the ancient city walls, it was incorporated into the castle by the Normans when they built the castle in 1071. The castle was then used as a prison during the civil war, and later buildings were added to house the prisoners. The prison continued on site until it finally closed in 1996. Today it is a tourist attraction but  parts of the old prison have been turned into a hotel, with former cells being converted into luxury guest rooms(!)


It is the tourist attraction that we went to see, it is called 'Oxford Castle Unlocked', presumably to distinguish between Oxford Castle Hotel. There are guided tours around the castle with a costumed guide- each of the guides is dressed as a different character from the castle's long history. They tell you many stories and historical facts on the way round, and the tour is pitched at a level which children can understand. The highlight of the tour is the ascent of St. George's Tower- 101 steps to the top, with a break half way up to view  a room which once held 60 civil war prisoners in very basic conditions. The children loved hearing the gory details of there being no toilets for the prisoners (thankfully the floor has been changed since!!)At the top of the tower there is a great view of the motte, the castle courtyard and the famous Oxford spires in the distance.






After descending the 101 steps back to terra firma, the next part of the tour takes the visitor down into the crypts . Looking quite neat with white washed walls and lit with t-lights it is hard to imagine that this place was used to store dead bodies, often of those who were hanged at the prison. Our guide told us that it is one of the most haunted places in the country and sometimes tourists take photos which record strange beings in the background. Despite frantic snapping away with my camera I was slightly disappointed to come away with nothing untoward in any of my pictures. However, all the talk of ghosts had scared my children, who could not get out of the crypt fast enough.








The final part of the tour takes in the Georgian prison buildings, which were in use as an HM prison until 1996. There are cells laid out as they would have been in the Georgian and Victorian era, and information on some of the more famous inmates and their history. There are also some 'hands- on' type exhibits, e.g a camera to take your own photo-fit, and a treadmill for visitors to  use to reproduce one of the punishments at the prison- a whole day on the treadmill was equivalent to climbing the 101 steps of the tower over 5000 times!








After the tour we decided to relax in the cafe, the prices are quite steep but it was February  so it was worth it to sit somewhere in the warm. The castle tour is also quite pricey in comparison to  other castles, but as this is Oxford there are many, many tourists so this is reflected in what can be charged for an attraction. The castle gift shop wins the prize for the most eye watering moment I have ever experienced at a till- our modest souvenirs bumped up the total spend at the castle by a considerable amount!! Be warned and rein in your little shoppers if you can! On the plus side, under fives are admitted for free, but are not allowed up the tower for safety reasons. Actually the modern replacement wooden steps to the tower were much more manageable than the usual uneven tread of the medieval stone staircases seen in many castles, so personally I think most under fives would probably be fine with the climb, but it is not my call I guess!!


All in all it was an enjoyable day out, and the unusual mix of Saxon & Norman remains plus the historical prison buildings made this trip something very different to the usual castle visit. The guides know their subject well and are very helpful and welcoming. The main disadvantage is that it will probably blow your budget for other castle trips for a while, but if there are various money-off vouchers available on the internet which may cushion that a bit.





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