Despite living in Oxfordshire for just under 30 years, I’ve never been on an Oxford Castle and Prison tour. So over the Easter holidays, I suggested it to N as part of a day trip to the city. He doesn’t mind a castle, and climbing the mound outside was a big draw. So we made a day of it, stopping at the castle first to book tickets.
Unfortunately, we’d just missed one tour time, and then had to wait more than an hour for the next one because there were foreign student groups booked in. If you want to do the guided tour early on or at a specific time, I’d recommend booking in advance. While we waited we headed to the nearby Westgate Centre to have a drink and do some of the Gromit trail before heading back to the tour.
Oxford Castle was built in the 11th Century, with later parts added and housed Royalists during the English Civil War. Over the year, it was then turned into a prison, which it was until as late as 1994! Part of it is the Malmaison hotel, where you can stay in converted cells, the rest remains as the former castle and prison, where you can have guided tours. You’re taken through the tour by a guide dressed as a character. Ours was a good guide – a couple of times it was funny because her previous role to play had been royalty, rather than the lowly woman she was playing with us.
Children as young as 7 were put in the Oxford prison, so the few young children on the tour were told what children of their ages would have been given as jobs to do while in prison. I think N was horrified at the thought he could have ended up in prison for some of the menial crimes they’d done.
When you first enter the tour, you go up the Saxon St George’s Tower. As it’s narrow and high, only over 5s are allowed up the tower. Those staying behind can watch a video of the history, and there were some toys for pre-schoolers and toddlers to enjoy while they waited. N loved being up so high and able to see over the city.
The castle obviously has interesting stories to tell. One was of Empress Matilda trying to escape from the tower after being under siege supposedly by dressing in white, escaping down bedsheets out of the window, and then ‘ice skating’ across the frozen Thames to safety at Abingdon.
You then get to see the crypt which is rumoured to be haunted, and learn about a charming, well-loved renowned highwayman, who students would give money to support his stay in the prison, and women would send him nice items. He did get hanged in the end, but it was so interesting to hear about some of the characters.
We were able to see different cells – from the small harsh ones for those with no money, to one example of a more homely double size cell, for a lady who’d refused to marry the person her father needed her to marry, but who had the money to make her stay comfortable with the use of the governor’s garden, and able to receive visitors to have afternoon tea with her.
We ended up in the Debtors prison where we had our ‘wanted’ photos as family groups. As the tour ended, you’re then free to explore the different areas again as you want, or can go up to see some displays upstairs again before heading outside.
With the wet weather over the week and day before, the castle mound path was a bit wet and muddy, so we decided we’d not walk up there. With your ticket, you get the gate code to get up there. Maybe we’ll try another time when it’s sunnier. Although we’d been up the tower (and then later at the top of the Westgate Centre), so we did see the views another way.
The tour was really interesting and at around £19 for 1 adult and child it wasn’t too expensive. I’m not sure I’d take a child unless they were old enough to go up the tower. You miss quite a bit of the tour otherwise (around 15 minutes). N wasn’t convinced he’d be interested for the whole of the 1 hour tour, but he really enjoyed it, and the time whizzed by, helped by the guide who was very good. The groups they take up are quite small as well, so there’s plenty of room to stand and listen and move around the place without too much hassle. With it not being a really long tour, there’s plenty of time to do other activities and visit other places on a day trip to Oxford.
Have you ever been to Oxford castle and prison for the tour? What other castle tours would you recommend?
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