Days Out: Oxford Castle

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The Independent Travel

The venue

No, until recently I didn't know there was a castle in Oxford either but that is because until 1996 it was a prison, hidden from public view by stone walls. Now it has re-opened as a visitor attraction. Unlocked - Oxford Castle, as it is officially known, traces the building's 1,000-year history.

For children

Children can discover the harsh realities of the Victorian penal system; how 11-year-old William Wakenell received 42 days in prison for stealing half a pound of sugar. They can try on prison uniforms (which really did have arrows on them), get their mugshot taken and have a go at the punishing treadwheel, not an exercise machine but a torture device. For adults

Not surprisingly, there are plenty of tales of violence and executions, escapes and even a bit of romance. Tours start in the 900-year-old crypt, then visitors can explore what was until recently D-wing. The cells still have numbers on the doors, and graffiti (all quite tame - maybe the ruder bits were painted over), and you can even try out a padded cell. Tours are introduced by a costumed guide (they look like extras from Bad Girls, which has been filmed here). After that it's self-guided, using an Explorer, a state-of-the-art hand-held device. You can round off your visit by ascending 101 steps to the top of the Saxon St George's Tower. It is a narrow staircase so you may have to hang around for a while to let others come down, but it is worth the effort for the stunning panoramic views. If you are still feeling energetic, you can also climb the mound of the original 11th-century motte and bailey castle.


There is a café on site but the castle is also the centrepiece of what has been dubbed "Oxford's Oldest New Quarter", a multi-million redevelopment that includes cafés, bars and the new Malmaison hotel, which is housed in two other wings of the prison.


You can reach all floors of the prison wing and crypt by lift, but access to the tower and the mound is restricted, although you can see what you are missing via visual links. Pushchairs are not allowed. The Explorer commentary is subtitled.


Open every day 10am-5.30pm, except Christmas Day. Last tour 4.30pm. Adults £6.95, children £5.25, concessions £5.95.

How to get there

Unlocked - Oxford Castle, 44-46, Oxford Castle, Oxford. (01865 260 666/ By car: Oxford is connected to London, the M25 and the Midlands by the M40. There is paid parking in the city centre and five park-and-ride car parks ( By train: Five minutes' walk from the station ( By bus: Five minutes from the bus station.