A couple of months ago I was doing some market research about family days out and was struck by how many locals said there’s nothing to do in Oxford. I totally disagree! Oxford has so much to do, see and experience!
Pondering this though, made me take stock of all the obvious things to see in Oxford and I realised that we hadn’t been to the most significant sight along side the university: we hadn’t been into the Oxford Castle Unlocked despite it being open for 9 years now. It was time to be Backyard Tourists, exploring our own backyard further.
Booking tickets online is easy! The system automatically steers you towards a family ticket if there are more than 2 adults and 2 children or 1 adult and 3 children. You choose your date and timings. You can plan your day around what time you need to be at the castle.
You can only access the Castle with a tour. These last about an hour and take a maximum 20 people.
We had a 1:2pm tour, which was fully booked.
The tour guides get into character- persons from the Castles’ past. We had Baron Robert d’Oilly, the Norman baron who was tasked by the William the Conqueror to build defences at this crucial point of the Thames.
He introduced himself and addded: “You may ask questions, but you will address me as My Lord.”
Baron d’Oilly showed us around the castle firstly from his point of view of when he built the castle. He did reflect on the later history of the castle too. He was particularly good in the crypt, where he disarmed my cocky 6 year old and actually got him contemplating about ghosts.
The tour starts at the base of St George’s Tower. St George’s tower is said to be the oldest part of the Castle, believed to predate the Normans. Interestingly, the Saxons didn’t use stairs, those were a later addition to the tower, probably under d’Oilly’s instructions. (The Saxons apparently used ladders to climb the Tower.)
The little model of the Castle and an interactive screen help the tour guides explain the history.
Baron d’Oilly resorted to some modern magic (a walkie talkie) to check that all the coast was clear to climb the tower: the stairs are steep and narrow, with only space for a single file either up or down. It’s a fair climb, but the views are worth it!
Children under 5 are not allowed up, so I stayed down with Max. We were entertained by a very informative film about the Castle project and its history, as well as the interactive screen. We were also lucky to get chatting to another tour guide, Elizabeth Lilburne, who was waiting for her group to begin.
Elizabeth Lilburne was the wife of John Lilburne a campaigner the right to free speech and democratic representation in the 1650s and 60s. She too campaigned with her husband and in 1643 she saved John’s life when, heavily pregnant, she snuck through enemy lines into Oxford to deliver a letter from parliament securing his release. Her stories, it seems, are
When everyone was back from the tower we headed down to the crypt.
The crypt is the only remaining part of the church that once stood on the site. It is believed that the church might have been the first place of studies in Oxford, preceding the famous university.
The crypt, a sparsely lit , vaulted space served as a morgue and a panty through the history, sometimes simultaneously. Baron d’Oilly, after telling us about the history of the vaults, was quick to inform us of all the paranormal activities reported from the crypt. It really was spooky and, as I mentioned earlier, my lively 6 year old was soon sticking very close to us.
From the crypt we went on to explore the history of the Castle as a gaol, the most significant role it played through the ages. The Oxford Castle was a gaol for 764 years up until 1995, as d’Oilly put it: “we were a very inclusive gaol, we locked up men, women and even children as young as 7 through the ages.”
The baron took us to the processing room, were the prisoners were taken in and photographed from the late 1800s. After telling us about the evolution of the gaol, he offered to take the official mugshots of anyone wishing a souvenir photo from their visit and then bid us farewell to explore the museum and further cells within this wing of the prison.
His tour had lasted about 45 minutes.
We went on to look at the cells, some of which were deemed too luxurious. In fact, so nice compared to the slums of the criminals, that they would reoffend just to get back to the Oxford Gaol.
The museum was mostly pictures, lots displaying old drawings of the life in prison through the centuries. A couple of these were rather graphic and Hugo, already spooked by the crypt, later had trouble getting them out of his mind and had a disturbed night. For parents, I recommend either whizzing through here, or spending lots of time explaining and talking. We tried to do the later, but a disruptive 2 year old was not helping.
The museum part of Oxford Castle is more aimed at an teen and adult audience with few hands on exhibits.
Once we finished the tour we exited through the shop and headed over to the motte, the large earth heap that was created by d’Oilly as the base for a timber tower and encircling wooden fence. The kids have been up here before, but it was my first time weaving up on the path. It’s great for letting the kids run a bit of energy off after the confines of the castle and the goal. The views from above are lovely!
After the climb we were ready for a boost of energy with a hot chocolate, coffee and some cakes. We sat into the Café 1071 right next to the Oxford Castle Unlocked entrance. Now we’ve enjoyed sitting on the terrace of this café a couple of times with friends before and I am sad to say they capitalise on their location and have never been very good with service. It was too difficult for them to split a large hot chocolate into 3 espresso cups! (I often ask this when we are out and about as a regular hot chocolate is often too big for any of my kids. It also means I can add a tiny bit of water to cool it and make it less sweet generally.) I was given a large mug (not even a little tea pot that is easy for pouring) and 3 medium mugs to pour myself, while not getting it everywhere. Was I being too demanding to expect a service place to do something as simple?
In the past Café 1071 have been slow and got orders mixed up. It’s a lovely location, both inside and outside, but I wish they’d get their act together on service front!
However, you don’t have to stick to Café 1071, as there are lots of options for a quick bite to a lovely full meal within 2 minutes.
The Oxford Castle area is a lovely place to spend a couple of hours. They often have events; in the summer they’ve had the Oxford Beach for families. Worth checking out their programme. Wander around in the back streets to for views like this:
I’m quite pleased that we’ve finally been to the Oxford Castle Unlocked and, with hindsight, I’m glad we waited till Angelina and Hugo were old enough to appreciate the different parts of the experience. Angelina has just finished learning about the Saxons in England, so St George’s Tower tied perfectly in to that for her.
Do you have any local attractions you haven’t seen yet?
Oxford Castle Unlocked is right in the heart of Oxford.
If you are coming by car, I do recommend taking the park and ride into the city for convenience and timings.
The cost of a family ticket is £32.95