Happily found myself in the company of one young son on the New Road, Oxford last Saturday afternoon heading off to what I believed to be a taste of the Oxford Science Festival 2012. My timing was out by about 45 minutes, so though disappointed that we didn’t get a little hands on science exposure, we did partake in a short historical education instead, for we were able to secure two tickets on the 4.20pm (the last of the day) tour of the Castle and former Oxford Prison.
So, with ten minutes in hand, we headed up the Castle Mound (which are the remains of the 11th century Motte and Bailey Castle) to take in a small dose of afternoon sunshine, a view of the surrounding Oxford townscape, a glimpse of the gated-off Well Chamber and prepare for our guided expedition inside.
To the tour – we were escorted by an aptly attired ‘Isaac’ (I wish I could remember his last name), fashioned in the clothing of his day – around 1770s. This particular character had apparently been incarcerated and lost his life within the confines of this detention centre for bad behaviour. Sorry, I’m not too flash on the detail. Anyway, he kindly imparted to us a simple history and timescale of the use of the buildings. For instance, that the site had been used as a place of imprisonment since 1071, remaining as such until its closure in 1996.
Post chat and we ascended the spiral staircase leading up the Saxon St George’s tower, luckily interjected with a brief stop-over midway – where Isaac continued to feed us with intriguing snippets, about heroic escapes, tummy upsetting punishments and submitting a very obliging young participant to the stocks.
Part two of the climb brought us to the top of the Tower, where you could experience a 360 degree visual of the city and surrounds, as well as gain a richer sense of the place and its history. It was here, that the Small Chap became a little more animated – maybe it was the fall-out from the stocks – and communicated with infinite pleasure the kinds of weapons he’d deem essential for the protection and defence of such a fortress as this.
Then, back down the steps and further, to the underground crypt, encompassing some pretty impressive Norman features (and slightly spooky wax characters). Dark, dank and exactly what I wanted to see and experience in the bowels of a former prison.
Where did the last 35 minutes go…for we were now at the final point of ‘our tour today’ – inside a cell, well actually two cells as the middle wall had been removed, again grazing on small bits of information about prison numbers in cells and the kind of sanitation levels they experienced (or didn’t – depending if you are a half glass full or half empty kind of a person). As mentioned the actual tour stops here, though you were very welcome to spend further time investigating the rest of the prison and/or heading directly to SHOP. I took the latter option and secured myself a tea towel (one of life’s great pleasures), found one’s husband outside and together the three of us – headed off.