July: Oxford Castle – a place with heritage and tourism at its heart

July: Oxford Castle – a place with heritage and tourism at its heart

I have been delighted to attend two book launches which have included the Oxford Castle redevelopment in their pages of success stories.    This coincides with a renewed interest in the Castle as an example of successful placemaking, with heritage and tourism at its heart.  Thirteen years on the Castle still looking cool, good looking and as photogenic as ever, with a great story to tell so that when members of the directorate at the DCMS and from Historic England came to town they included it in their itinerary.  We had big ideals from the outset about building a sense of pride and belonging and raising the profile of the ‘town’s’ history so easily dominated by the magnificence of the University and Colleges alongside, and I feel proud of what we have achieved so far.  It is extraordinary to think that we have opened up the site for the first time in its one thousand year history, as when it was a Castle it had kept people out, and then as a Prison it had kept people in, up until it closed in 1997.  I am also delighted to say that this has been achieved as part of a commercial mixed use development marrying heritage with the hotel and other uses, all set around public open and green spaces, and that it pays for itself without the need for any injection of public money.  This was something the Minister for Business and Industry was interested to hear on his recent visit to Oxford, so thank you Hayley Beer of Experience Oxfordshire for pointing this Oxford visitor in our direction.  

Today everyone takes our town history somewhat for granted, and who can miss the Mound standing so tantalisingly green at the entrance to the Westgate shopping centre, which is named after it, and where beacons are lit to celebrate significant national events, such as the centenary of Armistice Day.  Alongside, the national flag catches the wind, flying with pride on the top of St. George’s Tower, and raised each year on St George’s Day by Oxfordshire Scouts and Guides.

It is hard to remember back to the disused site where St. George’s Tower, the earliest standing secular tower in the country, stood forlorn and unloved by anything but the pigeons who had made it their home.  It had been long forgotten by the townspeople as part of the original Saxon town wall, as it was later subsumed into the St George’s Chapel built alongside, which in its turn was demolished to make way for the prison D wing, whose crypt still remains and is available to see.   The prison was surrounded by a high Victorian wall, with the Mound outside, isolated away, the stone keep on the top long gone, replaced by the debris of student merrymaking and high jinks unloved and ununderstood.   

When the Prison closed an unusual partnership between public sector, private sector and ourselves saw the County Council, the developer Trevor Osborne and OPT working together to unlock funding and bring complimentary uses for the site.  Today that partnership has changed to include Land Securities who own and run the Westgate Shopping Centre alongside and bring a new audience of happy shoppers who want an extra experience which we are pleased to provide. OPT now operates the part of the site which includes the Mound, St. George’s Tower, the Debtors Tower, D Wing and the Crypt.   We work in partnership with Continuum who run the heritage attraction for us, able to  unlock the amazing stories of William the Conqueror and friend  Robert D’Oilly who built the Castle, Geoffrey of Monmouth and the first teaching in Oxford, tales of the Legends of King Arthur, and of Empress Matilda escaping from the tower on a cold snowy night, dressed all in white, making her way unseen across to Wallingford.  There is no shortage of material, with centuries worth of tales of prisoner inmates, women and children adding to the mix, tales of hanging and medical science, punishment and poor conditions, coming together in a rich and ruddy history which our costumed characters bring to life.    

The County Council remain an important partner as our landlords, and are now working with us to carry out conservation work to the Tower and the Mound where the many visitor feet have worn the paths away, and we’re working with the charity Aspire to do this, which is an added bonus.  The County are also fundamental to the success of our wonderful education programme, of which I am most proud, which aims to see every Oxfordshire school child visit us at least once in their school life.

There’s Knight schools, and theatre in the Castleyard with Tomahawk’s Romeo and Juliet and Richard III this Summer, and, of course, there is Oxford Open Doors.  Oxford Castle and Prison will be open free of charge throughout the weekend 14/15 September for Oxford Open Doors, with extra tours of the site and a programme of events which this year includes our partners Malmaison. 

Back in 2006 at the opening the Oxford Castle Quarter won lots of major national architectural awards, and a few local ones too.  In 2017 we were delighted when Oxford Times readers voted it their favourite project, and this year the Oxford Castle & Prison visitor attraction has been shortlisted for best UK Heritage Attraction @BritTravAwards.  The Award winners are judged by public vote and I for one will be giving them my endorsement and I hope you will too.

You can vote for Oxford Castle & Prison as Best UK Heritage Attraction via the British Travel Awards website : www.britishtravelawards.com/vote_form.php