October: A Green Hill in the Centre of the City

October: A Green Hill in the Centre of the City

I have two watercolours in my office, commissioned at the time of the redevelopment of the Oxford Castle Quarter nearly 20 years ago now. The first image was created to show what the area between St George’s Tower and the Mound could look like, and to look at it today it could almost be a photograph. The second is a view at night, taken from the Mound, with the Castleyard full of people sitting on the steps and enjoying the space against a backdrop of the ancient stone buildings, all lit up with dancing silhouetted figures. It was intended to illustrate how the space could become a place for outside theatre, events and even a son et Lumiere.   

When I go to the site today the new architecture still looks strong, marrying the best of the old with the best of the new, and a real and living example of what OPT is all about. I can’t wait until we are truly back up and running again after the past 18 months and look forward to the café and education centre coming back to life fully.

It is easy to forget, indeed, to dismiss, the fact that this site was opened to public gaze for the very first time when the Castle Quarter was developed in 2006 as prior to this and throughout its history as a prison they had done their darndest to keep their people in, and previously the site as a Castle had been built to defend from attackers keeping them out beyond the walls.     

Oxford Castle and Prison is the most important piece of town history that we have, competing readily with our wonderful college and university buildings, with a history pre-dating them by a few hundred years and from where the first teachings by Geoffrey of Monmouth happened, so you could say its where the University began. If that is not enough it can also compete on a national stage, as St. George’s is likely to be the earliest secular standing tower in the country, originally part of the Saxon town wall, and the Castle Mound comes just five years after that date which all British people have at their fingertips that of ‘1066 and all that’. Robert Doyly, Duke of Wallingford, and High Sheriff of the County built the Castle in 1071 at the behest of William the Conqueror himself.

At OPT we have been doing some sums and, hey presto, 1071 to 2021 makes Oxford Castle 950 years old this year and in particular the Castle Mound, recognising that many of the buildings, other than St Georges and crypt came later.

The Castle Mound is 60 metres wide at its base and rises up 15 metres in height with a well inside a vaulted stone well chamber which funnels down through to the waters below, useful at times of siege, not least the battles of 13th century Matilda and King Stephen. The reason the mound still stands is that it has been built of coarse sandy gravel, probably dug from the ditch alongside, then a mix of gravel and clay, and finally the whole completely covered in a layer of clay to hold it all together. Protecting the clay cover is crucial and local people may remember the floods of summer 2007 and the massive slip into New Road, now all stitched back together by the clever engineers and contractors who have been working with us again recently. And because there is always a silver lining, when the soil slipped the foundation of a ten-sided stone tower was revealed, known about in in early painting and prints of the Castle, before completely disappearing by the 17th century where it remained hidden for the next 400 years. During the past few months, the County Council, who still own the Mound, have been working with us to restore the mound and the worn paths where many visitors and the not-so-friendly trespassers have caused damage. 

Now if you climb to the top, the ten-sided tower has been marked out, and come November a brand new and very exciting new lighting scheme will have been installed, making it safe and bringing some theatre to this special place.

All this is being done in time for our celebration of Oxford Castle at 950 a yearlong celebration of this wonderful piece of Oxford’s heritage. We would have begun earlier in the year but a lockdown goes in the way so we are starting late and will run on into next year.  It will all take off in November when a changing lighting spectacular will play each week in the run up to Christmas and the New Year. The official turning on of the lights will be on 11 November with a range of talks and walks arranged throughout the month for people to join in. 

And then on 19 November, a son et Lumiere will happen to coincide with the Oxford Christmas Light Nights Festival. Many people may have seen the work at previous Light Night Festivals on the Radcliffe Infirmary and the University Museums, well this is the same sound and lighting artists and team who are creating a full-scale projection. It has been a great opportunity and experience to with the University of Oxford on this and to bring town and gown together to tell the story of a shared and diverse history of inclusion and exclusion at Oxford’s Castle. Oxford Castle at 950 - different roads lead to the same castle is part of the Humanities Cultural Programme with us and the guys at Oxford Castle & Prison, collaborating with TORCH researchers, alongside local historians and people from across the city bringing their ideas and stories together to create this unique full-scale projection. And so, at last, and for one night only, my second watercolour will come to life, and it too will look like a photograph of what is happening – here’s the link to find out more of what is going on at Oxford Castle at 950