As castles go, Oxford’s is far from pristine. Much of it was destroyed in the English Civil War, and a big chunk of the rest was developed into the city’s new prison from 1785. The bits that do survive - the motte, the Saxon St George's Tower and the crypt - are Grade I listed buildings and are a Scheduled Monument. The prison building we see today was substantially rebuilt in 1876. There are a number of historical elements still around on the site, and there’s plenty of information about the history of what used to be and what used to happen here.
In 2006, ten years after the prison had ceased to take non-paying guests, the Oxford “Castle Quarter” reopened to the public after a long period of redevelopment and restoration. You can still visit the castle remains, climb the motte for a quid, and stay the night in a prison cell. But not much else.
The redevelopment was intended to offer shops, restaurants and performance spaces as well as being one of the city’s premier tourist attractions. For a while, it all looked rosy with some big chain restaurants and bars snapping up the floorspace. There was outside seating, exhibitions, street vendors and a steady flow of visitors all held together by the flagship conversion of the prison into a Malmaison hotel with its ingenious bedrooms and bathrooms converted from the brick-vaulted cells.
Since those heady days a dozen or more years ago, things have gone dramatically downhill. The hotel is still there, and is still popular, but the vast majority of the retail and restaurant units now sit empty. The courtyard at the southern end is windswept and deserted, its only purpose seeming to be the designated smoking area at the back of Wetherspoons. The development of the Westgate shopping centre and its terrace has shifted the retail and night-time economy away from the Castle, and the pandemic was the final nail in the coffin for the few that tried to stick it out. Even the cash point was removed because there was nobody there to use it.
A great place for a pub crawl, you may have surmised, this is not. Nevertheless, in any quest to visit every establishment in the city limits, it’s a necessity, so with the carrot of the St Aldates Tavern Beer Festival dangling tantalisingly before me, I began at the Slug and Lettuce. The sheer size of this place is indicative of how ambitious the Castle development was: this block between the mound and County Hall (often mistaken for the castle by visitors due to its appearance) was a new build back in 2006 with a huge ground floor space, private drinking and dining rooms and a large rooftop terrace. It started life as the Living Room but is now part of the Slug and Lettuce chain and has extended its outside space even further opposite where once stood Oxford’s long-forgotten pannier market.
The Slug and Lettuce isn’t my sort of place, but if you’re after cocktails, bombs, international brand lager and every type of gin, then it probably is for you. The interior is modern and bright, very spring-like with floral displays inside and out. The wisteria on the pergola is as impressive as wisteria-covered pergolas get. Not pubby, but very pleasant nonetheless, and the service impeccable. The beer offering is sparse, and the real ale option non-existent. I chose a half of Brewdog Planet Pale over a bottle of Old Speckled Hen, but neither would be my tipple of choice. And definitely not a choice worth staying for another.
My next intended destination, a bar called 1855, is the latest to succumb to the economic shitshow, and is now closed. A shame, as it was quite a pleasant place to go and often had some interesting craft beer. According to the planning notices pinned to the door, it should re-open soon as some sort of bar selling local produce, which will hopefully include beer.
Malmaison has a bar and bistro in its basement – Chez Mal – so this was my next destination. Again, great service, a pleasant place to be but no real ale. I sat in one of the converted cells and sipped an expensive Brewdog Punk IPA (which did taste different from the Planet Pale, I’m pleased to say) but again the lure of better beers spurred me on elsewhere.
JD Wetherspoon were another of the blue-chip companies that committed to the Castle development back in the day. The Swan and Castle, Oxford’s second Wetherspoon pub, opened in December 2009 and is a huge open-plan room served by an equally huge L-shaped bar. It’s a soulless place, but its always busy and has a small outdoor area as well as the aforementioned smoking courtyard. There’s a strong commitment to real ale here though, with ten hand pumps serving a mix of JDW regulars and more interesting guest beers. A blackboard highlights the guest beers, and another advertises the ‘tap takeovers’ from local breweries, Chadlington, Vale, Loose Cannon, White Horse and Loddon amongst them. My pint of Daleside Morocco (5.5%, a spiced, dark ale) was good but not exceptional, but at £2.39 you can’t complain. The pub feels like one of Wetherspoon’s airport outlets, a transient place, somewhere to grab a quick drink rather than linger. Which is why I didn’t.
It's a sad state of affairs that that is all Oxford’s Castle Quarter has to offer the drinker. However, I recommend you walk round the corner from the Swan and Castle into Paradise Street and take a look at the two pubs there. Firstly there is the Jolly Farmers, Oxford’s oldest-established LGBTQ+ venue, which advertises amongst its tempting attractions “Heated Covered Garden - Real Fire - Unruly Basset Hound”.
It’s a superb building, dating from the 17th Century, and is worth a visit for that alone. There is a keen focus on real ale here, and two handpumps dispense well-kept pints of mainly local beers but also some of the owners’ favourites; Otter Bitter was on tap on this occasion. The pub welcomes everybody, so don’t be put off by its LGBTQ+ branding. You can even order your own takeaway food and get it delivered to the pub. The beer is excellent, and so is the garden. The real fire I didn’t see, and the basset hound was not as unruly as I had been led to believe. But that aside, an excellent pub.
A visit to Oxford’s Castle would not be complete without a visit to the Castle on the corner of Castle Street and Paradise Street. This two-level pub was bought for a relative song by Hook Norton Brewery at a time when the area was a bombsite as the Westgate Centre opposite was being redeveloped. Now all the work is done, the pub stands in a prime position and seems to be thriving. The bar is upstairs, selling an extensive range of Hook Norton cask and craft keg beers as well as real cider and usually a couple of well-chosen guest beers. Off the Hook was in good nick tonight. The downstairs room offers more seating and hosts regular events such as comedy nights and life-drawing classes.
For the record, I did make it to the beer festival at the St Aldates Tavern, and very good it was too. The two Paradise Street pubs had certainly rescued the pre-festival crawl; the Castle Quarter is a shadow of what it was supposed to be and everyone had hoped it would be. Maybe in time it will regenerate, but the amount of vacant commercial property in the city centre would suggest this is not imminent. You can still go up the tower, but only as part of a fifteen quid guided tour package, and the mound is currently closed, which is a shame, as that was a quid worth spending.