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A prison visit


ITíS HARDLY des. res. Not yet anyway. The rooms are decidedly poky, the windows on the small side of tiny and swinging cats is definitely out. But a group from Writers in Oxford were nothing but delighted by a rare glimpse inside Oxford prison, before it is gutted, filleted and served up as a swanky 5 star hotel in 2005.  

The tour, organised by Elizabeth Newbery and expertly led by archaeologist John Rhodes, began at the top of Castle Mound, built shortly after the Norman Conquest. A discreet opening in the side of the Mound led us through a narrow tunnel, down a short flight of crooked steps, into a splendid well-chamber, complete with a vertiginously deep 12th century well, now sadly empty. Below us, at the foot of the Mound, a vast water-logged hole marks the site of the castle moat. Workmen digging out this area to turn it into a restaurant have got used to fishing out human skulls and other bits of skeletons Ė relics of corpses bought and stolen for illicit dissection by medical students in the 18th century and unceremoniously dumped afterwards.

There has been a prison on this site since the 11th century. Three hundred prisoners died here in the 16th century from Gaol Fever, caused largely by overcrowding and poor sanitation. Down in the candlelit crypt we were awed by the beautiful carved vaultings. The crypt is not only one of the earliest buildings in Oxford but one of the few surviving early Norman sites in the country.  In what would once have been the castle bailey, just beside the two Houses of Correction (one for men, one for women), you can see the marks in the walls where the treadmill once stood. Prisoners were meant to reflect on their sins while pushing it round. Appropriate, then, that the Correction Houses will still contain treadmills when they are converted into the Spa and Fitness Complex.

The jewel in the developersí crown is the main prison building, a Victorian cathedral to civic control, built in the 1840s. Stripped to the bone, it has a bleak splendour. Light pours in through a vaulted ceiling of glass and ironwork. My daughter runs up and down the echoing walkways and cast-iron staircases, pokes her head into each bleak little cell in turn, wants to try out the suicide grids Ė metal nets hung beneath the walkways to prevent desperate prisoners putting an early end to their sentence. 

Despite the light and the soaring architecture, the misery-soaked atmosphere is distinctly unsettling; when a lone pigeon suddenly sets an overhead fan spinning, we all start nervously. Itís hard to imagine how this will ever make a very comfortable place to spend the night.

© Rebecca Abrams 2004

'A prison visit' was published in The Oxford Writer in January 2004. To view photographs of the interior of the main building - complete with a view of the suicide grid - click here. If you scroll down to the bottom of the page you can even see the overhead fan..

Rebecca Abrams was the original editor of The Oxford Writer in the days when it was designed and typeset by Philip Pullman. She is the author of a number of books, including The Playful Self: Why Women Need Play in Their Lives (Fourth Estate, 1997) and Three Shoes, One Sock and No Hairbrush: Everything You Need To Know About Having Your Second Child  (Cassell, 2001). She writes a Saturday column about parenting for The Daily Telegraph and reviews regularly for the New Statesman.

Many of her reviews are available online. Particularly relevant to Oxford is her review of a new edition of the illustrated version of Max Beerbohm's satirical Oxford love story
, Zuleika Dobson. Of more general interest is her review of Adam Swift's book How not to be a Hypocrite in which she explores the question of educational apartheid and the conflict between private and state education.

For a fuller listing of Rebecca's online reviews, click here.