Oxford Castle is one of the city’s oldest sites, with a history stretching back almost a thousand years. It had most recently been used as a prison, but following the prison’s closure, Oxfordshire County Council wanted to open up the Castle as a destination for the whole city to enjoy.
Our challenge as architects was to keep the historic character of the Castle while adding contemporary restaurants, bars, a hotel, and a visitor’s centre. Converting prison cells to hotel rooms was an exciting and unique project for us. There were also important steps we needed to take to preserve and restore elements such as the Norman St. George’s Tower – the earliest secular standing structure in the country, and registered as “At Risk” by English Heritage.
Our Conservation Plan was key to understanding the site. In some cases, we used deliberately modern materials to highlight and complement the older buildings. For St. George’s Tower, we recommended traditional building methods to preserve the building’s original character. This was a great success, and English Heritage has now removed the tower from its “Buildings at Risk” register.
We were determined to keep the prison doors as a feature of the hotel, and worked hard on ventilation and fire strategies that would allow this. Originally designed to keep prisoners in, the doors now give the privacy of keeping the rest of the world out – creating a real sense of serenity for guests.
Over 50,000 people now visit the Castle every year, and its recognition ranges from an international MIPIM Award to a RIBA National Award. Most importantly, it has transformed the area west of the city centre, giving a crucial part of Oxford’s history back to the city and the nation.
“The rejuvenation of one of Oxford’s most historic landmarks has been enthusiastically received by local people and visitors, and the castle has become the new social centre of Oxford.”– JUDGE’S COMMENTS, CIVIC TRUST OUTSTANDING CENTRE VISION AWARD 2007