An ominous outing to Oxford Castle Unlocked
PUBLISHED: 15:10 19 October 2015 | UPDATED: 15:10 19 October 2015
It's (nearly) Hallowe'en and Ellie Jarvis visits Oxford Castle Unlocked for a spine-chilling (ghosts, ghouls and unquiet spirits) and spineless (her mother) event…
This is a story of maternal love, and the extreme lengths to which mothers will go to save their children. We are at Oxford Castle Unlocked, sampling a variety of spooky events running this Hallowe’en and beyond; and I am grateful for the comforting presence of my mother, Cotswold Life writer Katie Jarvis, as we embark upon a ghost-walk through the castle’s creepy old prison cells.
“You go first,” mum says, thrusting me in front of her as the silhouette of a dagger-wielding maniac looms through billowing smoke, laughing wildly. Hmph. Maybe not.
The walk is fantastic, something akin to being dropped into a 3-D horror film. The castle has seen many executions, violence and incarcerations in its 1,000-year-old history and all these fragments of stories are at the front of my mind as we grope our way through the rooms. Every one contains some fresh terror, based on a real ghost-story associated with Oxford Castle (not that you have time to appreciate that in the moment). We are rushed through at something of a frenetic pace by a rather pushy phantom, and the experience becomes a blur of lights, smoke, sinister laughter and screams (mostly ours).
The horrors come thick and fast. “Have you seen my baby?” a young Victorian (flesh-and-blood) woman wails at us, at one point, in agonising tones. Somewhat disconcerted, I reply in ultra-polite Hugh-Grant-esque stammer, “I’m terribly sorry, no!” as she supernaturally rends her clothes.
I don’t know why I expected any better of my mother, considering that, as we began the tour (and before any ghosts had reared their ugly heads), she turned white at the thought of climbing the historic staircase up to the top of St George’s Tower, and had to stay downstairs. Perhaps she misheard ‘castle’ as ‘quaint bungalow’. Like a Dalek, she was prepared for any horrifying spectres the tower had to offer, but never expected that it might have STAIRS.
We are guided by a man dressed as a castle executioner, full of interesting and often sad facts about the life of those once imprisoned here. A notable example is Julia Ann Crumpling, a seven-year-old incarcerated for a week in 1870 after being caught stealing a pram. We even have a go at ‘contacting’ her, which proves less of a séance and more of a tongue-in-cheek magic-trick, performed with audience-participation. The tour culminates at the top of St George’s Tower, with stunning panoramic views out over Oxford. While we’re up here, more interesting facts are presented on the castle’s colourful history, including a cheering anecdote about the hanging of prisoners. Death was often slow, so the city’s children would be paid to swing upon their feet and hasten the process.
Next, we are down to the castle’s 900-year-old crypt for a ghost-hunt with Haunted Happenings, a company that tours the most haunted locations in the UK. Oxford Castle is one of the most popular and rewarding sites, they say, and the crypt is certainly deliciously dark and atmospheric. The team begins with a little talk, getting us all in the mood, while offering reassuring guidelines; their policy is not to allow guests to ask personal questions. Instead, the idea is to find out more about the ghosts that belong to this particular place; to seek the story of the castle.
They have a whole briefcase of intriguing supernatural gear, featuring various ghost-hunting electro-magnetic radios, balls and whatnot. These are distributed throughout the room, where they - from time to time - let out startling buzzes and hums, while we are spaced throughout the crypt and handed divining rods. Holding them loosely by the ends, we must ask our rods to show us what a ‘yes’ looks like. “Show me a yes,” I say, with suitable gravitas.
Instantly, the divining rods begin to move inwards, slowly but steadily. “Yours are doing really well,” I’m told, to my gratification. I’m instantly back at school, atheism-schmatheism, full of an obnoxious desire to do well. Around the room, there are mixed results; some rods are moving quickly like mine; others are not cooperating at all. Everyone’s results are different, interestingly. When asked for a ‘no’, only one of my rods moves, coming to rest at a right angle against the other. So far, so good.
However, when we start to ask the rods more complex questions, they get a bit evasive. When asked if there’s a spirit in the room, there’s no particular consensus. Then, when our host asks them to point to the presence of any spirit, the response from the rods is positively listless. Mine reckons maybe to my right somewhere, perhaps, but is rather hazy on detail, while those belonging to the man next to me are convinced that the spirit is to our left. It’s fun to try, though, and the sensation of the rods moving without any apparent input is rather eerie.
We abandon the rods and move on to the big one: the séance. Everyone is offered a go, and the first four, including mum, step up to a little wooden table with a ouiji board atop, fingers lightly touching an upturned glass. There are a few abortive movements from the glass, when it won’t even move to ‘yes’ or ‘no’ in response to questioning, which is disappointing. My mother stands, looking quietly sceptical.
And then it’s our turn. “Are you there, spirit?”
Nothing. We all stand a little awkwardly, no one wanting a repeat of the first performance.
“Spirit, are you there?”
The glass twitches. There is baited breath within the room. It begins to move, gaining confidence as it goes, before sliding in a rush to ‘YES’, which must seem like stating the obvious. (I was hoping for a crabby ghost who might move to ‘NO’ as a sarcastic gesture. That’s probably the kind of ghost I would be.)
“Tell us your name!”
Seemingly buoyed by its previous success, the glass circles the board, and then lands upon ‘D’. “Very good,” it’s told. “And another letter, please?”
This is less successful. It hovers uncertainly around ‘H’ and ‘I’, and the room is humming with people thinking, Don’t say ‘h’, don’t say ‘h’.
“H”, our guide reads, and it is instantly clear that this is a misstep. What name in the whole of English history ever began ‘Dh-‘? The glass, too, seems perturbed, restlessly traversing the board in search of what letter could possibly come next. It circles all the letters several times, eventually settling on ‘I’. DHI.
“Another letter,” our guide perseveres, and we all wince. My sense of sympathy is such for the ghost that I’m tempted just to ask her to let it off. This was its big moment, and the pressure has clearly got to it.
“It’s probably a Latin name,” she consoles our ghost, which by now is navigating the board in agitated circles. “We’ll research it for you.”
“Definitely Latin,” her partner agrees. (I’ve Googled it. It’s definitely not Latin.)
“Come back to the middle; you’ve been so good,” she coaxes and, with a sense of preternatural relief, it sidles back to the centre of the board.
To finish the day, we are taken on Bill Spectre’s Ghost Trail (like Phil Spector, geddit?), which runs every Friday and Saturday evening. It is less a scary, more a humorous, rather knowing, tour both of the past horrors of Oxford and the clichés of ghost-walks. Props and audience-participation are the order of the day, with plenty of jokes doled out alongside the history.
Upon finishing one improbably gruesome tale, Bill, sensing scepticism, promises a sign from the spirits as a token of authenticity. He brings out a Bible with dramatic flair and shouts, “Give us a sign!”, before adding to us, “and then if you could just repeat, just like that.”
“Give us a sign!” the group bellows, apart from mum, who begins to say, “Just like…” before abruptly realising her mistake. The book bursts into satanic flames.
“Ooh,” one of our group exclaims, disappointed to have missed a photo.
“Oh, would you like the sign again?” Bill asks, producing the book and obligingly turning the flames back on.
On our way out of the castle, the Victorian lady, whom we last saw wreathed in smoke and in fits about her missing baby, is sitting in the lobby, this time in jeans and a cardigan. “Did you enjoy it?” she smiles.
We certainly did. It’s been a fantastic evening, offering a thrilling blend of history, horror and humour. Nevertheless, as we walk out of the door, I have to resist the urge to check over my shoulder - just to make sure she’s really there…
Spooky Oxford Castle Unlocked events include Terror Tuesdays (October 6-November 24); Victorian Murder Mystery (October 23-November 27) and Trick Or Treat (October 30-November 1); Oxford Castle Unlocked is at 44-46 Oxford Castle, Oxford OX1 1AY, 01865 260666; www.oxfordcastleunlocked.co.uk
For more on Bill Spectre’s Ghost Trails, visit www.ghosttrail.org