Oxford Castle may be home to a centuries-old crypt. But is it haunted by ghosts? Maybe, writes Aaron Millar

I am in the crypt of Oxford Castle, holding hands in a circle of strangers while a medium calls the spirits of the dead to come forward and make themselves known. To say this is not your normal Saturday night would be to grossly understate the obvious. But then Haunted Happenings 
– the team who have invited me on this evening’s paranormal investigation – definitely don’t do normal. Hosting weekly hunts in haunted locations around the country, they also, I am assured, don’t do hoaxes. And perhaps, in this 900-year-old crypt, they don’t have to.

Built by the Normans in 1071, Oxford Castle was used as a prison for more than 700 years and, as such, houses many a tale of suffering and torture within its stone walls. But it is down here in the dark recesses of the crypt – long used as a storage place for the dead – that things feel decidedly spooky. We’re even hoping one or two of those old souls will deign to speak with us tonight.

The evening begins with host Wayne instructing us in the use of various ghost-hunting devices – dowsing rods, EMF meters, K2 meters – all of which apparently register changes in the electro-magnetic field that might indicate the presence of something otherworldly. Then it’s lights off and downstairs for our first vigil – a séance in the crypt.

Something not right

 “I’ve got a sense of something not right, like I’m going insane,” medium Bill Nicholson says from the centre of our circle, somewhat dramatically. “A man in spirit has come towards me, he says his name is Jacob.” We’re instructed to break the circle and hold our hands out in front of us. “Jacob, if you’re there,” Bill continues, “can you reach out and touch one of our hands?”

In the pitch darkness not even fingertips are visible, shapes move around in the shadows, and I feel as if someone is peering over my shoulder. “Oh God, do we have to?” the woman next to me whispers; she hasn’t let go of my hand once and I’m glad for it.

Ouija time

Upstairs from the crypt is the abandoned prison wing of the castle. Co-host Matt – a self-confessed ghost junkie – leads a small group of us into a tiny padded cubicle used to house the most violent criminals, including kidnapper and murderer Donald Neilson, the notorious ‘Black Panther’. (The British serial killer was given his nickname by the wife of a victim who said Neilson was so quick, he was like a panther. Neilson was finally captured in 1975, around a year after his first murder, and sentenced to life imprisonment.)  

As we spread a Ouija board on the floor, we suddenly hear footsteps in the corridor that disappear as quickly as they arrived. “That’s got to be flesh and blood,” Matt says, standing up to check outside the cell door … but the building is empty and we never hear the footsteps again.

Later, we kneel beside a small wooden table and place our hands lightly on its surface. Within minutes the table is vibrating under our fingertips, and then tilting on two legs, rocking slowly back and forth. It is startling, to say the least.  Even in the dark I can see Wayne’s huge smile. “No matter how much I do this,” he says. “I’m still like a kid in a sweet shop when it starts to happen.”

Fact or fiction?

And perhaps, I wonder, that’s also where the real magic 
of a Haunted Happening lies. Not everything is convincing, and long stretches of inactivity can at times feel like little more than paying to sit around in the dark.

But, strangely, that doesn’t really seem to bother me. 
In a world that is increasingly demystified by the hard 
facts of science, to explore a place where anything could 
still be possible, to be a child in the dark again, is a unique and exciting experience. 

And who knows … the haunted happenings I’ve witnessed this evening might even be genuine. 
I’m not quite sure whether l would prefer that to be true or not.

Where to eat

The Black Boy gastro pub offers award-winning food at reasonable prices. Specials include the likes of scallops with caviar, and braised lamb shoulder with gnocchi and red wine jus. (theblackboy.uk.com)

For real convenience there are a host of restaurants within the Castle complex itself. Old favourites including Prezzo, La Tasca and Pizza Express abound. Should take the edge off the spook factor … (oxfordcastle.com)

Where to drink

For steeling those 
nerves, you can’t beat the waterfront location at The Head of the River. (headoftheriver.co.uk)

If your ghost hunt has fired up your investigative passions, then why not check out The Turf Tavern – the local of legendary fictitious detective Inspector Morse? (turftavern.co.uk)

Where to sleep

For a bed with a difference, Oxford Prison Hotel is 
a converted prison in the grounds of Oxford Castle itself and is well worth the extra pennies. Double rooms start at £200pn. (oxfordprison.co.uk)

For something a little more budget conscious, Central Backpackers has a location that lives up to the name. Dorms start at £19pppn. (centralbackpackers.co.uk)

Getting there

Take a train from London Paddington to Oxford (1hr) for £21.50 off-peak return with Southern Railways (southernrailway.com).