Could a night behind Cornish bars be the ultimate getaway?

Bodmin Jail Hotel
9:30am, Wed 21 Jul 2021
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For my first holiday after lockdown easing, I must admit, I didn’t think I’d end up in prison.

And yet that’s exactly where I’ve found myself. But it’s a far more pleasant experience than being unceremoniously flung into a dank cell.

The Bodmin Jail Hotel is an imposing building nestled in the heart of Cornwall – all grey stone, tall towers and forbidding walls. It looks uninviting for a reason: in 1779 it opened as a functioning jail, housing criminals and conducting hangings right up until 1909.

Since closing its doors, the jail fell into disrepair; its roof decayed and it was said to be the haunt of choice for Bodmin teenagers. Now, it’s been updated to the tune of £60 million, with a massive glass ceiling, a gym and swanky rooms – each made up of three cells knocked into one.

As soon as you walk into the hotel, it’s immediately clear where you are. The layout is much like prisons you see in the movies, with rows of cells lining the walls and reaching up three stories.

There seems to be an appetite for spooky stays – the Bodmin Jail Hotel is part of a long line of converted prisons, including the Malmaison Oxford. In fact, the concierge tells me some guests actually request to stay in the rooms where criminals spent their last nights before heading for the noose – that’s how keen people are to get a piece of this creepy history.

The quirks of staying in a former jail are everywhere – particularly evident when I take a tour around the clink, given by porter and resident history buff Gary. Guests can wander into the room where prisoners were given last rites, left untouched bar a coat of white paint (mainly to hide the grisly scratch marks of desperate criminals on the bare stonework).

The forbidding walls of Bodmin Jail

On the ground floor, there’s a gym with more giant scratches on the floor (this time made by cats).  In the 18th century, the jail was desperately overcrowded – there would be around 20 people per cell – and the rat problem so extreme, oversized cats were brought in to deal with it. Legend has it one of these big cats escaped and wandered the nearby moors, terrorising the villagers and becoming known as the Beast of Bodmin.

Every room has a unique plaque telling the story of someone who stayed in that cell, which feels a touch ghoulish – although I was assured none of them are too bloody, in case children stay in the room. Mine, for example, is dedicated to a young boy called James Bassett, who was indicted in 1848 for arson.

The chapel has been converted into a swanky restaurant, serving modern Cornish cuisine and numerous guilty pleasures. Normally, stained glass-style lights are projected onto the ceiling, but the system is going a bit haywire when I have dinner there. Ghosts maybe? Or perhaps just the teething problems you’d expect from a new hotel.

Prudence Wade on the beach near Padstow

If you can bear to tear yourself away – something that might be increasingly difficult, as there are plans to expand the property by adding a pool – there’s plenty to do. Attached to the hotel is the Bodmin Jail Experience (bodminjail.org; £12.50) where you can really dive into the dark history of the prison and the people who lived there.

And then there’s the glorious countryside and coastal walks, where the fresh air is a life sentence I happily accept. Who knew staying in a jail cell could feel like such a release?

3 attractions to visit in the area

Outside of the prison walls, former Cornish capital Bodmin is relatively sleepy nowadays. However, if you have a car, some of the jewels of the county are a short drive away.

Tintagel Castle

Dating back to the Dark Ages, King Arthur’s alleged birthplace was once attached to the mainland, but erosion means much of the fortress ruins are now accessed by footbridge. The views of sparkling seas are truly breath-taking. Book a timed visiting slot at english-heritage.org.uk; £18.70.

The Eden Project

If the Cornish weather turns and rain starts bucketing down, head to these famous biospheres, which recreate tropical and Mediterranean climates. Book a timed visiting slot at edenproject.com; from £29.50.

Padstow

The fishing village where Rick Stein built his seafood empire can be quite touristy. But it’s quaint, beautiful – and certainly the place to get fresh fish and chips. A short walk out of town is a wide expanse of pristine beach, with views stretching across the River Camel and well out to the sea. After a long lockdown stuck in London, being able to enjoy this kind of space truly feels like a gift.

How to plan your trip

Prices at The Bodmin Jail Hotel (bodminjailhotel.com) start from £290, for a double room on a B&B basis.

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