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Restoring the past

By infusing new life into something that was left to deteriorate, a site of significance has been allowed to continue its journey in the history books.

Words by Rebecca Hawkey

Traditionally, when thinking of staying in a hotel, five-star dining, accommodation and service is what the majority of us have in mind. Perhaps overlooking the ocean, a mountain expanse or a vibrant city centre. Whilst sleeping and dining in a restored jail sounds like quite the experience, one does not usually add it to the top of the list. Until now.

This somewhat extra-ordinary accommodation choice has a rich history, starting 243 years ago when Bodmin Jail was first built. Military engineer Sir John Call began construction in 1779, where he ordered French prisoners of war to move 20,000 tons of quarried granite from Bodmin Moor, a remarkable feat in itself. As controversial as it may seem, all this manual labour was worth it, for Bodmin Jail was one of the first prisons in the UK to adopt a design based on the tireless work of High Sheriff and prison reformer John Howard. Howard’s published writings on prison conditions and the treatment of prisoners gained traction in the late 18th century. Revealing the accounts of inhumane conditions across the UK and Europe, his findings caused widespread dismay and became a catalyst for a new system of state-controlled gaols where the regime was tough, but the environment healthy. Subsequently, Bodmin Jail was designed and built with individual cells, segregated male and female areas, hot water and light and airy spaces for prisoners to live and work, encouraging reform and rehabilitation, not just punishment, the designs of which can still be seen to this day.

During the course of its operational years, Bodmin Jail underwent several structural transformations. While John Howard’s ideals were taken into consideration from the start, overcrowding forced the jail to be extended in order to comply with the regulations of total inmate segregation, with an entirely new prison being built on site. These numbers varied greatly over the years, from relatively low inmates for the first two decades, to over 20 different classes of prisoner, from convicted felons, misdemeanants, debtors, vagrants, and the segregation of men from women. The prison was not only used to house men and women, parts were also used by the Royal Navy for servicemen who had been convicted of crimes at sea.

Bodmin Jail operated for just 143 years, a relatively short time span in gaol terms. Given its remote location and decline in prisoner numbers due to the outbreak of the war and the transfer of female prisoners to Plymouth, the decision was made to close its doors in 1927, with the last remaining civilian male prisoner being transferred several years earlier in 1916, and the navy’s occupation lasting until 1923. Whilst its operations only lasted a short while, Bodmin Jail still amassed a dark history. A grand total of 55 executions are recorded at the prison, the last of which was the hanging of one William Hampton in July 1909, who was also the last man to be hanged in Cornwall.

Given its bleak but fascinating history, and after nearly 100 years of ruination, Bodmin Jail has been given a new, and somewhat ironic, lease of life thanks to investor Timur Goryaev. Now known as The Bodmin Jail Hotel, the renovations have amassed to an outstanding £71 million and taken five years to reach completion, which is unsurprising, given the state of disrepair the jail had been left in, allowing nature to claim it for her own. Fast forward to the present day, and The Bodmin Jail Hotel is contemporary, sophisticated and warm. A far cry from days of old.

What makes The Bodmin Jail Hotel so unique, aside from the obvious, is the way in which the potent history of this building has been weaved into the modern running of daily life. Extracting the stories from the walls would be a fool’s errand, and one that would render this venture just like any other. Instead, the architects have encouraged Bodmin Jail to continue her journey in the history books, immersing guests into the very antiquity, with cells that have been knocked through to create luxurious suites. Metal gangways have become carpeted hallways with leather-upholstered seating, and rotted wooden ceilings have become glass skylights that illuminate all four levels of this impressive structure. The exposed stone walls are softened by crisp linen and drapes, and the formidable exterior is given an approachable touch with golden-hued downlights. These simple yet effective touches transform this haunted skeleton into an inviting slice of affluence.

The team behind The Bodmin Jail Hotel want guests to have a stay worth remembering, so whilst the design and the architecture can speak for itself, creating an atmosphere that allows visitors to relax, unwind, and forget their troubles is one they do very well. With 70 rooms to choose between, ranging from classic and twin, to family rooms and accessible rooms you will be spoilt for choice. On top of this, the hotel is dog friendly, meaning no one gets left behind.

There is also plenty to keep you occupied, if exploring the grounds of Bodmin Jail wasn’t enough. The Bodmin Jail Hotel prides itself on exceptional dining, and thanks to this you have a plethora of options including The Chapel Restaurant, their fine-dining flagship. For a more casual experience then perhaps The Courtyard Restaurant is for you, which is open all day for light Mediterranean fare, with heartier family favourites, or even just a beverage on the garden terrace. Before your evening begins you can also take a seat at The Champagne Bar, which is as delightful as it sounds.

The Bodmin Jail Hotel is located in central Cornwall, surrounded by beautiful beaches and picturesque countryside in all directions. In and around the local area are a number of activities to keep you and your loved ones entertained throughout your stay, including a myriad coastal walks and surfing at beaches such as Polzeath, Fistral or Watergate Bay to name just a few. If you fancy something educational then head to Tintagel Castle just north of Bodmin, or spend the day at The Eden Project, only a short drive south.

You can even stay on site and immerse yourself in The Bodmin Jail Hotel museum and tour, which was crowned winner of Visit England’s ‘Best Told Story’ Accolade in 2021. Staying here is a chance to dive into this fascinating fragment of Cornish history and experience something truly remarkable.

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