Cornwall’s oldest and newest hotel takes you to the heart of dark tourism
Previous customers of the new Cornwall hotel opening did not check in by choice but rather under duress. How times have changed. Bodmin Prison Hotel – as the name suggests – is carved into the area’s most famous prison and dates back to 1779, with modern visitors now gladly being shown to their “quarters”.
These neighborhoods were renovated thanks to UK-based Russian investor Timur Goryaev, and it took five years and £ 71million for the complex renovation to take place. The architects – based in London Twelve architects and planners – faced a series of construction ‘dilemmas’ in order to convert what was once a forbidden building into a warm and welcoming one. Additionally, since the prison had been closed since 1929, it had been completely neglected and was largely in ruins. Meter thick walls had to be cut in order to convert the cells into suitable rooms, ivy had grown in every part of the walls and resident bats had to relocate due to their protective status.
Part of the renovation saw the previous two wings – the Civilian and the Navy (the latter for those who had been convicted of crimes at sea) – and which housed 220 cells – now joined to create an L-shaped structure without welding. Other major works include the entrance to the hotel – the heart of the old Victorian prison – which is now bathed in light thanks to a huge glass roof, which creates a beautiful atrium effect.
As a preserved Grade II listed building, the cells may have received a makeover, but the building’s heritage is firmly in place. All four floors now have modern walkways, but you can’t avoid the fact that it was undoubtedly a prison. But that’s the point. So-called “black tourism” is big business, many of which are interested in the past lives of those who lived and died in historic buildings.
As a result, you will find that the unfinished Cornish stone walls have been sanded down to a creamy shade, but they remain bare. You enter your room through the original cell door and find the old bars on the window (luckily glass has now been added), and the basic structure of the architecture hallway has remained.
The interior decoration, however, is thoughtful and sophisticated. Each of the 70 rooms has been designed from three cells (ask for the corner rooms as you will have more space). Contemporary spotlights highlight the raw look of the rough walls, while the beds have forest green leather headboards and crisp white linens. Black built-in wardrobes and furniture are masculine enough, but the ensemble is softened with taupe linen curtains, emerald velvet chairs, and cream-white bathrooms, complete with freestanding tubs and Noble Isle toiletries. There is a soft carpet underfoot, a premium finish with many stylish surfaces giving a luxurious feel.
Carved out of the former governor’s office, the Chapel Bar is a cozy place to start an evening – with velvet chairs and burnished metal details, and a specialty gin menu to tempt you (there are over 100 varieties) .
The Gothic chapel now houses the Chapel restaurant, awarded with two rosettes. The elevated space plays on the building’s dark history, with black studded cabins and dark purple walls. The restaurant also offers a glowing light show and evocative music – installed at a cost of £ 900,000 – to create an immersive atmosphere while you eat.
The menu lightens the mood with its wide choice of locally inspired dishes based on seasonal products. It’s pleasantly inventive with entrees including Cornish mackerel with green apple and wasabi or new Cornish potatoes with poached chicken egg and truffle mayonnaise. Main courses include roasted turbot with brown shrimp or saffron mashed potatoes and a grilled asparagus pie with ricotta and roasted shallots. The desserts, meanwhile, are also innovative with the airy dark chocolate, pistachio cake and raspberry standing out. For something more casual, the Jolly Hangman Tavern offers fresh pasta, stone-baked pizzas and “incarcerated” burgers.
In most rooms, a small plaque will tell you a little more about a former inmate. Josiah Edwards – a 16-year-old – spent some time in Room 2, for example – before being sentenced to 14 years of transport to Australia for the theft of three chickens. His defense? They had to feed his starving family (an argument the judge did not accept).
For those who wish to delve more into the history of the prison, you can request a tour of the building, with Stuart, the hotel’s history buff, further revealing its grisly past. The entrance to the hotel, for example, was where the prison hangings took place (the last one happened here in 1909) – a frightening fact made worse by the idea that many people flocked here to attend these punishments.
Next to the hotel is the Bodmin Prison Attraction – a separately run business which has also recently invested £ 8.5million – and which is bringing the history of the prison to life. Showcasing a Dark Walk experience with state-of-the-art special effects, it offers an immersive look at life inside 18th century prison walls. Included is a recreation of a cell block with details of the inmates’ lives – how they were treated, what they ate and how they lived.
With the hotel’s location right in the middle of the Cornish Peninsula and with Bodmin Moor on the doorstep there is a lot to explore. It is also found on the edge of Camel trail, a 29km cycle path created from a disused railway line, which connects Bodmin Moor, Wadebridge and Padstow – and takes you along the Camel Estuary, looking towards Rock and Daymer Bay. The hotel is also ideally located for guests to explore Cornwall’s two coasts – Padstow is a 30-minute drive to the west, while Mevagissey – another pretty port town – is a similar distance to the south.
Back at the hotel, you can do your morning workout in the state-of-the-art gym, carved out of the old indoor exercise yard, before starting the day with the ‘Jailhouse Stack’ or the the essential “Doing Porridge” (fortunately, it’s a revamped version, based on cream and fruit compote).
In the meantime, there are plans to continue the development of the hotel, with discussions on the creation of a spa and a gin distillery, so that the hotel becomes more of a destination in its own right. First, however, attention is drawn to the two remaining ‘condemned cells’ located near the lobby, which will be turned into a wine cellar, with guests able to enjoy wine tastings or select a wine for dinner.
The essence of black tourism may point to a horrific part of our history, but for this hotel it leads to a bright future.