I never thought that spending a night in jail would elicit much excitement within me, but pair it with excellent food, lavish facilities and pop it in a luxury hotel setting and things can change quite drastically. I am, of course, talking about Bodmin Jail Hotel, one of Cornwall’s newest hotel openings and arguably the greatest in terms of its transformation from jail to hotel.
Built in 1779 as part of the Prison Reform, the Bodmin Jail was constructed by Napoleonic prisoners of war during the 1770s using 20,000 tonnes of granite quarried from Bodmin Moor. Innovative at the time for its individual cells, segregated male and female areas and hot water, prisoners also benefitted from heating and could earn money for their work from products sold by the governor.
Over time, the jail shifted from a debtor’s prison, which ended in 1869 when imprisonment for debt was abolished, to being partly occupied by the Royal Navy, and also saw 55 executions for crimes including murder and burglary. After numbers of inmates declined drastically during World War I – and also a time when the Crown Jewels were housed here – the remaining prisoners were transferred to Plymouth and the jail was officially decommissioned in 1927.
Now, it stands – almost unthinkable considering its past – as a luxury hotel, ready to house guests for indulgent stays after a holidaying family paid a visit to the neighbouring Bodmin Jail Attraction and a wealthy businessman decided he would buy the dilapidated jail building next door and transform it into lavish accommodations.
I can safely say that I have never stayed in a hotel that holds so much history within its walls. Though, after a hundred years or so of not being in use of any kind, the Grade 2 listed building has taken quite the refurbishment in order to get it to the standard that it is today. Now stands a hotel with 70 rooms, a gym with the latest equipment, a restaurant that serves delightful food and a lounge, Champagne bar and tavern to while away the hours with victuals to accompany.
What I liked about the hotel was that, when walking around, you could easily spot the history of the setting, not in a morbid way, but in a respectful one. Any original feature that could stand has been kept in place; the old blends with the new and you certainly feel, when you step inside, that this was once a prison – except for the fact that it now holds quite the ravishing glass roof to brighten things up a little.
I was curious as to what it would feel like to sleep in a jail cell, and I’m pleased to report that it was undoubtedly a different experience to what previous residents had to contend with some 200 years ago. I was staying in an executive governor’s room, which will have access to an executive lounge area within the hotel once it has been completed, but for the time being guests receive a selection of items to eat and drink in the room’s minibar.
All rooms in the hotel are made up of three cells and options consist of doubles, twins, family, accessible and executive governor and therefore have differing configurations. After taking the glass lift, which straddles the entrance side of the building, up to the top floor, I let myself into my room and marvelled at the space inside. One cell space is occupied by a bed and wardrobe, which holds the minibar, local and hotel information, robes, slippers, safe, hairdryer and a discreetly disguised air conditioning unit, while another held some low armchairs and coffee table housing a kettle and espresso machine, a large television, and desk with a phone and chair.
Through a door, and into the third cell space, I stepped into a luxurious bathroom, which housed a spacious standalone bathtub atop a tiled floor, separate rainfall shower and mirrors taking up the length of the room.
Modern furniture and soft furnishings sit alongside the bare stone original walls with their tiny windows very pleasantly, and thick luxurious curtains, soft crisp bedsheets and varying lighting options remind you that this room has come an extremely long way from when previous tenants were staying. In fact, each room holds a plaque of information regarding a former resident (carefully selected for younger eyes, of course), telling the story of their crime and their time spent here. Any ideas I had about staying somewhere that housed the likes of the previous tenants were swiftly quashed and I relished in the fact that I was staying somewhere so full of character.
As with any hotel I visit, the food is an important part of the stay for me, and I was very pleased with what The Chapel Restaurant was producing. Almost understated in what glorious delights we were to expect, the restaurant served up some utterly wonderful dishes by very amiable staff members, who were eager to ensure guests were well catered to at every opportunity.
The restaurant sits in the old chapel and the open space is made intimate with low, soft lighting, deep purple accents and curved booths along the edge of the room. As with the rest of the hotel, original features, including tall windows, decorate the space along with the signature bare stone walls. Marble topped tables sit atop a dark wood floor and deep blue velvet cocktail chairs, banquet seating and the aforementioned booths make up the seating, while slightly dramatic music (at times) filters through the room.
On our visit, there were two menus to choose from: the table d’hote at £35 per person for three courses or the a la carte menu with a wider selection. We were lucky enough to visit the restaurant for two nights, which gave me the opportunity to sample what my dining partner had on our first visit by the time the second evening rolled around. He had raved so much about his choices on the first night that it was an easy choice for me, but that’s not to say my dinner on the first evening was anything but delicious.
Starters included seared diver scallops with brown crab emulsion, samphire and a mixed herb salad; venison loin with vanilla rhubarb, spinach and a sesame tuille; and Cornish mackerel – grilled and tartare – with green apple, wasabi and nori. The scallops were delightful, especially with the gloriously creamy, yet light sauce, the crunchy samphire and celeriac, all of which made the dish very appetising and leaving me wanting more. The venison consisted of a juicy, butter-smooth piece of top-quality meat, which was perfectly accompanied by the spinach, rhubarb, meaty flavourful jus and incredibly mouth-watering piece of crisp sesame tuille. Can I have sesame tuille with every plate of food I eat? I’m sure it would elevate all dishes in such a way!
Our main courses consisted of roasted turbot with saffron crushed potato, spring green vegetables, brown shrimp and a chive and caper sauce; and cannon of lamb and confit shoulder with an herb crust, potato rosti, roast carrot, broccoli and lamb jus. The turbot dish was full of flavour and texture, led by beautifully crisp chunks of fish, making this a lovely summery plate of food. My only request would be a little more sauce with this one. The lamb was perfectly cooked, super tender and made all the more scrumptious with the crisp-edged potato and textureful carrots. The shoulder offered a great texture and the lamp rump in the crumb was a delight.
Aerated dark chocolate, pistachio cake, raspberries and crème fraiche ice cream; honey and blueberry semifreddo, banana, peanut brittle; Cornish cheeses with biscuits, quince, celery and grapes. If I haven’t already tempted you, perhaps the desserts will. It would be heinous to end a meal at The Chapel Restaurant without sampling a dessert as good as this. The chocolate dish was brimming with texture, tartness, rich and light, while the winning combination of honey, banana, peanut and blueberry satisfied my sweet and savoury palate, and you cannot go wrong, in my opinion, with a cheeseboard, especially when there are Cornish cheeses up for grabs, and butter brought out without us asking!
It’s really accomplished cooking here; the food looks great, and it tastes just as good. Each dish leaves you feeling like you could have more, because it’s so tasty, but you’re also excited about what’s to come on the next course.
After a lovely cappuccino to end the meal and a cold drink outside in the jail courtyard to cool down on the warm summer’s night, it wasn’t long before I was back in the restaurant sampling the delights of breakfast. It’s not like I was overly hungry, but surely the point of holidaying is to indulge, and breakfast provides the ideal opportunity to fuel up for an exciting day ahead.
The breakfast menu held a range of options from a full English to the jailhouse stack – pancakes, bacon and maple syrup – to seafood, porridge, and more. I devoured the full English and I’m happy to report that it was one of the best full English offerings I’ve devoured, and I’ve had many in plenty of hotels. What made it so good? Think slices of back bacon that crispy on the edges, a sausage with a dark brown crisp outer, a rectangular hash brown that was oh-so crispy, a delicious egg, the addition of beans, an herby sausage and good toast too. Perfect for a day exploring Cornwall.
First and foremost, it would be foolish to visit such an interesting setting and not pop to the visitor attraction next door to find out more about the place in which you’re staying. The exhilarating immersive attraction needs to be booked in advance at this time (with adult tickets starting at £12.50) and there are a few ways to experience it, including jail entry, guided tours and paranormal tours and events.
You can join Cornwall’s scenic Camel Trail just moments from the hotel and join the route to Wenfordbridge to the north, which is 6 miles away, or Wadebridge to the northwest at around 6 miles away, which then leads on to Padstow, another five miles away. Hire a bike or set off on foot and explore the path with a range of picturesque sights and stops along the way.
If you would like to get somewhere a little quicker, Bodmin is ideally located to accommodate a visit to plenty of neighbouring towns and coastal villages. Head to Padstow, Newquay or Port Issac on the north coast, while Charlestown, Looe, Falmouth, Truro and the Eden project are all a short drive south or west. That’s the beauty of being based in Bodmin, you’re very well located if a tour of east Cornwall is on your agenda.
In a nutshell
When I told a few people I was heading here prior to my visit, I was met with a few choruses of ’oh no, I wouldn’t like that’ as if I was going to be transported back and actually jailed or that it would somehow be a creepy affair. I happily found that it isn’t like this at all, and Bodmin Jail Hotel blends the history with the luxury in a respectful way, making sure not to cross into the gimmicky or overly themed.
This is most definitely a food destination in my opinion and though currently only guests of the hotel can dine in The Chapel Restaurant, I am told this will change, so if you’re close by, it’s certainly worth heading there for a meal at the very least, though an overnight stay in the stylish digs would also come highly recommended from me as well.
See snippets of my travels on Instagram @tashheard_food_travel
Price: Rooms start from £203 on a room only basis.
Address: Scarlett’s Well Road, Bodmin, Cornwall, PL31 2PL
Imagery supplied by Bodmin Jail Hotel unless otherwise stated