Nicola Adam experiences a deluxe hotel with a difference –housed in a former prison.
The door closed with a hearty clunk. I had paid the price and I was banged up in my cell.
But not at Her Majesty’s pleasure, like the hundreds of prisoners before me.
This was very much the luxury prison experience and I was here in the cavernous A-Wing of my own volition.
It is now 20 years since Oxford Castle, a large, partly ruined Norman medieval castle, ceased operating as HM Prison Oxford – a role it had played in various guises since the 18th century.
It was developed into what is now the luxurious Malmaison hotel, a brand known for upmarket trendiness and for transforming unusual premises into high-end accommodation.
It benefits from its prime location in the middle of the city centre, with dreaming spires and shopping just moments away.
Transforming a prison into a hotel was no easy feat and what is its standout, memorable, selling point is also its greatest challenge – how do you make a hotel seem cosy and luxurious?
The biggest battles here are warmth, light and space. This was a prison after all.
As a former crime reporter (and also editor in Lancaster, where a very similar castle prison with it’s own A-Wing remains unconverted) this is not my first time in a prison, and I can confirm the transformation here is remarkable without losing its identity.
You can feel the weight of history in the thick walls of the building and imagine prisoners walking the wrought iron balconies and staircases which remain.
Each room in the A-Wing block comprises three cells knocked through, with tiny original cell windows letting in the only light. You can easily see the division in the cells in the vaulted ceilings
It is hard not to lie back on your soft bed in the quiet (those walls are thick!) and not think of the characters and souls of those incarcerated before you.
What did they do to earn their time?
This is recent history – after posting few pictures on Facebook – I received a comment from a friend and former prison officer who worked there in 1990/91 along with her husband. I’m sure she would not mind me sharing:
“What a great place to work even if it was jail! I actually stood on that landing counting down the men for breakfasts. Ha, great memories. Is the witching cell still in the grounds? It had the original medieval door on with original shackles in the floor – terrifying. There are also bodies buried in the grounds in unconsecrated ground, dead from hanging!”
I slept slightly less soundly after that..
I was allocated a room right in the basement of A-Wing, on the same floor as the Mal bar and brasserie, and just along from a cell the developers left untouched in its original state. Metal bunk beds and all.
My room was spacious enough for a former cell and lighter than most – we actually had a door out on to a little balcony-style outdoor area complete with table, chairs and a view up to the castle walls.
The bathroom, clearly a room designed to be disabled-friendly, was a complete wet room with shower, but unfortunately lacked the roll top bath I had heard so much about.
The toilet was close to the floor, probably much the same as those in the prison cells.
The only natural light came through the tiny barred windows.
But every fitting is high end, and this is still very much a luxury experience with flat screen, free wifi etc. but with a great deal of added personality.
Tea and coffee and a kettle is provided (most importantly) and here you are positively encouraged to take home the lovely Mal toiletries. They are marked ‘steal me’ appropriately.
Some features, in particular a chest of drawers, are prison issue which, mixed with rich furnishings, simply works.
This is a luxury hotel with all the trimmings.
Parking is expensive with its central location (around £30 for valet parking) and rooms are available from around £140 a night. The railway station is in walking distance.
More luxurious suites are available, but my advice would be to stay in an A-Wing room – ask for a higher up location.
It is absolutely worth a stay here – it is certainly memorable and don’t forget the hotel is part if the castle complex – the medieval remains of the castle, including the motte and St George’s Tower and crypt, are Grade I listed buildings and a scheduled monument.
You are also minutes from all the glorious Oxford University buildings and a cultural offering that is second to none.
And, if you don’t fancy paying Mal breakfast prices (around £13) plenty of local cafes do a good porridge.