Her Majesty's pleasure
Saska Graville does time in a converted prison in Oxford.
There can't be many hotels where a key marketing gimmick is that some guests are too spooked to sleep in the rooms. But when your room is a converted prison cell, it's not surprising that there's a touch of creepiness alongside the towelling robes and mini bar.
The Malmaison chain of UK hotels has opened its latest venture on the site of the decommissioned HM Prison Oxford. The Victorian building, itself on the ruins of a 1071 William the Conqueror-built castle, is unmistakably a lock-up. The huge glass-roofed A Wing, with its cell-lined walkways, calls to mind a million movie prison scenes. In fact, Michael Caine's The Italian Job (1969) used the wing as a location. Tiny red iron doors, more accustomed to being banged shut than opened for room service, lead to plush rooms, complete with plasma TVs and fancy en suite bathrooms.
But dress it up all you like, each room remains imbued with its original, less hospitable character. Guests may be checking in rather than doing time, but they're still confronted with tiny, ceiling-height windows (minus the bars, which had to be sawn off individually) and a door that retains dents and scratches made by previous, less pampered inhabitants.
Three cells, one for the bathroom and two for the bedroom, have been knocked through to create each hotel room. Standing by the bath and imagining the four prisoners who would have called the restricted single cell space home as recently as 1995 is a sobering thought - and not one that you usually have as you're cleaning your teeth.
Such historical heebie-jeebies are all part of Malmaison Oxford's personality. Some guests may be spooked, but most are there to enjoy the quirkiness of it all. Whether that's sipping champagne beside the former exercise yard (now a grassy quad lined with Veuve Clicquot umbrellas) or playing pool and lounging in the original visitors' room, hotel guests are never far from a nod to their surroundings' high security past. Even the governor's house and hospital wing (C Wing) have been converted into suites. And as for luxury solitary confinement? Across the exercise yard in the house of correction, of course.
Beyond the inevitable jokes about "lock me up and throw away the key" and "visiting hours", Malmaison Oxford has an even creepier past than its prison walls initially reveal. The original 1071 construction was Oxford Castle. All that remains of it today is a grassy, 20 metre high mound, adjacent to the hotel, that was formed when the original castle moat was dug. But it's not just any old mound, it's the gallows mound. As Malmaison guests on the hotel's roof terrace enjoy the Oxford spire views to their right, they might like to look left and consider the public hangings that took place under their noses until 1858. Bodies of the unfortunate criminals would drop into a chamber carved out inside the mound. Three hundred skeletons were still hanging around when the hotel's car park was excavated. Another 58 were found when the New Road Wing of the hotel was developed on the grounds of the original moat. Pity the poor soul whose skull had been sawn off, face removed and remains of his head forced inside his chest cavity. Spooked yet? It's enough to put anyone off their poached eggs!
But enough of Malmaison Oxford's less salubrious past. The hotel chain is very much a modern success story. With a remit to provide "style, service, quality and sophistication without snobbery", there are Malmaisons across the UK. In a country notorious for its outrageously overpriced accommodation, they're a welcome addition. Each hotel has a brasserie serving fresh, seasonal food - Oxford's Cornish crab and avocado salad is a winner - and fit-outs that provide elegant, cool surroundings for guests. Each of the 95 cell rooms has all mod cons, including wall-mounted plasma TVs, DVD and CD players.
Yet somehow the overall hotel effect is more Domayne than designer. Slightly naff touches let the side down. The lobby walls are painted with a tacky trompe l'oeil effect to mimic sandstone blocks. It's a shame, because a few steps further on the walls really are impressive sandstone Gothic arches. Whichever interior designer felt the need for a bit of mural work should maybe be marched to the mound next door. But the lift designer should definitely be sent there first. The hotel wins the award for the most annoying mechanical voice in a public space.
Petty design quibbles aside, Malmaison Oxford certainly lives up to its owners' mantra of "hotels that dare to be different". Sleek, buzzy and just a little bit spooky, it's worth doing time for - the pleasure will be all yours, rather than Her Majesty's.
3 Oxford Castle,
Oxford, OX1 1AY.
Phone + 44 186 526 8400
Original cell rooms from £140 ($348) per night.
For bookings see http://www.malmaison.com or phone + 44 845 365 4247.
The writer was a guest of Malmaison.