Reviewed: A night behind bars at the Malmaison Oxford
Unless I decide to take up a life of crime, a stay at the Malmaison in Oxford is hopefully the only way I’ll ever spend a night behind bars. And in this unique hotel you get a lot more luxury now than the last people who got locked up here. The building started off as Oxford Castle and was demolished and rebuilt over the years before being turned into a Victorian jail. And it stayed as a prison until 1996 when it closed down and the building got sold off to the Malmaison hotel chain. They specialise in turning historic buildings into boutique hotels – others include an old postal sorting office, a church and even a brothel – so have kept a lot of the original features while turning it from a place of punishment to pleasure.
The hotel is in the middle of Oxford’s recently redeveloped Castle Quarter, surrounded by various bars and restaurants, an art gallery and Oxford Castle Unlocked, where you can find out more about the history of the castle and prison. You’re in the centre of town so can easily walk to the Oxford colleges and the main shopping street in a few minutes. It’s also an easy walk in the other direction to the train station. Or if you’re travelling by car they have a valet car park – but it’s pricey at £25 a night and you can’t leave your car there beyond check out time. A cheaper option is to park in one of the park and ride car parks on the outskirts of Oxford, which also avoids the confusing drive through the one-way system.
The hotel has a mixture of rooms, with suites named after former prison governors and modern rooms in the adjoining buildings. But if you’re spending the night in prison then you really want to be staying in one of A-wing’s converted cells. Rooms are made up of three cells each – one is the bathroom and two have been knocked through for the bedroom. They still have a lot of character, with original iron doors, vaulted ceilings and thick walls, making it incredibly quiet. It’s a lot more luxurious now though, decorated in deep reds and browns with a big comfy bed, flat-screen TV, iPod dock and free wifi, and the room is big enough to have a table and chairs to sit at. Our bathroom had a roll-top bath and a big walk-in shower, tons of soft towels and full-size toiletries (marked ‘Steal me’ in a homage to past residents).
As part of our Sunday Stopover deal (see below), we needed to spend £75 on food and drink at the hotel, so we booked a table for dinner in their brasserie. It’s underground in the former solitary confinement wing, with old pipes running along the ceiling and an original steel staircase. The moody lighting suited the space at night, but it might seem a bit dingy in the daytime. On a sunny day you can also eat out in the exercise yard or on the roof terrace. The menu is a mixture of modern British/European dishes, like steaks, fishcakes or roasted duck breast. The food was fine and our waitress was lovely, but it’s quite expensive so if you’re not on a package there are plenty of other places to eat nearby. Drinks-wise there’s also a cocktail bar in the old visitors room on the third floor, with high ceilings and comfy sofas.
There’s not much in the way of extra facilities – no pool or gym. But for me the best bits of the hotel were its old prison features. The cell rooms are all set around a vast, three-storey atrium which still has the original wrought-iron stairs and walkways. It’s all carpeted in thick red carpets with some quirky furniture. There was hardly anyone around so it was perfect to take photos, especially with the moody lighting at night. Outside there’s a terrace in what was the prison’s exercise yard which hosts occasional events like film screenings – next up, appropriately enough, is a showing of The Shawshank Redemption.
- Guests are… a mixture of tourists, couples and people on business, but you’re only likely to see them in the bar or brasserie.
- Staff are… friendly, passionate about the hotel, but not all very experienced.
- Don’t forget… to go and check out the original cell down in the basement so you can see the less luxurious conditions the previous residents used to live in.
- Useful to know… if you’re not in a breakfast-included tariff then it’ll set you back £12.95.
Rooms are never cheap but prices vary hugely – with the modern rooms ranging from £120–£235 a night, cells from £155–£265 and suites from £250–£465. There’s also various special offer packages available, check their website for details. We did their Sunday Stopover deal which lets you stay in a standard room for £25 (or a cell for £75) on a Sunday night if you spend £75 on food and drink.