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.
It stayed as a prison until 1996 when it closed down and the building got sold off to the Malmaison hotel chain. The company 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 one of pleasure.
Read more: A Weekend in Oxford: A 48-hour itinerary
Malmaison Oxford hotel review
The Malmaison Oxford is located in the middle of Oxford’s redeveloped Castle Quarter, surrounded by various bars and restaurants, an art gallery and Oxford Castle and Prison, 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 Oxford’s one-way system.
The Malmaison Oxford 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 a prison hotel you really want to be staying in A-wing’s converted cells. Rooms are made up of three cells – 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.
Things are a lot more luxurious now though, decorated in deep reds and browns with a big comfy bed, flat-screen TV, iPod dock and fast wifi, and the room is big enough to have a table and chairs. 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 the building’s 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 the Chez Mal 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 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 decent and our waitress was lovely, but it’s quite pricey 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 at the Malmaison – no pool or gym. But for me the best bit about staying at this Oxford prison hotel were its original 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 oversized furniture.
There was hardly anyone around when I stayed so it was perfect to take photos, especially with the colourful lighting at night. Outside there’s a terrace in what was the prison’s exercise yard which hosts events like film screenings – including, appropriately enough, the odd showing of The Shawshank Redemption. And the Cell 3 dining room is available to hire for private parties.
- Guests are… a mixture of tourists, couples and people visiting Oxford 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 tariff with breakfast included, it’ll set you back £15 per person for a continental breakfast selection.
Room prices at the Malmaison vary hugely – the modern rooms in the House of Correction range from £120–£235 a night, cells from £155–£265 and suites from £250–£465. There are also various special offer packages available. I did their Sunday Stopover deal which lets you stay in a standard room for £45 (or a cell for £85) on a Sunday night if you spend £75 on food and drink.
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