Malmaison

“Former prison in the city centre, now owned by the Malmaison chain of affordable hotels.”

Review by Fiona Duncan, published 21st May 2006.

You can’t hold your head up these days, if you are a self-respecting hip hotel group, unless you have at least one address in an unusual building. Breweries, churches and hospitals have all been given new leases of life and Malmaison, which specialises in slick city hotels at affordable prices, already has a sorting office, a seaman’s mission and a warehouse in its portfolio. And now you can stay in their prison.

If you do, you might want to book over the phone, rather than online. That way you’ll avoid the naff prison clichés on the hotel’s website: “attention all inmates – there’s no parking for your getaway car” and so on (actually there is, but it costs £20 per night).

I decided on a bus to get me to Oxford, a bad move since the journey ¬took four hours, due to a pile-up, instead of one. A wartime spirit prevailed on board, orchestrated by the redoubtable lady next to me, a Mrs Mills, whose admiration for the Sunday Telegraph was matched only by that for her husband’s formidable culinary skills. A hoot and a saint, she insisted on driving me, when we finally reached Oxford, to the hotel. As she ushered me in to the fearsome building (a Norman castle, and a jail until 1996) I felt like a first-time prisoner, and the website jokes began to strike home. “Don’t leave me here, Mrs Mills,” I wanted to say, “I’m innocent”.

I’m in two minds about Oxford Prison’s transformation. On the one hand, it has been superbly executed, and the A Wing atrium (make sure you have a room here) – three floors of former cells, landings and iron staircases around a huge oblong open space – is truly impressive. The bedrooms and bathrooms, each comprising three cells, are comfortable and attractive in a fashionably masculine, black-and-beige sort of way, with soft linen on excellent beds, deep free-standing baths, shower heads the size of sunflowers, well-stocked mini bars and free internet access.

And yet…only ten years ago this was a run-down, overcrowded prison. The morning stench of the slop buckets on the now softly carpeted landings was overpowering; and even now the only natural light to your room is a slit too high to reach, and the original metal-lined cell doors are studded with dents from furious kicks and beating fists.

“How do you feel?” I asked my husband, who was already installed when I arrived.

“Guilty,” he said, “not because it’s so easy to imagine that nine prisoners once occupied this space, but because it’s so easy to put on the CD player, open the wine and forget them.” If your imagination has deserted you, ask to see the two cells, complete with bunks, which have been left untouched: a sobering sight.

Dinner with friends in the convivial Brasserie, once used for solitary confinement, was a jolly affair aided by charming waiters and bar staff. We would doubtless have eaten better chez Mrs Mills, though the food, while not about to give Oxford its first notable restaurant, was passable enough for a mid-price city hotel. At any rate, the place was humming, with the mainly thirty-something party continuing into the small hours in the huge, laid back, dramatically dark Visitors’ Room, with clusters of sofas and armchairs and a pool table in the centre.

The morning brought a patchy, unexceptional breakfast, ranging from watery, stewed coffee which had to be sent back twice to a perfectly cooked poached egg; and more enthusiastic staff, one of whom even carried our luggage to our getaway (sorry) car.

New Road, Oxford (01865 243846; www.malmaison.com; standard double (cell room) £170 per night including breakfast.

Stay at this hotel

The Hotel Guru verdict

Rooms
3 out of 5

Banged up in comfort

Service
4 out of 5

On our visit, very good; plenty of willing staff on hand

Character
4 out of 5

Certainly an experience, if a sobering one

Food and drink
2 out of 5

Average food; expensive wine list; dull breakfast

Value for money
4 out of 5

Rooms reasonably priced; atrium and visitors’ room a bonus

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