It’s not often that the main attraction of a city break is the hotel you stay in – certainly not one so steeped in history as Oxford.
But then it’s not too often that you stay in a hotel which itself has centuries of history and in which, until recently, you could have stayed for years without paying a penny. Not that you’d have wanted to!
Welcome, then, to the Oxford Malmaison – based in the area of Oxford Castle known until 1996 as HM Prison Oxford.
Everywhere you look you are surrounded by reminders of a prison history dating back to the Civil War, and you can even take a guided tour explaining the unique challenges of converting the building into a luxury retreat and the ingenious solutions found.
It’s all taking a bit of getting used to for my wife, who works in prisons and has been itching to stay here ever since it opened in 2006. But she’s finding it hard to switch out of work mode in these surroundings.
“I’m here with a mobile phone on me, there’s all sorts of contraband in my bag, I don’t have my key belt on,” she frets. “I feel like I’m about to be walked off the premises!”
Make no mistake, the building’s been spruced up no end in its £80 million makeover. But the architectural hallmarks of a typical Victorian prison block are instantly recognisable in the main building, grandly styled the House of Correction.
Now plushly carpeted and much lighter following the removal of the “jump nets”, the open landings and walkways still evoke images of any number of prison dramas (several of which, including Bad Girls, were shot here in the years after the jail closed).
One cell has been left in its mid-90s condition for posterity – a cramped, oppressive space dominated by a metal bunk bed; all peeling white paint and uneven green lino flooring.
But the “cell rooms” making up the rest of the wing are a world apart, each one two old cells knocked together to create a larger space, bars removed from the windows to let in the light, with a third cell converted into an en-suite bathroom.
An artificial floor has been put in above the bottom set of cells to create a bistro. This area, my wife explains over a dinner that she is faintly surprised not to have to eat with plastic cutlery, would have been “the Ones” – the lowest cells that traditionally housed the most dangerous prisoners.
“It is so weird being in here,” she says. “It still feels like a prison. It’s the keyholes, the size of the doorways, everything.”
And upstairs, the cavernous room where prisoners would have visits from outside has been transformed into a sumptuous bar area, the former guards’ lookout post repurposed as a DJ booth.
Lest this become too much of a busman’s holiday, I suggest taking a stroll out to explore Oxford city centre.
But on the way out, even a small numbered sign on an outdoor wall, showing the number of a former prison gate, prompts reminiscences.
As for me, as a rule of thumb I try to spend as little time in prison as possible.
But even I can’t fail to be won over by a unique hotel that celebrates its history and does so in consummate style.
Three things to do:
1 If you have an eye for swish designer brands but also an eye for a bargain, a visit to the Bicester Village designer outlet, located 10 minutes’ drive from central Oxford, can satisfy your shopping urges. Stores include the likes of Gucci, Prada, Tory Burch, Jimmy Choo and Alexander McQueen with big discounts on offer. Malmaison guests can also redeem aVIP voucher giving an extra 10% off.
2 No visit to Oxford would be complete without visiting the ‘dreaming spires’ of its famous university. Many colleges open their doors to visitors and some offer guided tours.
3 Fancy a stroll? Christ Church Meadow is a park with fantastic views and a scenic two-mile walk down by the Thames. Perfect for a quiet wander around on a summer’s day.
Getting there: From Sheffield, take the M1 down to junction 15A then follow signs for Oxford. The Mal has underground valet parking on site (£28.50 per night). Alternative parking in Oxford is scarce, but an excellent park and ride bus service runs from the ring road.
Prices: Double rooms priced around £180 per night weeknights, £275 weekends. We stayed in a superior king room, priced around £195 per night weeknights, £290 weekends.
Contact: Malmaison Oxford, Oxford Castle, 3 New Road, Oxford, OX1 1AY (for sat nav , use OX1 1ND)
Telephone: 08446 930659