While the Eden Project, coastal villages like Mevagissey and Port Isaac, and iconic sites such as St Michael’s Mount receive all the glory when it comes to attractions in Cornwall, there is one place which is deserving of far more attention than it gets. Bodmin Jail is quite simply Cornwall’s best kept secret.
The imposing prison, built in 1779 and then rebuilt under the resign of Queen Victoria, has a dark and fascinating history. It’s just got a lot more interesting with the new 100 Years, 100 Stories exhibition, an incredible, spine-tingling exploration to commemorate 100 years since the last prisoner left the jail.
The retrospective is a reminder of what an extraordinary building Bodmin Jail is, and one that is slightly off the beaten track when it comes to days out in Cornwall. It’s easy to see why the jail won Visit England’s best storyteller award – 55 executions took place within its formidable walls and the stories behind many of them come to life in the new exhibition, which features 100 objects places around the attraction, many of them hidden for visitors to unearth.
If, like me, you haven’t visited Bodmin Jail since the days of the ageing mannequins and slightly old-fashioned presentation, you are in for an absolute delight. The jail has received substantial investment from its new owners over the past five years, turning the dilapidated building into a world-class hotel and award-winning attraction. But until you see it, you won’t believe how much the place has changed – it will make your jaw drop.
Cornwall should be shouting about Bodmin Jail – not just for the immersive, fun element, but the ingenious way it explores Cornwall’s social history, often holding a mirror up to the way we live today. Plus it’s got a great restaurant and the hotel has to be seen to be believed (the stylish, modern rooms are incorporated into the ancient cells – it has to be one of the most unique places to stay in the UK).
Jess Marlton, general manager at Bodmin Jail explained 100 Years, 100 Stories: “The 100 objects have been carefully curated by our team of experts, and each tell their own tale of love, loss, debauchery, retribution and new beginnings throughout the almost 250 years since the jail was built. To mark the occasion, we have also opened up three further cells for the public to experience and introduced scent into the building to further enhance the immersive journey. The spaces and stories are deeply personal, as if the prisoners have just walked out of their cells and left behind a tantalising glimpse of the past.”
She’s not wrong – it’s one of the most evocative museum visits I’ve ever experienced.
It all starts with the Dark Walk experience where the prison’s past is brought to life thanks to the latest technology (crashing waves will get you wet) and a cinematic experience tell the stories of some of Bodmin’s infamous prisoners as well as Cornwall’s smuggling, mining and historical hardships. Cuddly and picture postcard Cornwall, this is not. It’s a subterranean exploration of Kernow’s dark past.
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‘Immersive’ is a word often used for these new type of museum experiences, but this one truly is – you’ll be completely surrounded by the stories of Selina Wadge, who dropped her child down a well on Bodmin Moor, and Sarah Polgrean, who poisoned her abusive husband. Many of the stories show how the law was stacked against certain members of society, particularly women.
After leaving the Dark Walk, you’ll enter the Naval Wing where you can peek into grimy cells, learn about harsh punishments and get a feel for what life was like for prisoners, whose stories come to life in their cells thanks to replicas of real letters and other ephemera. Many of their tales are told through ingenious, animated signs, rather like smaller versions of the moving portraits on the walls of Hogwarts in the Harry Potter films.
You will also hear their voices… and other less appealing things (the kids will love the farting).
Among the items on display is replica of a hanged man’s hand, which was a desirable item following an execution. The severed hands were thought to be lucky totems which would cure ills and, rather gruesomely, would be used to stroke anyone who was suffering from ill health.
Your tour – either with a guide or at your own leisure – will then bring you to the Administration Block and more artefacts and stories, including a photograph of famous executioner family, the Pierrepoints, including renowned hangman Albert. His father Henry and uncle Thomas carried out the final hanging at Bodmin Jail in 1909, of William Hampton who murdered Emily Tredrea at St Erth.
The sad tale of the murder of Charlotte Dymond on Bodmin Moor is also explored in this part of the jail, and anyone loving the paranormal and everything spooky will love this section too. The legendary Beast of Bodmin may be slavering in the bowels of the jail as you pass through – you have been warned.
You can then follow in the footsteps of the condemned through their last moments and come face to face with the executioner and the original, fully working Victorian Hanging Pit. Or not, if you’re too frightened.
Jess added: “Our family-friendly exhibition will feature objects and tales to be enjoyed by people of all ages. Our hope is that people are intrigued by the jail’s vast array of stories, and will continue to visit to learn more about this building’s history and heritage throughout our 100 Years celebrations in 2023.”
It really is a stunning exhibition and attraction which deserves to be getting far more love than it does in Cornwall. I was so taken with my visit this week, that I’m going back with my kids this weekend.
The 100 Years, 100 Stories exhibition is running until April 30, and access is included with general admission to Bodmin Jail. More details and how to buy tickets are here.
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