Considering the old prison’s extensive and grim past, the entrance oddly boasts a very charming bar/restaurant serving good, locally sourced seasonal meals and Cornish snacks, with cream teas, including the intriguing ‘Thunder and Lightning’ take on the traditional treat. Those with less sense of direction might well find themselves in a poorly lit corridor and face to face with a statue of a bloke eating a prison dinner. That in itself is enough to send you shrieking back to the bar to neck a good stiff rum.
The good woman at the bar charges £6.50 for my hour’s self-guided tour of the jail. With an inevitable descent into the basement, I’m suddenly very aware that I’m about to encounter some chilling accounts of days gone by. A hands-on history lesson like this offers a razor-sharp edge to the average tourist attraction because the situations you learn about were real. It’s exciting, but without any company by my side to laugh off the spooky bits, clinging on to the last morsels of the modern day surroundings seems like a good plan before I enter the cold stone walls of the jail; transported back in time.
All proceeds coming into the prison are being ploughed into the rebuild program for the areas of the building that have degenerated over time. Just to warn you, that does make the stairs a little on the crumbly and uneven side, while some wings of the prison have been closed off completely. Can’t really blame them mind; Bodmin Jail has been battling the elements since 1779.
The open cells in the higher floors of the prison are either entirely bare and complete with closing chamber door, allowing you to imagine what ‘serving porridge’ was like: nothing to fill the days except watching the slithers of light come and go with the countless Cornish dusks and dawns. Cells are otherwise filled with small, informative displays about prison life. This includes protocol details, child prisoner arrangements (I can help you out there – there were none but they would have suffered the same fate as a fully grown convict) and the unappetising specifics of the jailbird’s daily menu.
As I delve deeper into the brutal blanket of history that shrouds the jailhouse, exploring the many lockups and plunging deeper into the heart of the prison, statue representations of characters past start popping up. The first one I notice is discreetly demonstrating the use of the prison’s only remaining authentic toilet, which overhangs the spiraling staircase. The further I descend on the twisting path towards the basement, the more it feels like the statues may indeed spring to life and continue on their infamous murder sprees. I even start latching on to families and tour groups and hope they don’t notice, just to buy myself more time with 21st century people. Not that this is a bad reflection on the jail: I’d sooner be terrified than stop the tour altogether (so far).
It all gets really gripping on the penultimate floor. Here, the cells that held inmates on death row are located just by the gallows where they would be hung, and finally meet their maker as punishment for their crime. I peer in trembling awe at the frozen faces of the figures depicting doom and despair. One of these is a woman named Selina Wadge. one of a handful of women sentenced to death at Bodmin for child murder. She pushed her crippled two-year-old son down a well in Altarnun, allegedly at the request of her boyfriend. She told the court he would not marry her unless she killed her youngest child, though it has never been proved exactly how much of this was true. Fellow prisoner Mary Ann Cotton met the same fate; shockingly for the murder of ten of her own children. The insurance payout she received for their deaths was not enough to buy her way out of her sentence.
Murder was not the only thing that warranted a hanging: arson also qualified for the same result, as proved by William Axford who swung for setting light to a haystack. Note to self: watch out where you chuck the ciggie butts next time you sneak off for a cheeky fag on farmland. Really not worth the nicotine fix is it? On the plus side though, as Axford wasn’t a murderer, he was allowed to be buried on consecrated ground, so it’s not all bad.
The final floor has a little repertoire of authentic prison props on display, along with a mini film. Something else the basement offered, however, was another statue, this time of a wild-eyed, staring prison cook. On the realisation that there was no one else on that floor, leaving me alone in the dark, she finally got the better of me. Bravery all used up, I ran helter-skelter back up that skinny staircase and straight back into the daylight. That’s between you and me though – I’ve told everyone else I was late for my date at the Jamaica Inn, so keep schtum!
Bodmin Jail is indeed the perfect rainy day activity, a remarkable building in itself and educational to boot. Not to mention ideally located to go and explore Bodmin Moor if you should so wish. But for goodness sake, make sure you have someone to cling to and don’t go alone!