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Sentenced to Luxury: Malmaison Oxford Castle Hotel

When the door to my quarters in Oxford Castle shut, I settled on the bed and wondered whether any famous criminals had occupied this chamber before me. Why, you ask? Because for 125 years Oxford Castle was a prison whose unwilling guests were here much longer than one night.

Following sympathetic refurbishment last year by the British-owned Malmaison Group, this former London penitentiary underwent a dramatic transformation into a plush boutique hotel.

Gone are the crashing sounds of slamming cell doors and the heavy, flat-footed steps of guards on patrol. In their place are the soft tread of polished staffers making their way along carpeted corridors, the aroma of afternoon teas being served in the former prisoners’ Visiting Room, and the scent of fresh-cut flowers standing at attention in chic, modern arrangements.

Airy, Healthful Quarters

Oxford Prison was built in 1870. A product of Victorian enlightenment, all the cells had windows, and its massive central gallery (A Wing) — three tiers of cells — was brightened by sunlight pouring through three-storey-tall, barred casement windows. If you’re a fan of British television and movies, you’ll recognize A Wing from episodes of the Oxford-based Inspector Morse, series or from the 1969 version of The Italian Job.

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In its day, Oxford Prison was considered airy, healthful, and light. But when the prison closed in 1996 it was so overcrowded that prisoners were apportioned three to a cell. Nevertheless, the once-revolutionary design qualified parts of the building for coveted protection status. Malmaison, which has earned a reputation for converting unusual city center locations into luxury hotels, was one of the few companies willing to take on a project that involved keeping A Wing virtually intact.

Other than new carpeting and the safety glass subtly lining the railings, so little has changed here that you half expect guests to come out and bang their spoons on the railing if breakfast isn’t served on time. But behind the original Victorian iron bound doors (the peep hole is reversed so that guests can look out), everything is different. Each 20-square-meter guest room, with en suite shower room, occupies the space of three cells. A Wing rooms, with Queen-sized beds, are well-appointed and comfortable. Other rooms in the hotel complex are larger, with higher ceilings and baths. Several have freestanding, roll top tubs big enough to float in.

Swanky decor

“C Wing,” the erstwhile punishment cells, culminates in a dramatic round tower with two semicircular suites. Suites and larger rooms also spread out in “The Governor’s House” and the “Houses of Correction,” which are reached by crossing a grassy, enclosed exercise yard.

Decor throughout is designed to set off exposed stone or brick walls. Black-lacquered, contemporary furniture is dressed in rich wine, russet, and cream velours and suedes. Fresh flowers and trays full of flickering votive candles create a warm atmosphere in a vaguely baronial setting, made more so by vaulted stone ceilings. Pets are welcome, and mine enjoyed the fresh new bedding, welcome pack of treats, and smart porcelain feeding bowls from Marks & Spencer.

Simple, elegant meals — no relation whatsoever to prison grub — are served throughout the day belowground in the Brasserie, formerly the solitary confinement cells. The cuisine is English with a Continental twist, so my salmon fishcakes were served on lightly blanched spinach, and the pears garnishing a starter of rocket salad with Serrano ham were sliced paper thin. There’s no gym but you could always do a few laps around the exercise yard.

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