There’s something so inherently mysterious about Oxford. Time-worn buildings loom over pretty cobbled streets, well-trodden throughout history by the city’s rich, famous and otherwise legendary visitors or residents. And in continuation of its reputation as a hub of world-class academia there are countless new faces that creep beneath its oak-panelled woodwork, waiting impatiently to launch themselves on the world just as successfully as their predecessors.
For someone who’s reasonably well-travelled, I’m somewhat ashamed to say that this was my first trip to the ‘City of Spires’. But for all the exotic locations I have visited, Oxford still did not disappoint. Appealing to my inner hopeless romantic and an imagination that gets carried away all too easily, I got to know the city’s more ghoulish side as one ghost story after another unravelled before my eyes.
Beginning suitably, I checked into Oxford’s infamous Malmaison, a magnificent castle-like building with a history as colourful as the city’s own. Originally constructed by William the Conqueror in 1071, the imposing front façade can’t help but grab your attention. Complete with flag-adorned turrets and cruciform arrow-slits, the backdrop for your epic novel-in-the-making is instantaneously set.
Inside, the building is just as eye-enticing. Until 1995, perhaps in happy marriage with the translation of Malmaison (bad house), the hotel was formally known as HM Prison Oxford. Under this guise, it was used as the backdrop for Michael Caine’s The Italian Job, and has been used for other television since, including ITV’s Bad Girls. But, with its sale, some clever, artistically minded entrepreneur decided to transform it into an altogether different kind of overnight stay.
The Oxford Mal plays on the prison theme very well. Enter into a world of sandstone Gothic arches, limestone floors, mullioned windows and portcullis-styled shelving and it’s hard not to get further caught up in the theatre of its design. Suites such as ‘the clink’ offer things like sleigh-style beds, raised sitting rooms and walk-in dressing rooms. The rest of the 95 bedrooms in A Wing, C Wing, the Governor’s House, New Road Wing, and not to mention the ‘House of Correction’ will offer you Malmaison standards like broadband, plasma screens with DVD players, roll-top baths and drench showers. Slip on your bathrobe while your coffee cools, dare to steal the classy toiletries and relax on their wonderfully comfortable queen-size beds. There’s a consistent use of moody lighting throughout which adds to the hotel’s ghostly ambience.
Despite my initial reservations, this ‘theme’ is not overdone (just don’t look at the website and you won’t get prison-pun overkill). You’ll be captivated by the bizarre high-ceilinged original décor that has been given a modern makeover. The prison stairs are still there, as are the rows of cells complete with original doors, but behind them you’ll now find rooms that take up the space of what would have been three. Colourful carpets have replaced the clinical linoleum, and you’ll no longer find a canteen that serves overcooked cabbage. Rather, the replacement brasserie offers stylish and contemporary dining. You’ll find firm French bistro style favourites on the menu, using locally sourced ingredients. Choose the ham and rabbit terrine, potted duck and piccalilli, along with mouth-watering braised pig’s cheeks, succulent roasted venison and sumptuous sticky goodness in the form of dark chocolate tart, triple banana mousse and sticky toffee pudding. Talk to the friendly resident sommelier and he’ll help guide you through the interesting wine list.
Along with the restaurant, the hotel’s personality spreads further out into the bar – another quirky edition. Once the visitors’ room, where guards would patrol to check contraband substances were not being swapped, these days by contrast it ensures that your glass is filled with the finest of liquors and spirits. Try the aptly named ‘Locked Up’ and ‘The Great Escape’ cocktails, and nestle into one of the cavernous sofas. You could easily mistake it for New York’s Jekyll and Hyde bar, oozing potential for mysterious dalliances of your own.
From the grounds outside, gaze on to Oxford Castle that sits just next door. Step inside to hear torturous tales dating back from the 11th century and see first-hand how the more modern hostages were kept. Downstairs, the dungeons are supposedly haunted. Both the castle and the hotel offer stunning views out onto the city below where the ghostly romantic ambience continues.
Feed your imaginations further by heading out for a stroll into the grounds of Magdalen College, one of the University’s most attractive. Wander in amongst the cloisters that date from 1458 and out along the flow of the river into the Fellows Garden. This was a place of particular interest to me, as it holds a personal tale – fortunately, this time far from ghoulish. It was here, under a tree, one summer’s day, that my grandmother met her husband, my grandfather, many many years ago. Sit and muse on one of the benches carved from an old tree trunk and spot magpies stalking around the deer herd.
You can’t deny there’s a certain romance and history in continual making in Oxford. Time to escape the routine for a weekend, and start your own story.
Doubles and twins start from £190 including breakfast. Malmaison have constant seasonal promotions running, see: www.malmaison.com/promotions for more information. Oxford Castle open daily from 10am, adult admission: £7.95. Magdalen College: open Jan- July, 1-6pm, adult admission: £4.50.