The new £8.5million immersive visitor experience at Bodmin Jail has been developed by international visitor attraction experts Sarner.
The design introduces a ‘Dark Walk’ experience and a re-design of the existing attraction spaces. Linked immersive experiences lead guests through an exploration of Cornish history, and offer a taste of the life – and death – of the prison’s inmates.
Blooloop talked to Martin Lyall, General Manager of Bodmin Jail. He spoke about the largest leisure development south of Bristol since the Eden Project.
A career in the leisure industry
Lyall’s background is in the leisure industry. Having trained in hospitality and catering management at university, he initially worked as a restaurant manager.
Then he moved into the gaming industry, managing a chain of 70 shops, before being recruited as regional director of a chain of sports and late-night bars. Following this, Lyall went into facilities management, running leisure centres, before returning to gaming as managing director for Rank Group.
He bought and ran two hotels in the Cotswolds, selling them in 2003 to become a consultant in the hotel industry. This brought him into contact with the brewer Shepherd Neame, with whom he worked, predominantly in troubleshooting and openings, for nine years.
Starting at Bodmin Jail
“Then I made a leap of faith, and moved to the Southwest,” says Lyall. “My wife is from the Southwest, my daughters live over here. I got this phone call on a very wet November evening about an opportunity in Bodmin. I had to pull over because I didn’t quite believe I’d understood the context of the call. It sounded as if it was about running a jail.
“The rest is history. It was a massive opportunity to be in at the outset of this huge investment to restore a heritage building to its former glory.”
Bodmin Jail’s Paranormal Manager, Kirsten – She joined Bodmin Jail five years ago, bringing with her an extensive knowledge of medical, forensic, biological and psychological science that enhances her deep spiritual awareness#lovemyjob #paranormal #bodminjail pic.twitter.com/yn0f21F1zv
— Bodmin Jail (@BodminJail1779) May 11, 2020
For most of the last four years, Lyall ran the jail as it stood:
“We attracted more than 70,000 visitors with about a third of a very derelict jail. But it was still atmospheric. We delivered a strong educational programme and had several products. For instance, our after dark paranormal experiences, where guests arrive at nine o’clock in the evening and spend the night with my paranormal manager.
“It’s quite novel having a paranormal manager reporting to you. Not many people can say they’ve got one.”
A huge investment
The owner, Lyall says, is the visionary behind the redevelopment:
“He is hugely passionate about the investment. It’s a fairy tale, in that he was on holiday with his wife down in Cornwall. He went to the Eden Project in the morning, then came to the jail in the afternoon, fell in love with it, and bought it.”
“He believed that he could turn it into a hotel and deliver a world-class attraction with the other third of the heritage building. So, he set about engaging Twelve Architects, who came up with the design of the hotel.
“Sarner came up with the design of the attraction. There was an initial investment of about a quarter of a million. This was to introduce a new ticketing office and do a rebranding exercise. We introduced a new gift shop and a new tearoom.
“So that was the initial step back in 2016. Since then, we’ve really just been working on the project.”
“It has been quite problematic – we’ve had many curveballs. Not least, the seven breeds of bat living in the jail. We have had to do the programme around their hibernating and mating seasons.
“Then we found out that the area behind the jail was used as a landfill back in the 1970s. To compound that, a small housing estate had been built on top of the landfill. So we’ve had to remove the landfill and build a retaining wall to hold the estate up.”
“All of these things were unknown entities when we began the project. Quite whether that fairy tale would have been so romantic had our owner known about these issues, is another question.
“However, he’s still hugely enthusiastic about delivering the world-class attraction and the hotel.”
The history of Bodmin Jail
55 executions took place at the jail, punishment for crimes such as arson and murder. The new visitor experience showcases the tragic stories of some of the most notorious former inmates.
“Life was very cheap back in the day – particularly for women,” says Lyall. “But there are some nice stories, as well.”
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“Certain guests, for example, would commit a crime around Christmas. Just so that they could be somewhere relatively warm with a meal in their belly.
“As a jail, it was ahead of its time. It was the first jail that had its own heating and cooling system. And then that template was replicated as other jails were built throughout the UK. Yes, it does have a very grim, atmospheric past. But it was also an example of the Victorian era of change and development. So there were positives.”
The Dark Walk
Lyall describes the process of recreating these stories through technology, storytelling and interpretation:
“The attraction begins with the only new build, the Dark Walk. This takes you on a journey through Cornwall’s history with lots of CGI and surprises. Guests travel through traditional village scenes in Cornwall, mining and shipwrecks. And finally, they end up in a courtroom where they will see, and be part of, recreations of real court cases.”
They will, of course, be found guilty:
“Visitors go through a tunnel into the bottom of the Naval Wing, where each cell chronologically tells the story of what life was like in Bodmin jail.
“From there, they walk up into the admin building where we’ve recreated the governor’s office. Here there are some interactive scenes showing what it was like to live – and to work – in the jail. We then move on to local legends. The Bodmin Beast, of course, features in our storytelling, as do the Jackdaws of Bodmin Jail.”
Bringing legends to life
According to a local legend, reminiscent of the ravens at the Tower of London, the jackdaws that live at the jail now are the descendants of the first jackdaws that arrived at Bodmin Jail in November of 1846. They accompanied their owner, herbalist Rose Wright, whom they had aided in theft when the locals shunned her for being a witch.
She was starving and ill when she arrived at the jail with her attendant birds (which tried, but failed, to steal the keys to her cell). When Rose died, she cursed the jail and town, saying:
‘Should the last Jackdaw be born at Bodmin Gaol, so the spirits of the condemned shall rise and bring misfortune and chaos to all that reside within’.
Visit the cold dank cells, look up at the thin rays of light filtering through a small barred window, a very lonely life with the knowledge each day would bring more of the same cold, hunger and hard labour#bodminjail #hardlabour #prisonlife pic.twitter.com/sk9FttqqlG
— Bodmin Jail (@BodminJail1779) April 20, 2020
Lyall says: “Then your journey brings you to the condemned cell, and you do that ‘long walk’ to the execution pit. It was the last working hanging pit in the UK.
“There is an alternative fast track you can take if you feel it would be too emotive to experience that final scene. Finally, you either turn right to experience our food and beverage offer or left to the wonderful gift shop.”
A unique experience
The experience will be unique, says Lyall:
“The closest concept would be in Oxford, where they have turned an old jail into a hotel. But we will surpass it in terms of size alone. We have 70 bedrooms, all of which were prison cells, and an attraction which is four times the size of what’s on offer in Oxford.
“I think the big difference with what we’re recreating here is it that it’s immersive. You will feel it, touch it, smell it.”
You will also be able to commemorate it with a personalised ‘Wanted’ poster:
We Are Interact, creator of digital experiences for physical spaces, has produced an innovative self-service photo experience.
Dan Strang, CEO of We are Interact, describes it:
“During the walk-through experience visitors can capture their own headshot; posing with their meanest and ugliest grin and enter their name on a self-service photo station. Our software instantly edits it into a Bodmin style wanted poster.
“Using a QR code, visitors can view their image on their mobile phone and instantly pay for a digital download. Or, they can visit the self-service print terminal in the gift shop to buy a branded activity booklet and their printed Wanted Poster.”
Bodmin Jail and COVID-19
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected the project’s progress, to an extent, says Lyall:
“We’ve had to change our work practice. In some ways, it fell at the right time for us, if there can be a right time for a pandemic. We had closed in December, so we were already shut. Operationally, it made certain decisions easier.”
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Do you dare to visit Bodmin Jail this Halloween and October half term? Tickets for our ghostly tours and experiences are already popular so book now for Cornwall’s spookiest attraction. Pre-booking essential. https://www.bodminjail.org/whats-on/halloween/ #cornwall @lovecornwalluk #cornwallwithkids #octoberhalfterm #halloween @cornwallguide
“We continued the development program during COVID-19. The government were very keen to keep building going. We obviously had to accommodate social distancing. It meant we couldn’t have as big a workforce on-site, and it did have an impact on some of our supplies.
“The biggest impact is that we were originally due to open for Easter, and that slipped and slipped. We’re now looking at some soft openings in August, and a full opening in September, which is the saddest thing of all in terms of cash flow. August is when 99% of leisure businesses in Cornwall take the majority of their revenue.
“But we worked on our forecasting, and we are in a good position to welcome guests from October.”
Taking a safe approach
However, the decision has been taken to open in October without fanfare. He says:
“Obviously, we’re restricted in how many people we can take at any one time. We have re-phased our launch marketing to tie in with next Easter, so we plan to open with a bigger shout then.”
“What helps in terms of adhering to COVID-19 practice is we are a pulsed attraction. So, we can track how many people come in in any 15 minute period. We’re targeting about 30 to 50% occupancy, depending on how that works in practice with the social distancing.”
A simple online booking journey has been made possible by Green 4 Solutions. “Guests can book with confidence knowing that we’re controlling the numbers that come through,” says Lyall. “Plus, our staff can feel at ease in the knowledge we’re not endangering them.”