VISITING BODMIN JAIL
Tour the ancient Cornish town of Bodmin and discover the rich history of its famous jail
The town of Bodmin, gateway to the moor that bears its name, has seen something of a renaissance in recent times. Many of the imposing granite buildings have been renovated and the high street is vibrant and busy with far fewer empty shops than most comparable towns
On the northern edge of the town, close to the start of the Camel Trail is the rather forbidding Bodmin . It was originally built in 1779 and was improved and expanded during the early 19th century. The present buildings date mainly from 1860 and between then and 1927 when it was finally closed, various alterations and additions took place. Since its closure, the buildings have been put to a number of uses including light industrial units, a builders yard, a fishmonger and they have held various activities. The current owners purchased the site in 2004 and since then time, money and effort have been invested in preserving and renovating the old buildings. The jail is now a major visitor attraction and educational facility and a splendid place to visit for all the family.
Chris Wilkes is the attractions current Business Development Manager and before talking to him about his job and plans for the future I was given a quick tour of the Jail. The ground floor of the main block is given over to a very comfortable bar and restaurant but before long we were descending steep spiral staircases to the floors below and the grim corridors of the cell block. It takes little imagination to gain a vivid impression of what life must have been like for the unfortunate souls who were incarcerated in this dark place.
Some of the cells have been left empty and you can wander in and out, sit on the rough stone and gaze at the tiny barred openings, through which the light streams. Other cells have been fitted-out as individual exhibition areas with period furnishings and extremely life-like models of former inmates. Outside each of these cells is an account of the crime committed by the prisoner and of their eventual fate. Back in the warmth and comfort of the bar, I asked Chris about his job and his feelings for both the Jail and Cornwall in general. My father was an officer in the Parachute Regiment and I was born in the military hospital in Aldershot, he tells me. We moved to Cornwall when I was five years old and I was educated at Treliske and Truro School. After school, I went to work for Millers Estate Agents when it was run by its founder, Jeffery Miller and I specialised in the sale of agricultural land. From there I moved to a firm of Plymouth surveyors and then in the late 1980s to a London based surveyors firm, Colliers.
This work took Chris all over Europe and a succession of jobs in the surveying field followed, including a stint in West Africa. I was involved with the charity War Child in Liberia at the end of a particularly bloody civil war, building post conflict resolution centres focused on children. It was a humbling experience.
Returning to England, Chris spent a number of years working for companies involved in building medical facilities and then, in 2006 he visited Bodmin Jail. 'I came here to the restaurant in August of that year for a birthday meal and quite by chance I got talking to the one of the current owners. We had a really interesting conversation and, to cut a long story short, I've been here ever since! Among other things, I give advice on maintaining the fabric of the buildings and I'm responsible for developing existing markets and finding new markets for the business.'
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I asked Chris if he was pleased to be finally back in Cornwall. Of course, he replies. 'It has a great quality of life and a great pace of life. It's a wonderful place to bring up children and I have a core of old friends whose company I really enjoy. In the immediate area there is Lanhydrock and Cardinham Woods to visit. Farther afield, I love Fowey, the Helford River and especially the church at St Just in Roseland. It's a very special place. For a drink I'm very fond of the Ferry Boat Inn in Helford Passage and the Pandora Inn at Mylor I hope that the owners succeed in re-opening it after the disastrous fire.
'Apart from my work here I am Chairman of the Local Chamber of Commerce. Times are tough, of course, but I see real reason for optimism both in Bodmin itself and in Cornwall in general. Tourism is doing well but we also have some first class industries in fields, ranging from software development to food manufacturing and farming to precision engineering.' Chris says the Jail is a great day out for all the family. 'The kids love it, of course but the parents will also find much to interest them. And there are lots of related activities. Apart from the bar and restaurant, which serves delicious food at lunchtimes and in the evenings we have events and demonstrations including occasional ones by execution expert Gary Ewart on hanging and an evening Ghost Walk by our own resident medium.'
The Jail certainly has a unique atmosphere and has featured in the television programme Most Haunted. I asked Chris what he made of this. 'I think that there are enough strange happenings here to defy explanation by a logical, scientific mind. Visitors have reported a number of weird phenomena including the touch of a child's hand and the sensation of being forcibly pushed out of one of the cells and we also have a number of photographs of unexplained images. Whether or not you believe in the supernatural is obviously down to personal conviction but why not come along and see what you think?' Personally, I will be visiting Bodmin Jail again, particularly as it is planned to open yet more cells many of which have remained undisturbed for decades. However, as the night of All Hallows approaches it is unlikely that I will go unaccompanied particularly if it involves a Ghost Walk!