Bodmin Jail Undergoes Transformation to Bring Stories to Life
When a design firm integrates a modern, high-tech attraction into a protected historical or heritage site, great care is given to respect the physical elements of the location, as well as its impact on events and human lives. Sarner International faces the task at the Bodmin Jail in Bodmin, Cornwall, England as the firm transforms the jail into a visitor attraction, hotel, and education center. Built for King George III in 1779, the Bodmin Jail is a Victorian-era penitentiary steeped in history and houses the only hanging pit in the United Kingdom, witness to more than 50 public hangings. The jail was secure enough to safeguard the country’s crown jewels during World War I and also the Domesday Book, a survey of land in England ordered by William the Conqueror in 1085.
As part of an ongoing £40 million redevelopment and preservation of the jail, the £8.5 million project will utilize cutting-edge technology, elaborate scenic sets, and dedicated films and projections to bring the jail’s stories to life. The jail is closed while this transformation takes place and plans to reopen in May 2020.
“The jail shows how society changed over the past 200 years,” says Ed Cookson, director at Sarner. “It’s a very imposing building. There were public hangings that hundreds of people would show up for. What we saw was the opportunity to maintain the site and change it to a destination attraction that provides the history of Cornwall, not just the jail. We want to incorporate what we do in theme parks, the technological effects, to bring to life the stories of how people lived.”
Four linked experiences—an attraction called “Dark Walk,” the original jail cells, the administration area, and the execution area—will take guests on an informative journey through life in the 18th and 19th centuries in Cornwall. The most engaging element of the transformation is set to be the new “Dark Walk” attraction, a 25- to 30-minute audiovisual experience reflecting different sites in the jail and in Cornwall. Visitors will encounter highway robbers, smugglers, miners, and the tale of a local monster called the Bodmin Beast.
“The sets are created physically, with the mines having detailed rock work,” says Cookson. “Guests witness insane punishments, like being forced onto a [grueling] treadmill. Also, we utilize another area where the governor would have run the jail. They’re able to see other stories, like the legend of the Bodmin Beast. The final section is one of the only working hanging pits, and it still exists. People will then take that last walk from the jail cell to the execution pit where the hangings happened.”
With the jail being a historical site, Sarner is accommodating educational components. This includes a request from the jail that it be able to operate the “Dark Walk” attraction at a pace that it chooses so it can start and stop the attraction for tours like school groups.
Half of the jail’s cells will be part of “Dark Walk,” but the other half will be devoted to another unique element of the jail’s transformation: a four-star boutique hotel. Opening in late 2020 and being built within the structure’s walls, 70 of the jail cells will serve as hotel bedrooms and retain original features like the brickwork and bars on the windows.
With the jail being a U.K. heritage site, Sarner and partners Mallino Development Ltd., Twelve Architects,
Montagu Evans, Arup, Turner & Townsend, and Astute Fire all had to work with officials tasked with preserving the site’s history. “We worked with planning officers and English Heritage and went through planning approval,” says Ross Magri, Sarner’s managing director. “We do quite a few heritage projects that we bring to life, and it’s really important to work with the heritage experts.”