Tried & Tested

Hotel Check: Malmaison Oxford

8 Oct 2013 by GrahamSmith

BACKGROUND

First launched in Edinburgh in 1994, four-star boutique hotel brand Malmaison is known for renovating landmark buildings, retaining their original architecture and basing the theme of the properties on the buildings' histories.

It currently occupies 12 UK properties in Aberdeen, Belfast, Birmingham, Edinburgh, Glasgow, Leeds, Liverpool, London, Manchester, Newcastle, Oxford and Reading. Malmaison Dundee is set to open its doors on December 1 within the 1890s sandstone waterfront building that was formerly the Tay hotel.

HM Prison Oxford, housed within the city's medieval castle, was closed in 1996 and its inmates were transferred to prisons all over the country. Malmaison then began its ambitious renovation of this building in the early 2000s, eventually opening its Malmaison Oxford hotel in 2004.

Malmaison Oxford exterior

WHAT’S IT LIKE?

Guests enter through a door where the portcullis would have been on the colossal frontage of the building, to find a lobby that is typically Malmaison — quirky and stylish, with rich, contemporary furnishings within original walls. Service here was excellent — a confident, friendly staff member whipped out a map and recommended a handful of local places I could visit that evening.

One of the hotel's most striking features is the "A Wing" atrium where the prison cells were, which may look familiar to fans of Bad Girls, as much of the TV series was filmed here. The cells have been converted into entry-level guestrooms — three cells have been combined to make each space, and Standard Cell rooms are from 17 sqm.

On the basement level, a single prison cell has been kept in its original state, which gives an idea of the scale of the renovation. Complete with spindly metal bunk beds and original tiny grate windows, it's hard to believe that each of these housed three inmates – whereas now, the same space is devoted to the guestrooms' bathrooms.

Malmaison Oxford interior

WHERE IS IT?

Beside Oxford Castle and its impressive mound on New Road, a ten-minute walk from Oxford railway station.

ROOM FACILITIES

I stayed in a Cell Superior room on the top (fifth) floor, which faced out to the former exercise yard, now a pleasant grassy space. On the evening I stayed, an al fresco performance of Shakespeare's Henry V was taking place there. The room had a cushioned window alcove, so I sat here and watched for a while.

The authentic features of the property have been preserved as much as possible. The original iron doors of the cells remain, complete with intriguing chinks in their surfaces lead you to imagine the events behind them, but the food hatches have been sealed.

Idiosyncratic features can be found in each room. Some have carvings on the wall made by their former inhabitants and apparently, if the stories are true, if you book room 103, you may get a supernatural encounter thrown in for free.

The décor of the rooms has a masculine energy, with dark wood furnishings, maroon tartan throws upon the beds and plush furniture edged with metal studs. The bed was extremely comfortable, and the work desk sufficient.

Malmaison Oxford bedroom

The windows can't be opened, and have iron lattices to imitate prison cells, but this doesn't make them feel oppressive in any way, or compromise the room's light. It's a successful refurbishment in that the limitations of renovating such an old property have not prevented Malmaison from achieving contemporary, practical spaces to work and rest.

The rooms have air conditioning, free wifi as standard, Samsung flatscreen TVs with DVD players, free bottled water, a laptop safe, an iron and an ironing board, tea-and coffee-making facilities, slippers and robes. 24-hour room service is available.

The bathroom was simple but well appointed, with a free-standing bath complete with a vanity mirror, a very good walk-in rainshower and a heated towel rack. Malmaison's own brand toiletries were supplied, with label that "dares you" to take them home.

Cell Superior rooms differ from Cell Standard rooms in that they come with a selection of magazines, a separate bath and shower, more light and robes and slippers.

Aside from the A-wing, the sprawling property has rooms located in what is known as the "House of Correction" across the exercise yard, where inmates were formerly housed for up to six months for petty crimes. This is now a block of entry level Standard Double rooms.

Malmaison Oxford bedroom

The former dwellings of the prison governors have also been converted into suites, on the opposite side of the hotel to the A-Wing. These range from 26 sqm to 31 sqm and come with more decadent design features.

RESTAURANTS AND BARS

The dimly-lit basement-level brasserie is surprisingly warm, atmospheric space for dinner, with the gentle lull of acoustic jazz adding a homely feel to what you may expect to be an eerie setting, considering the building's past – the prison's gallows used to be located below the kitchen, though the space was cemented over and "blessed" by a priest before the hotel opened.

The bar located at one end of the restaurant glows with neon blue strip lighting, which injects a modern edge to the space. The innovative cocktail menu changes seasonally, in line with the brasserie menu.

Malmaison puts a lot of thought into its food and beverage offering, and Oxford proprerty exemplifies this. Upon my visit, there was a summer menu with dishes concocted from local, quality ingredients, and a definite British theme, with hearty options such as West Country lamb rump with new potatoes, summer beans and minted hollandaise (£17.95) and the classic 250g "Mal" Burger with bacon, Gruyère cheese and fries (£15.95).

I began with a starter from the specials menu — panko-crusted scallops with curried risotto and herb salad (£7.95). The crisp coating of buttery curry paired with the tender fish was a delicious combination. I then tried the breast of duck with pomme rosti, spinach and redcurrant jus, which was richly-flavoured and substantial without requiring a huge portion.

There was also a grill menu with beef that had been "naturally reared and dry-aged on the bone for a minimum of 28 days", and an extensive wine menu that was usefully divided into categories of taste, such as "soft, smooth and juicy" and "dry, elegant and earthy".

Breakfast is also served in the brasserie (Mon-Fri, 7am-10am, weekends 8am-11am). The continental buffet was full of nice touches such as moreish homemade granola and freshly-made iced tea, which set it apart from the standard breakfast offering of most hotels. There is also an à la carte menu with dishes for £15.

Another memorable feature of the hotel is Visitors Room bar on the first floor. Named after its original purpose, the high-ceilinged space is now a champagne and cockatil bar, with the original balcony where a guard once stood watch now converted into a DJ booth. The moody ambience is enhanced by velvet furniture, dark tartan patterned carpeting and the imposing leather bar, yet another example of the hotel's features that "toughen up" their surrounding to remind you where you are.

BUSINESS AND MEETING FACILITIES

Suited to smaller meetings, there are a few well-furnished private dining rooms surrounding the brasserie that double up as stylish meeting rooms, and, despite being in the basement, most of them have natural light.

One of the room opens out onto the "exercise yard", offering an outdoor space – it can hold 40 people theatre-style. Another room has a round iron table that was created by melting iron items from the prison, which can seat ten people. For larger events, the Visitors Room and the brasserie can be hired out during certain hours of the day.

LEISURE FACILITIES

There is no gym or spa. The hotel's rooftop garden is open in the summer, and is available for hire.

VERDICT

A hotel with universal appeal – historical yet trendy, characterful for leisure guests, yet practical for business travellers. It also provides a plush experience without charging for essentials.

FACT FILE

  • HOW MANY ROOMS? 95 –16 House of Correction Double rooms, 21 Standard Double rooms, 22 Standard Cell rooms, 16 Superior Cell rooms, 2 Duplex suites, 4 Junior suites, 13 King Superior rooms and one Executive Suite.
  • HIGHLIGHTS The character of the property, the brasserie and the free wifi.
  • PRICE Internet prices for a midweek stay in a House of Correction Double room in November started from £112.
  • CONTACT 3 New Street, tel 0844 693 0659; malmaison.com

Rose Dykins

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