Cornwall’s premier attraction: tales of ghosts, murder and executions

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‘If you’re going to write an article then you need to drink coffee.’ It’s known as rule 101 and is set down on Day One of Journalism training. 

For me, they’re sage words from long ago and my coffee always needs to have plenty of milk. This morning, there was none of the white stuff. The fridge was empty. 

My local shop beckoned. The staff and I are on first name terms. They had their coffee. I wanted mine. They wanted to chat. Afterall, they knew where I had been. 

My caffeine hit was going to have to wait for a few minutes as they began gently interrogating me about what it was like there.

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And the subject of their interest? Bodmin Jail. It’s a place, which, for many, is, still, even today, terrifying. It’s never been a site for the faint of heart or those of a nervous disposition.

In fact, it’s so renowned in some paranormal circles that it’s become known as the one location where more ghosts are ‘trapped’ in its grounds than anywhere else in the country. 

Not surprising when you consider executed convicts would be buried with their feet pointing towards the prison itself so they could never leave the site, even in death. 

To this day, no bodies have been found. But they’re there and many believe their spirits are still roaming in an eternal state of restlessness.  

I’ve even heard it compared to the notoriously haunted site of Essex’s Borley Rectory, which, sadly, no longer exists following extensive fire damage in 1939. 

And so, I began to recount to the shop staff about what I had experienced, and learned, during my recent visit to Bodmin Jail. Mugs were hastily put down. Jaws dropped.

I explained that there was a definite ‘atmosphere’ to the austere Victorian buildings. Had I seen any ghosts when I was there? 

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No, I hadn’t. That said, I know of others who have very recently experienced genuinely ‘inexplainable’ encounters when staying overnight in the former prison. More on that later.

The ruins of the buildings have been painstakingly renovated into a five-star luxury hotel (think: Luxury. History. Cornwall).  

It’s an incredible engineering feat and anyone who remembers how the site had deteriorated into disrepair will be amazed at its transformation. 

Don’t forget, this place had been a prison for more than 200 years. The last convict left in 1916 before it was finally decommissioned in 1927, whereupon much of it began to slowly crumble. 

Parts did remain open as a visitor attraction, but the buildings remained largely off limits to the public. 

It’s real change of fortune happened a few years ago when the new owner bought it and invested the time, money and a lot of TLC into creating a place which future generations can cherish.

No expense has been spared on the creation of the hotel and its architectural grandeur is something to behold. It comes complete with a massive glass atrium roof, which, I imagine, will be incredibly atmospheric for guests when rainy season hits Cornwall.     

More than £50 million has been ploughed into transforming the site into what it is today. Everything you’d expect in a premier key tourist venue is there, including its star attraction: ‘The Dark Walk.’

I already knew some of the stories surrounding the site, but the use of modern technology, combined with the ancient feel of the location, brought so much of Cornwall’s Cornwall’s premier attractionsinister history to life. Poisonings. Smuggling. Highwaymen. Wrecking. 

All of the crimes unfold before your eyes with the usage of moving sets, 3D projections and holograms. It’s perhaps not surprising to learn it’s the work of a movie special effects team who were specifically tasked with its’ creation.  

The £15 ticket price is incredibly good value, and, for a few extra quid, you can even have your own tour guide. 

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Who knows what ghostly shapes being conjured up in that place of misery are real, or not? 

In fact, there are so many ghosts and ghouls attached to the place that it boasts of its very own ‘paranormal manager.’ And that ‘other worldly’ feel makes it the perfect spot for an atmospheric recreation of the past.

So, to the tour itself. I really don’t want to provide plot spoilers here and so won’t be giving too much away. I could use a lot of hyperbole: amazing and incredible are two words which immediately spring to mind. 

From the moment you walk into the faux library you’re transported back in time. The books on the shelves may not be real, but the sense of foreboding certainly is. 

On the wall is a portrait of Sir John Call. He was a local MP whose background in military engineering, combined with the inspiration of penal reformer, John Howard, led to Bodmin Jail being built in 1779. 

It was the first of the ‘modern’ prisons which even boasted of its very own heating and ventilation systems.

A portrait of the great man himself hangs on the wall as a digital clock counts down to zero and the start of the tour. It’s the first of many techniques where past and present are neatly combined throughout your adventure. 

And, by the way, for those of you who love culture then the ‘Gainsborough’ on display isn’t real but is in the style of the artist. It’s a testimony to the team’s diligent research to be able to find a period painting of Sir John Call. 

With the countdown completed you begin your journey. Suffice to say, you get to witness, first-hand, some of Cornwall’s most infamous capital crimes, from a murder on a deserted piece of moorland, which is brilliantly bought to life by computer generated imagery, through to an infamous poisoning. 

You’re literally watching the ghosts of the past being ‘stirred’ into life with a sense of realism enhanced by the quality of acting, scripting, costumes, direction, and, of course, the special effects. 

Bodmin Jail’s fearsome reputation was galvanised when the authorities mounted public executions from the walls which surround the prison itself. 

Sadly, this was considered the stuff of entertainment. In the case of the Lightfoot brothers, tens of thousands crammed the field opposite the Bodmin Jail to watch their demise. 

This is now where the car park is sited, and, from there, you can see the exact spot where these two souls met their end. 

Their murder of a respectable family man (Neville Norway) caused outrage, shock and grief. Local people considered it to be so heinous they clubbed together to financially help his widow and children.

There was little sympathy for the robbers. Afterall, they were a pair of notorious highwaymen. They were also the last people to be publicly executed in Cornwall. 

The tour allows us to sit in on part of their trial. We watch the passing of their sentence and their horrified reaction to it. 

We also see the death penalty handed down to others accused of unspeakable crimes.

All of them drawn from court transcripts and brought to life with CGI which allows us to meet the criminals involved – and The Judge. 

The ‘creation’ of Bodmin Jail Assizes Court provides a real sense of what it must have been like with the austere Mr Justice Coltman leading the proceedings. 

A staff member later reveals the ‘creation’ for some of the characters you see on the tour is based on a modern adaption of ‘Pepper’s Ghost.’ 

This was a Victorian stage trick involving glass and lights to mirror real images onto a stage. The reflection of an actor created a ghostly shape before a stunned audience. 

It’s often rumoured that some theatre goers would faint when seeing the ghost of Hamlet’s father. I wonder what they would have made of Bodmin Jail’s Dark Walk.

A few weeks after my tour and I get to sit down and have tea with Chris Wilkes, Bodmin Jail’s resident historian and Head of Education. 

It’s remarkable to think that the new owner bought the site in 2015 and within five years he has transformed it into what it is today. 

The team are gearing up to receive more than 150,000 visitors in their first year (they had more than 14,500 people flocking to the site in its first month of opening).

‘The Dark Walk pulls no punches,’ says Chris. ‘It’s a brilliant story. It’s real. It’s truthful and delivered in a way where we feel it’s suitable for an audience ranging from eight to eighty-eight.’ 

‘The entire project has preserved such an important part of our history and heritage.’

‘I’ve been here for 16 years and have seen people put their heart and soul into it, but, for the first time, the buildings are now safely preserved for the people of Cornwall long after we’ve departed this mortal coil.’ 

‘The owner has given an incredible gift to the county by preserving this key part of its heritage.’

‘The production quality for all of the visual effects on the Dark Walk are amazing. You feel part of the actual films which are being replayed in front of you. Actual events brought to life with CGI.’

‘We see the stories of infamous tales of the past. The murder of Charlotte Dymond and the wrecking of The Good Samaritan in the early 1840s.’ 

‘There were so many local people arrested for removing items from the sea going vessel that extension work was needed to house them during their stay at the Bodmin Jail.’

‘It’s a great way to portray history in an easy to digest format for the enjoyment of many different age groups. We had some of the best people in the industry working on the effects and every part of the Dark Walk had to meet very exacting standards.’

‘We believe Bodmin Jail is now the best-preserved Victorian prison which not only retells penal history in Cornwall but also provides a glimpse back to what life would have been like for convicts in the nineteenth century.’

Bodmin Jail has always been unique as it’s the only place in the country which still has a working execution pit. A small shed unchanged in more than 100 years. And yet, everything around it has undergone an incredible transformation.

‘There’s nothing like this anywhere in the UK. Show me another place where you have a converted Victorian Bodmin Jail combined with state-of-the-art technology which is here to retell history with a modern twist.’

‘We recreate the past in a modern way to allow the viewer to engage and gain a greater sense of understanding for what life was like back then.’ 

‘If it was static mannequins and posters, then you would never gain the level of emotional immersion into the place that you do.’ 

‘We wrap the stories around the guests, and you become enveloped by past events as soon as you enter Sir John’s library.’ 

And so, is it haunted? Well, I’ll leave it to you, brave reader, to find out. A friend of mine stayed in the new hotel. Part of a team of two camera operators. One had one room and the other took occupancy next door. 

They were filming interiors of the building and so needed to work late. Sleeping there meant they could ‘grab’ footage of the place at night. It was shortly before the venue had officially opened to the public. 

At this point, I should add the camera operator has been a friend of mine for more than 20 years and know he is a no-nonsense guy. As rugged as they come. Likes his tea strong. 

In short, I don’t think he’d mind me saying he’s a straight-talking Yorkshireman, who, quite frankly, doesn’t believe in the paranormal. His colleague is the same. 

Both are very logical and practical in the way they think, talk and act. In other words, exactly how you would expect a film crew to be.  

Filming takes time and they were scheduled to be there for a two-day shoot. Night one: nothing happened. Night Two? And things will be slightly different for the only two (living) residents there… 

My friend’s sleep is disturbed at around two or three in the morning. He thinks someone is sitting at the end of his bed. Indeed, he feels actual pressure being exerted on his feet. 

He doesn’t know what to do. Perhaps he instinctively feels turning the light on would be a bad idea? And so, he decides to talk loudly about camera angles and microphones. After a few minutes, the ‘prescience’ leaves. 

Around the same time, his colleague wakes to hear the coat hangers jangle in his wardrobe. There was no draft and he couldn’t explain why they were moving. Both are astonished to recount their experiences to each other over breakfast the next day. 

My friend later jokes to me that his attempt to make light conversation about technical stuff had bored his ghostly visitor to a point where he (or she) had simply moved next door to create mischief there. 

When we spoke about it, he recounted it with his normal grin and twinkle in the eye. He told me he didn’t feel threatened but had merely found the whole thing to be ‘weird.’ Was it a ghost or a trick of the imagination? Perhaps you’d like to find out?

And now, time for that cup of coffee. I think I may need it to be extra strong today.

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