18th-century prison with gory history reopens as £8.5m visitor attraction in Cornwall.

Most visitors to Cornwall head to the surf beaches, the picturesque fishing harbours, art galleries, gardens or castles in search of light and joy.

However, a murkier side of life in the south-west of Britain is being told from within the towering granite walls of an 18th-century prison, which is reopening as a new visitor attraction on Thursday.

The £8.5m Bodmin jail recounts tales of crime and punishment in Cornwall from the 1700s to the early 20th century. Visitors are treated, if that is the right way to put it, to a subterranean “dark walk” that uses special effects to expose the lives and deaths of some of those once imprisoned here.

They are invited to stroll in and out of the cells where prisoners once lived and to inspect the artefacts found in excavations of the prison including bunches of rusty keys and even what might be the skull of the fabled Beast of Bodmin.

The most daring can take part in paranormal events or watch horror films, as the jail claims to be one of the most haunted places in the UK.

For those who want to immerse themselves, a £38.5m four-star boutique hotel is due to open early next year. Each room comprises three former cells: one for the bedroom, one the living area and the third the bathroom.

Martin Lyall, the jail’s general manager, accepted it was a challenging time to open a tourist attraction but said the “staycation” market had been strong in Cornwall this summer.

“Many people were reporting levels above 2019. We think that market may stay strong into 2021 and even 2022. The future is promising,” he said.

It will also be a boost to Bodmin, often a town that visitors whizz past on their way to the beach or Cornwall’s better-known attractions such as the Eden Project and St Michael’s Mount. Post-Covid it is expected that about 30 people will work at the attraction and more than 50 at the hotel.

Visitors can enter the “dark walk” element of the attraction through a doorway hidden by a bookshelf. Stories of mining, smuggling and wrecking (when boats were lured on to the rocky coastline) are told.

But it may be the individual stories of the prisoners who were housed in the jail between 1779 and 1927 that visitors find the most compelling. Such as that of brothers William and James Lightfoot, who were convicted in 1840 of the highway robbery of merchant Neville Norway on the road between Bodmin and Wadebridge. More than 20,000 came to watch their execution and a special train was laid on so people would not miss out.

Or that of Selina Wadge, who was hanged at the age of 28 in 1878 for the murder of her son, whom she was said to have dropped into a well on Bodmin moor. Her final words were: “Lord deliver me from this miserable world.”

More than 35,000 prisoners were held at the jail, including 341 children. Fifty-five people, eight of them women, were hanged within the walls, some for heinous crimes such as murder (one woman, Sarah Polgrean, poisoned her husband, Henry, with arsenic hidden in a pat of butter), others for what through modern eyes seemed much more minor, such as sheep rustling or setting fire to a neighbour’s crop. The last execution took place in 1909.

When the prison opened conditions were particularly brutal. Men, women and children were kept in communal cells and one in four died of typhoid.

Later conditions were improved and Bodmin claims to be the first jail in Britain to hold prisoners in individual cells. Sanitation was better, inmates were paid to work, and death, at last unintended ones, became more uncommon.

One the most eye-catching exhibits is the skull of a creature that some believe is the Beast of Bodmin. It was found 100 years ago during the demolition of a hospital wing.

Close to it is an account written by a French prisoner of war, Capt Mathieu Pringy, who claimed that during a trip out from the jail in the 1790s he encountered the beast, a creature with the “largest pair of piercing eyes” and “teeth larger than daggers.”

But perhaps equally as impressive and evocative is the collection of keys. The hefty one for the main gate is 22cm long and weighs 0.5kg. Another display holds a couple of dozen cell door keys found during a 2005 excavation of the jail’s execution pit. The thought is that warders may have ceremonially thrown them into the pit, perhaps when the prison finally closed.