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Home towns

Welcome to my home town: Bodmin beyond the Beast and Jail

This storied Cornish town has long suffered from a dark reputation – but it’s finally finding its feet, says Will Marlow

Monday 29 March 2021 11:24 BST
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The ‘Beast’ of Bodmin Moor is legendary
The ‘Beast’ of Bodmin Moor is legendary (Getty/iStock)

During lockdown, many of us made the pilgrimage back to our family homes – and rediscovered them through fresh eyes. Part guide, part love letter, “Home towns” is a new series in which we celebrate where we’re from. After all, it could still be a while before we can go anywhere else…

When I tell people I’m from the Cornish town of Bodmin, many ask excitedly if I’ve ever seen the so-called ‘Beast’ of Bodmin Moor. Cornwall’s version of Bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster the Beast is supposedly a big cat that preys on local livestock. It’s been the subject of many a blurry photo and unverified sighting since I was a kid, but was the least of my worries while I was growing up.

Hunkered down in a valley, Bodmin’s ominous-looking police station looks upon on the town from one side while the distinctive Sir Walter Raleigh Gilbert monument watches over it from the beautiful Beacon Nature Reserve on the other. These two structures perhaps better represent my home town’s enduring reputation than anything else – as a place that struggles with drug crime, and as somewhere better known for what it used to be.

Bodmin’s dark reputation within the county was probably formed when it became home to the County Lunatic Asylum in the early 19th century. Later, the hospital was named the more palatable St Lawrence’s, and my parents worked there throughout my childhood, instilling young me with an empathy for people with mental health issues.

To most locals though, the sprawling hospital was a “scary” place, with its classic horror-film-asylum look and tall tales about its inhabitants. It was coupled with another fearsome-looking building, one with supposedly more ghostly inhabitants – the Bodmin Jail. It’s been a tourist attraction for as long as I can remember, rundown when I was young: badly dressed dummies acting as the building’s former prisoners, and bats and weeds taking over the more ruinous parts.

The jail gave me my first inkling that Bodmin had a more colourful history than the tired town I grew up in suggested. As someone who will take to city streets to exercise my democratic right to protest, it gives me pride that my home town launched a number of uprisings against the policies of Tudor kings – all failed, but you have to admire their spunk. The people of Bodmin certainly do; each year the town celebrates its part in the 1549 Prayer Book Rebellion with Heritage Day in July.

The Camel Trail, a former railway line (Will Marlow)

I would take part in Heritage Day as a child, dressing up in 16th century garb and dancing with the other school kids up the high street to the tune of Bodmin Riding – a tune I could hum to you to this day. Sunny days were spent with friends walking and cycling around the Beacon Nature Reserve (“the Beacon”) and up and down the Camel Trail, a 17-mile former railway line that takes walkers, cyclists, runners, and horse riders to Wadebridge and then on to Padstow.

But these sunny memories are outnumbered by those couched in Cornwall’s grey drizzle. I would often use those same Beacon lanes to avoid school bullies on the way home. And I grew up in uncomfortably close proximity to drug crime and the town’s dark underbelly. It wasn’t unusual to find myself at a friend of a friend’s place where someone was taking heroin.

Bodmin wasn’t for me, for those reasons and more. Like the small town boy in Bronski Beat’s famous song, I left at 18 with everything I owned in a case. As a budding young gay man, I wasn’t going to find the answers I needed there.

Like the smalltown boy in Bronski Beat’s famous song, I left at 18 with everything I owned in a case

It took a pandemic to bring me back. When the country shut down, many of the reasons I lived in London – the music, the history, the gay culture, the food, and, most pressingly, the work – were stripped away. The city suddenly felt as oppressive as Bodmin had when I was growing up. For the first time in my life, my home town seemed to offer some solace.

I’ve returned to a changing town. While many of its issues remain, it no longer has to be the town tourists drive around to get to the rest of Cornwall. The looming buildings have been transformed – St Lawrence’s is now a leafy residential area – and I can see the beginnings of a place easing towards a more prosperous future.

Visit Bodmin once travel restrictions ease, and in the future you might be able to say you went before it was… dare I say it… fashionable.

Spend a night in the clink

Gone are the lousy mannequin prisoners of my youth. Now, Bodmin Jail is an £8.5m immersive experience that opened in October 2020. You can learn about the harsh lives of the prisoners, take the ‘Dark Walk’ to get a taste of the wider county and its long history of miners excavating the windswept countryside, and find out about the smugglers who navigated the rugged coastline. If you’re game, you can also follow in the footsteps of the condemned – to the fully working Victorian Hanging Pit.

Bodmin Jail Hotel is a new four-star offering (Supplied)

The rest of the ruins have also been converted in recent years, into the long-gestating Bodmin Jail Hotel, which finally opens its doors for guests on 17 May. It was a hard building to renovate: drills weren’t strong enough to get through the limestone walls, there were no copies of the original plans, and one of the biggest bat populations in the UK lived there (they now have a new roost on the site). Five years and £40m later, Bodmin now has a beautiful and highly unusual four-star hotel to draw tourists in.

Up the Beacon

The lanes around the Beacon Nature Reserve weren’t very tourist-friendly when I was skipping school in them; you had to know your way around. Now though, they’ve been tidied up and given signage, which takes the fun out of it for me but will make navigating them easier for you. Parts of the hill are closed off to benefit local wildlife, but there’s plenty of wild and windswept greenery to traipse through.

The Beacon (Will Marlow)

Since I’ve been back, I’ve relived feeling the wind in my hair cycling down the very steep hills from the Beacon to the Camel Trail. The abandoned concrete pipes at the start of the Trail that my friends and I would hang out on are long gone. Now, there’s a car park and a map that will direct you along the old railway line, following the beautiful tributaries of the Camel River.

Get fed and watered

One thing Bodmin has never been lacking in is pubs. Ten minutes down the Camel Trail is the Borough Arms, which is well-known for its carvery. Back in town you’ll find the Mason’s Arms, a proper locals’ pub, but welcoming, with low ceiling beams and a living room atmosphere. There’s also an actually-quite-nice Wetherspoons, the converted Chapel an Gansblydhen (locals naturally call it “Spoons”). Down the other end of town is the Hole in the Wall, another cosy pub with chatty locals. Ask them about the pub’s mascot, the taxidermied lion you’ll see on the way in.

The Borough Arms is well known for its carvery (Supplied)

Quality eateries are harder to come by in town – it’s mainly takeaways and pub grub. But the exception is the high-end Flory Restaurant on the town square, serving a Spanish-inspired menu with Cornish ingredients. There are also a few cafes (selling pasties, naturally) and cream teas are served at the Camel Trail Tea Garden.

Explore Bodmin’s past

There are two museums in the town: one about Bodmin itself, and the better-known Bodmin Keep, which explores Cornwall's military history. Near the latter is Bodmin & Wenford Railway, a 1950s-style train station from which you can take a pleasingly windy two-hour steam railway journey. Plus, for a glimpse of Bodmin’s prettier past, a short drive will take you to National Trust property Lanhydrock House, whose beautiful garden I ran around many times as a kid.

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