Most of its previous residents couldn’t wait to get out, but we were excited to be getting our first opportunity to get behind the bars of the historic Shepton Mallet prison.
Together with the Prince’s Regeneration Trust, myself and my colleague John Brunsdon were invited to tour the prison by the Ministry of Justice as we try to help develop a vision for using the decommissioned building to benefit the local and regional community.
As part of the consultation process on the future of the prison, we are involved in driving community engagement with the people of Shepton to ensure that any redevelopment benefits the town in a way that is sustainable and that meets the real needs of people living in the area.
After walking past this building every day on my way to school when I was growing up in Shepton, it was fascinating to finally see inside and get a sense of the scale and history of this imposing structure.
The prison has been in Shepton since 1615, and the existing structure has buildings from the late 18th century to the 1970s. With such a diverse range of architecture, and the buildings’ listed status, the prison presents challenges and opportunities for its future use.
The large 60s/70s structure separate from the main prison housed a lot of the workshops for prisoner education and work, and the layout suggests studio space – albeit very secure studio space!
Inside the main historic building, the sheer scale of the curtilage walls – the highest prison walls in the UK – is pretty imposing.
However – as we learned – it wasn’t always enough to keep people inside, and we learned about a daring escape that involved prisoners breaking out using a bedstead to break a hole in their cell walls!
The layout of the cells area will be familiar to anyone who has ever seen Porridge – with an arcade of tiered cells, all claustrophobic enough inside to make anyone think twice about breaking the law!
In contrast, the open exercise yard, with its neatly kept raised garden beds and the surrounding stone building, almost had the feel of a public square and was strangely peaceful – at least until you learned the tower you could see from there was used by the US military in WWII to hang a record number of prisoners.
Creating a vision
The prison has housed a number of well-known names over the years, from the Krays to the Magna Carta (when it was used as National Archive storage in the 1930s).
But after 400 years of being a closed door, we now have the opportunity to see the prison open up and take its place in the heart of the Shepton community.
The average time a decommissioned prison takes to be sold is about two years. That means we, as a community, have that time to influence how this valuable space can fit with our vision for Shepton.
Consultation on the local plan for Shepton is well advanced, and will have a big influence on the priorities for any developments in the town – including the prison.
But there is also the opportunity, now and in the coming months, to have a complementary and far-reaching consultation on the vision for not just the building but the whole of Shepton and the surrounding areas.
We invite anyone interested in the future of Shepton Mallet, as well as arts, heritage and education in the South West, to join the conversation and get their voice heard.