I’ll start off by saying one thing: I hadn’t done my research before I stayed at this hotel.

When I pitched the idea, my editor said: “You’re brave.”

He was right – I was feeling brave.

I was also feeling wildly optimistic.

I mean, how bad could it really be?

Well, I was shocked.

The Athena Guest House is situated halfway down Cowley Road, opposite the entrance to Magdalen Road, at the point where shops and restaurants turn into houses.

On Trip Advisor it has 182 reviews, with an average rating of two out of five, making it the worst-rated Oxford hotel on the website.

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I arrive at the black front door on Thursday night. The paint is peeling, it's covered in thick black tape, and there are five doorbells.

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I see a sign: “Press the doorbell in the middle and if we don’t answer call us.”

I press the bell and, unsurprisingly, there’s no answer. So I try a few more. Nothing.

I call the landline. Still no answer.

To set the scene a little it’s raining. In fact, it’s pouring. Is this bad omen?

I’m not quite sure what to do at this point, so I wait.

About three minutes pass, then I get a call from a mobile number. “Yeah, hello,” they say. I’m assuming this is the hotel. “I’ve got a room, please can I come in?”

This is very much how I imagine Mary and Joseph arriving at the inn with no rooms.

It’s silent. “Hello?” no reply. Has the line gone dead? I look at my phone but they’re still on the other end. “Hello?”

Then the front door rattles. “Yes, hello. Have you paid?”

I have. The room cost me £42 (I paid extra to have an en-suite). This is the cheapest room I could find in Oxford.

He lets me inside, tells me to follow him down a couple of stairs into the back room.

This room is cluttered. It appears to be a kitchen area and is full of bizarre things like a Dolmio jar full of strawberry laces, piles of papers and DVDs and chairs with tea towels on the back.

He asks me to fill out a form with all of my personal details. I’m not sure what to do, I’ve written quite a bit about identity fraud yet there’s no way of checking if this is okay. So, I fill it out – in my worst handwriting.

He wants to see some ID – I’m cautious. He shows me a sign on the back of the door seemingly from Oxford City Council about how hotels need to check the identity of guests.

Oxford Mail: Police arriving to the hotel in 2015Police arriving to the hotel in 2015

I can understand why the managers are so keen to be careful: in 2015, Thames Valley Police revealed that the Athena Guest House was one of nine buildings on the Cowley Road where grooming gangs had sexually exploited girls over a number of years, and Superintendant Christian Bunt said at the time that 'hotels that do not take customer details' allowed such exploitation to take place – so I’m glad to see that there is some  kind of consideration for safety now.

“Okay, these are your keys. One of them is for your room, the other is for the front door.” It seems clear.

But wait, there’s a catch.

Unlike the traditional way of opening a door with a key, here I’ve been told you have to put the key in, take it out slightly, rattle it around until there’s a click and then twist.

At this point, all I can do is hope.

He leads me up the staircase to my room. Room number 6.

The carpet is what I notice the most: it’s somewhere between a beige and a chocolate brown with thick spots on. They kind-of look like holes.

Oxford Mail: The front reception entrance The front reception entrance

Oxford Mail: The corridor into Room 6 The corridor into Room 6

I put the key into the door and twist, but there’s no need – it’s already open.

“Is it only you?” He asks me. Yes, I reply. “Well then, I need to take those two towels, excuse me.”

My first impression – and I must stress this is in the first few seconds of entering – is that it’s actually quite nice.

There’s a purple canvas painting of some flowers adorning the white walls and another chipped black frame that has an abstract picture of flowers in a vase.

Oxford Mail: My room My room

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Flowers seem to be the ‘theme’, if there is one, with a vintage-looking floral blue and grey bedsheet on the crisp white duvet.

I explore. I must admit, I’m nervous about the bathroom so I leave that until last.

Oxford Mail: The showerThe shower

The furniture in the room is oddly placed. For example, I can’t get to the wardrobe because there’s a cabinet in the way. And I can’t fully open the fridge because there’s a cabinet in the way.

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But I try to – and when I open the fridge, it’s not even on. It does smell a bit funky and there are also green splodges on the front. I don’t dare touch it to see if it’s either wet or sticky.

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The man knocks on my door. He asks me to sign a receipt and then apologises in advance for the noise outside my door. All I hear is him turning the lights on and off again and again.

In the other direction – a lot of traffic. But I’m on Cowley Road. This is the perfect location for a hotel.

All I can see through my torn curtains with giant holes in and scratches on is the City Arms pub.

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Channelling my inner Four in a Bed guest, I rifle through the drawers to see what I find.

I pull out the guest information book. Obviously, this will be full of fun things to do before the pandemic shut everything down, but I’m intrigued.

I open the thick burgundy leather booklet but there’s nothing inside. One clear plastic wallet. Disappointing and pointless.

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The floor is distractingly creaky as I step around the room.

So, I go to the bed. I’ll sit on this for a while, maybe watch some TV.

In the TripAdvisor listing, it said ‘some rooms’ have Sky. Not my room though. I’ve got three remotes to try and work the telly, all three are quite old. You know the kind of old where the back has fallen off, the batteries are taped down, and the tiny words written on all the buttons are so faint they are barely visible.

The next thing I see is some dark black stains on my pillow. I would have let this go because the bedding is crispy and looks new on today, but I’ve also noticed some tiny hair - I let this go as fluff.

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Before I go to sleep, I check my door is as locked as it could be.

The handle is broken and swinging and the top lock is a lift up job. I don’t feel safe.

Oxford Mail: The carpetThe carpet

I’ve got a couple of people on speed-dial but there’s nothing really, really bad about this hotel to make my dramatic exit worth it.

There’s nothing exceptional either. I try and go to sleep – but I only get about two hours and even that isn’t great. For the first time, in a long time, I’m up before my alarm.

I wouldn’t stay here alone by myself ever again.


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