Off the beaten track

Bolsover Castle Derbyshire

It’s not often that I really see anything beyond the tarmac when I’m zipping up and down the motorway. I’m so focused on the destination that I don’t take that much notice of the scenery beyond the carriageway.

Yet on the stretch of the M1 between South Yorkshire and Derbyshire it’s impossible not to notice the imposing Bolsover Castle, which sits high up on the hill overlooking the passing traffic.

It was only after recently spotting newspaper photographs of the castle looking particularly moody and mysterious that I finally decided that it was about time to go and see what it was like.

Turning off the motorway and driving to the top of the hill found me at the castle gates. Set in the most surreal surroundings, it was nothing like I’d expected. It was pretty impressive close up and even on a gloriously sunny autumn afternoon the atmosphere was almost tangible.

Forgive the cliché, but if walls could talk this is a site that sure could tell some tales. The original castle, I learned, was built in the 12th century by the Peveril family and was later to play a part in many a battle. For some time it was in the hands of the crown until a revolt against the King saw the castle transformed into a garrison against the crown. Fast forward a few years – and several battles later – it found its way back into the hands of the crown. By the 13th century though the castle and the manor had been given to local farmers and it gradually fell into disrepair.

The land was bought in the 16th century by Sir George Talbot, one time keeper to the exiled Mary Queen of Scots, and also husband to the famed ‘Bess of Hardwick’. Sir George made his mark before it was passed to the next generation. Its next owner, Sir Charles Cavendish, employed the architect Robert Smythson to rebuild the castle.

Charles’ son, William, later took on the mantle of improving the castle and basically turned it into party central as he extended the buildings and added grand murals, painted ceilings, panelling and elaborate fireplaces. The former garrison was soon transformed into a stately home worthy of the movers and shakers of the time.

The story didn’t end there though as during the reformation of the Monarchy, Sir William was forced into exile and surrendered the castle to Parliamentarian troops. On his return he found the castle in ruins but managed to not only restore it to good order but also added a new hall and staterooms. He was also responsible for the creation of an indoor riding school – incidentally now the finest of its kind in the country. After his death his heirs chose not to live in the castle and instead made their home at Welbeck Abbey just a stone’s throw away across the county border into Nottinghamshire.

Today the castle is now in the ownership of English Heritage and despite the passing of time the past really doesn’t seem that far away. Walking along the castle walls overlooking the courtyard, it’s easy to imagine how it once was despite the fact that the long gallery is now minus its roof with abundant weeds growing out of the stone.

The interior of the castle itself though offers a glimpse of the opulence of the Cavendish era as some of the rooms have been returned to their original state. The huge, dark and imposing paintings of Hercules in the vaulted grand hall and the painted blue ceiling and gilded stars of the Star Chamber only make the empty and desolate neighbouring rooms all the more evocative.

Step back out into the fresh air and walk along the terrace and you’re rewarded with magnificent views for as far as you can see. Bolsover Castle sure is incredibly atmospheric even on a bright and sunny autumn day when it is teeming with visitors. It’s definitely well worth taking a detour to visit.

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