A castle designed for entertainment…

Ideally located on a cliff overlooking Derbyshire, Bolsover Castle can be seen clearly from afar. Upon first glance, it reminds you of the Tower of London, but do not be mistaken: what you see is a Norman mock castle and one of the best that there is…

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Bolsover Castle was once a real castle. The area was given to one of the Norman knights who fought along William I. He built the first castle and his descendants improved it. During medieval times, it saw action only once during the Baron War, fought between King John and his nobles and ending with the Magna Carta.

The castle lost its importance and started to decline, until the beginning of the 16th century when Sir Charles Cavendish, the son of the famous Bess of Hardwick, decided to embark upon a new building project: a passion he undoubtedly inherited from his mother. He planned to create a residence in which to entertain his guests, his main house Welbeck Abbey being only a few miles away. He started the project but did not live to see it finished and his son William Cavendish took over.

William did not only complete the mock Norman keep, but he also added the two other buildings we can see in Bolsover Castle today: the Stuart stately home and the riding house ( which is one of the oldest surviving in the country) and where William developed the riding style known as dressage. William Cavendish became a great friend to King Charles I and he eventually ascended to the peerage and became the Marquess of Newcastle. The king entrusted William to be the educator of his son and heir Charles ( the future Charles II) and William subsequently threw a fabulous banquet at Bolsover Castle in the king and his wife’s, Queen Henrietta Maria, honour. The event included the production of an original play (the price tag of which was about £2.5 million), a sum that put William into enormous debt.

During the English Civil War, William Cavendish became a Royalist general and along with Prince Rupert, the nephew of King Charles I, he lost one of the most critical battles in the war. It was the battle of Marston Moor in 1644, and the Royalists lost 13 soldiers for every Parliamentarian. After the battle, William Cavendish went into exile and returned only during the restoration in 1660. Whilst in exile, he married for the second time. His new wife Margaret Lucas was a poet and philosopher. When the couple came back to England, William was awarded by his former student King Charles II and was elevated into dukedom. In the same year, his wife Margaret published one of the first science-fiction books in history and you can read about it in my Bolsover Castle stories.

After the death of William in 1676, Bolsover Castle started to decline. William’s descendants did not need this massive complex and they began to take many elements from the castle for repairing works in their other estates. The castle became derelict ( mainly the Stuart state home part). In 1945, the castle moved to the hands of the Ministry of Works that supervised its restoration.

Bolsover Castle is open to the public and is operated by English Heritage. for more information, please check Bolsover Castle official website

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Not a traditional ruin…

Chasing castles review

We visited Bolsover Castle in the last week of August. This impressive castle appeared to us as we were entering the town of Bolsover. At first glance, it deserves the title “castle”, but as you get closer, you realise that it is far from being a castle: it is, in fact, a palace, a Stuart one at that, and because it was neglected, it has been frozen in time.

Having visited many glorious ruins managed by the English Heritage, we knew what to expect from them when presented with an actual ruin. However, in the case of Bolsover, things became a little more interesting due to the fact that both the riding house and the little Bolsover Castle cannot really be considered to be genuine ruins. We were therefore intrigued to see how the Heritage would deal with them. Ruin or no ruin, there was not a guided tour on offer ( which is something you come to expect from the Heritage). They did, however, have their latest audio video guide, which is probably the next best thing ( of course, I had a better gadget in my pocket called a smartphone which might have been a better solution than investing in dedicated hardware!).

Unlike many other properties that the Heritage manage, Bolsover Castle is fairly big and they have managed to turn the grounds into a very welcoming place for everyone. There is an excellent climbing frame near the entrance and a bowling green. Near the stables, we also found a series of simple historical games which managed to entertain my kids for over an hour and a half. Great to see that, even today, kids can enjoy simple games that do not require screens!

The unruined riding house has been turned into a nice exhibition area dedicated to the history of the most famous owner of the castle, William Cavendish ( there is little mention of his second wife, Margaret Lucas, which I felt was a shame). I was not really a fan of the short film presented in the stable. It was a strange mix of sound and images including the same sentences we had already seen in the exhibition. I would probably expect to see something like this in a modern art museum, not in a historical castle. In my opinion, if you decide to use video as a medium ( which I think is an excellent idea), then watch a couple of documentaries on the BBC or the history channel and you will learn how to use this much more effectively.

The other parts of the castle include the ruined palace where King Charles I stayed in his famous visit of 1634. It was one of the most significant private buildings in England during the Stuart era, but today you are actually drawn to what used to be the smallest part of the castle, also known as the little Bolsover Castle, which we found to be absolutely fascinating. The walled garden, in full bloom during our visit, also helped us realise that this entire place was designed for entertaining and not for fighting.

To sum things up, Bolsover Castle is a rare opportunity to see the lavish lifestyle and architecture of the early 17th century. English Heritage has managed to turn the area into a family-friendly property, and thanks to its new audio digital guides, you will be able to spend several hours exploring the place. I think that this is one of the best sites of the Heritage that I have visited. If it were a restaurant it would surely be in the Michelin guide earning at least one star!

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