Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire has recently been the subject of an exciting £1.3million project, aimed at giving visitors the opportunity to experience the ‘Cavalier’ splendour for which the fairytale site was renowned. We sent Members’ Panellist (and serious Bolsover enthusiast!) Anne Mitchard to check out the changes…
"An invitation to visit Bolsover Castle doesn’t need to be made twice. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve cajoled friends, family and colleagues along in the past, and it never ceases to thrill. I snapped up the opportunity as a supporter on the Members’ Panel and, having already seen the exceptional renovations at Kenwood, I was curious to see how this approach – blending painstaking period restoration with 21st century appeal – could be applied at Bolsover.
Where to begin? English Heritage trailed the restyling of the castle for some months, laying on events for families that invite us to imagine the energetic equestrian lifestyle of its most famed occupant William Cavendish, Earl and later Duke of Newcastle during the 17th century. Could a sensitive restoration that satisfies the serious historian also accommodate swashbuckling children and horses?
Originally built by William Peveril as one of many small but prominent defensive positions, Bolsover Castle was never a country seat designed to celebrate dynasty. It was a place of pleasure, intricately designed by Sir Charles and fully exploited by his eldest son William, whose impressive family home was at Welbeck Abbey just across Bolsover Moor.
“The visitor becomes Cavendish’s latest welcome guest”
Prior to the recent refurbishments, during a Derbyshire downpour or on a winter’s day with horizontal sleet driving across the valley, imagining ‘fun’ at Bolsover required a concentrated leap of faith. But now, the visitor becomes Cavendish’s latest welcome guest, encouraged to join in, find out, even dress up, and get involved!
The presentation of information in the Stable block is high quality and stylish, using images from Cavendish’s book on horsemanship. Gone are the push-button displays in favour of curious artefacts and intriguing clues designed to provoke discovery and conversation.
“Guests are here, and the entertainment is imminent”
Approaching the Little Castle entrance, glimpses of the smart new stone obelisks on top of the garden wall promise much. Within, rush matting has been installed in the Pillar Room to create a homely welcome, and in the Star Chamber, period style furniture invites you to sit down, relax and enjoy the painting and wall hangings. In the Marble Closet, rich red silk taffeta replaces the faded fabric enveloping the room, and the imagination is immediately given a boost.
The matting, furniture, curtaining and ‘tapestries’ are the result of much deliberation and research. As a result rooms now have an intimacy and colour that exude warmth and comfort. Where before the visitor might strain to evoke the past, it now feels as if the household has just arrived from Welbeck, the guests are here and the entertainment is imminent.
At every turn there is something new to notice; the decision to undo alterations from the more recent past may have been difficult for the heritage team, but new doors triumphantly brighten the Marble Closet, creating a balanced and theatrical space, and making it easy to imagine William Cavendish welcoming his guests from the balcony or seducing a lover within.
“This Little Castle is dressed to impress!”
And just when the visitor feels completely enchanted, there is more to come. Access from the staircase onto the Wall Walk is complete! Stand on the ramparts of the garden wall and before you stretch the stunning views of the Derbyshire countryside that would have been enjoyed by Thomas Hobbes and other members of the Cavendish circle.
Look down into the garden and see new views of the Venus fountain, and the bold addition of a gravel mosaic depicting the Cavendish crest. In true Cavendish spirit, this Little Castle is dressed to impress!
Now it is possible to imagine how King Charles I and Queen Henrietta Maria might have moved from the entertainment in the castle garden to the terrace range for the banquet. Surely the royal visitors did not have to go outside again and around? More likely, they could have strolled along the top of the wall to the applause of the assembled guests, taking in the views, and entering the upper floor of the terrace range at the far end.
“It all seems to make complete sense now”
It all seems to make a complete sense now: this is a successful blend of serious research and sensitivity to the Little Castle’s dedication to entertainment. Just as the young William and his little brother would have played knights among the medieval ruins before their father began the rebuilding, children today are encouraged to play here; there’s even a new play area with wooden architectural features to explore!
The sun was beginning to set on the vast landscape silhouetting the castle as we had to leave, pausing in the garden to admire the new period planting, reluctant to be released from the spell of this place. This garden is surely meant for such an evening! Lights should be twinkling from the little rooms and recesses in the garden wall; music should be playing; laughter should be heard from nearby; caged birds should be singing and servants should be offering us wine and cake. But sadly, it’s home to sleep: perchance to dream… of the next time."
Visit Bolsover Castle
Bolsover Castle is open every day until the end of October, transporting visitors back to the castle’s Cavalier heyday with colourful costumed characters and an exciting programme of events for all.
You can experience a reproduction of the dazzling entertainment put on for King Charles I in 1634 this weekend (Saturday 26 and Sunday 27 July 2014). The castle will also be preparing for the 'royal visit' during the day, with a 'Cavalier school' for children.
Join our Members’ Panel
If you’re an English Heritage Member with a passion for romantic ruins, glorious gardens and spectacular country homes, we want to hear from you! Apply now to join our Members’ Panel for the chance to review properties, events and exclusive experiences this summer.
English Heritage membership gives you free access to over 400 historic properties all over the country, and free or discounted access to hundreds of events every year.