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Give Bolsover the Once Over
Bolsover Castle (Chesterfield)
Member Name: SWSt
Bolsover Castle (Chesterfield)
Advantages: Stunning ruins offering some incredible views
Disadvantages: Need to choose the day of your visit carefully!
It's kind of hard to miss Bolsover Castle. Situated in the small, fairly non-descript village of Bolsover in Derbyshire it dominates the area. Sitting high on a hilltop and situated right on the hill edge, it is an impressive building and a fantastic castle to visit, whether your preference is for old, traditional style castles or something (slightly) more modern.
As noted above, Bolsover Castle dominates the area it is in, so it is hard to miss. Thankfully, it's also easy to get to by car. Simply follow the signs to Bolsover village from Chesterfield and the castle sits right on the edge of the town. The castle site itself is well-signed with the usual brown signs and there is a car park near the entrance which is free for visitors to the castle (although you need to obtain a token from the gift shop to operate the exit barrier.)
A Quick History Lesson
Bolsover Castle dates from the 1600s and belonged to a family loyal to the Royalist cause in the English Civil War. When Charles I was exiled, the owner of Bolsover went into exile with him and suffered the indignity of seeing his ancestral home being partially destroyed by the Parliamentarians as punishment for his support of the late King. When Charles II was restored to the throne in 1662, the lords of Bolsover returned, embarking on an ambitious rebuilding project that resulted in the castle we see today.
Bolsover Castle actually consists of two distinct parts. The biggest part of the site is occupied by a ruin, dating from Tudor and Stuart times. Despite being a ruin, the castle still consists of some pretty impressive structures, including a rare example of a 17th century Keep. Although none of the internal structure remains, it's often clear from the remaining walls where the original rooms were (so for example you can see the walls which marked the Great Hall or Kitchens) and these give you a good idea of how the castle would have been laid out in the late 16th or early 17th centuries. The owners were also great lovers of horses, and the old stable blocks and riding area which they built are still mostly intact and can be viewed today.
The ruins are surprisingly extensive and, whilst there are no towers to climb and or complete rooms, it will still take quite a while to wander around. Most of the main rooms have some well-written boards giving you information about each area (although a few of these repeat information you have already read elsewhere) and taking you through the history and development of the castle and the significant events it has witnessed. For an English Heritage site, the boards are very good (lack of information is a weakness of many EH sites, I find). They give you a potted history of the site and point out some of the more interesting features to look out for on the castle. An audio tour is available (free), if you want more information, but I can't comment on this as we didn't use it.
In addition to all of this, there is a very well put together exhibition in the old stable block which gives lots of information about Bolsover and the family that lived there. This is well-written and interesting and I'd recommend it as the first place to go when you enter the castle as it really gives you an idea of the history of the site and things you should be looking out for as you wander around.
A nice touch is a little video presentation (lasting about 15 minutes) which takes you round some key parts of the site and shows you what it looks like. This is mainly aimed at disabled visitors or the infirm (to whom large parts of the castle would be otherwise inaccessible) and is well put together, if ever so slightly cheesy in parts. Supposedly narrated from the viewpoint of one of the Lord's loyal servants, it takes you through certain parts of the castle and pointing out what they would have looked like in their heyday, helping to give the ruins a sense of place and context.
Fine though the architecture is, however, the most impressive feature of Bolsover is arguably the view. One of the most complete parts of the castle stands right on the edge of the hill. From here, you can see just how completely the castle dominates the surrounding area; the owners were literally looking down on everyone and reminding them of how important they were. Today, this means that the castle offers stunning views across the Derbyshire and Yorkshire countryside and on a clear day, you can see for miles.
The ruins of Bolsover Castle are well worth seeing and if you enjoy wandering around ruined sites are very interesting. Mrs SWSt and I easily spent the best part of two hours there and enjoyed every minute of it. The ruins are on an impressive scale and the views across the surrounding countryside almost worth the admission price on their own!
You do, however, need to go on a good day. Since it is a ruin, much of the site is open to the elements and on a rainy day, you would get very wet indeed. Moreover, because it sits on top of a hill, the site is very exposed and open to the wind. The day we went, the UK was being battered by the tail end of a hurricane and it was so windy that we could scarcely hear each other talk even when we were standing right next to each other! Some areas were like a wind tunnel and the wind there was so strong that it was a struggle just to walk in a straight line. Choose the day of your visit with care!
But surely, I hear you cry, you said there were two castles at Bolsover and so far you've only talked about one. What can I say? You've got me. So here goes...
The second castle is affectionately known as the Little Castle and is a stone keep-like building in the middle of the ruins. This new section, built after the Restoration, is still complete and visitors can go inside and see the lavishly decorated interiors which depict myths and legends in rich colours on the walls. It's here you can see the changing nature of castles: from a building designed to protect and defend to one designed to impress its visitors with its grandiose (and expensive) decor.
Sadly, I can't tell you much more as the Little Castle was closed off when we visited, due to the high winds. Some people say that it is the most impressive part of the castle, although since both Mrs SWSt and I love ruined castles, I suspect we would still have preferred the older ruins and would have been more disappointed had we been able to get the Little Castle, but not the older 17th century section. From what we saw on the video presentation mentioned above, the Little Castle does indeed look very ornate and in your face - perhaps slightly tacky for modern day sensibilities, but still impressive in a gaudy way.
The castle has the usual gift shop selling a range of goods for both adults and kids, together with a decent sized tearoom which sold some very nice cakes and is well worth a visit. There are toilets just outside the shop and (unusually) another lot inside the castle.
Entrance to the castle is £8 for adults, £4.80 for children and £7.20 for concessions (2012 prices). Although slightly more expensive than some properties, you effectively get two castles for the price of one, so it represents good value for money. Even without seeing inside the Little Castle, Mrs SWSt and I spent the best part of two hours there. And, in fairness to English Heritage, they reduced the admission cost to half price on the day we went due to the lack of access to the complete site. Given how much else there is to see on the site, I felt that this was a very fair offer indeed.
With its impressive views of the surrounding countryside, imposing ruins and the addition of the Little Castle, Bolsover castle is a fine example of a 17th century castle, which charts both the defensive importance of such buildings and the gradual move to more ornate, elaborate family homes all on the one site. Well worth a visit. Just make sure you pick a nice day to go!
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Summary: A stunning ruin showing how castles evolved
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