Bolsover Castle

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Should you take the M1 motorway north, you might glance over to the right, somewhere around Chesterfield, and see a castle on the hilltop. For me it has always been an intriguing place and one with memories attached. It is one of those arbitrary boundaries that mark my home territory, long before I am anywhere near home.

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Bolsover Castle is a strange place… part ruin, part stately home. You cannot from this distance, tell exactly what it is you are looking at. Get a little closer and the story becomes even stranger. Perched on its vantage point, Bolsover was once a Norman castle, built by the Peverel family in the 12thC. Over the next hundred years it saw battles, finally falling to William de Ferrers.

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By the end of the 13thC the castle had passed through a number of hands and was falling into disrepair, until in 1608 it was rebuilt by its new owner, Sir Charles Cavendish, the son of Bess of Hardwick, credited with the building of Chatsworth, thought to be the most beautiful house in the realm and where, for a time, Mary, Queen of Scots had been held as a prisoner.

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Sir Charles’ son, William Cavendish, who became 1st Duke of Newcastle upon Tyne, continued the project. The Little Castle… the central Keep, remains intact to show the extraordinary change of purpose from embattled castle to stately home. Most of the rest of the buildings, other than the stables and riding house,the oldest of its kind still in use, now remain in a ruined state, adding a strange romance to the place which must be quite eerie at night. In the sunshine, though, the ruins are a place of golden stone and dramatic shapes and shadows, providing a magnificent backdrop to the simplicity of the gardens and the rather strange fountain in their midst. You get the distinct feeling that fountain could tell stories…

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Inside the Little Castle there is a whole other story… and an intriguing one too. No-one can fail to be impressed by the marble, the gilding and the paintings of what was once a sumptuous place. Yet, on closer inspection, the artwork provides a riddle. One room is devoted to the senses, another to the the strength of man conquering beast… still others can only have been the equivalent of sleeping…or not… within an almost pornographic boudoir. The reputation of its playboy owner leaves a trace on the walls…

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Yet there appears to be a deeper story here, as the levels of the building rise, the artwork slides from the most earthy depictions to the more elegant… and then to the celestial, with one of the main apartments crowned with starry blue and another, its ceiling, a magnificently painted work of trompe l’oeil, that seems to rise as a dome from the Bacchanalia around the edges to the central figure of divinity.

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The fabric of the building itself seems to echo this ascending story, from the warm earth of the kitchens and dungeon-like pantries, through the elegant apartments, until you reach a landing that opens out beneath an exquisite ‘lantern’ that reaches up to the sky.

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