With Buildings as with Faces There are Moments when the Forceful Mystery of the Inner Being Appears
It’s one of the majestic sights of Derbyshire. The unmissable Bolsover Castle is perched on a ridge high above the Vale of Scarsdale commanding attention for kilometres. Built on the site of a medieval fortress, the castle is a rare example of a 17th century aristocratic residence that was never Georgianised or Victorianised. Its centrepiece, The Little Castle, rising sheer from the cliff and overlooking the lawn in the bawn from dusk to dawn, was designed to resemble a Norman keep and does a pretty good job of that, certainly from a distance. The Cavendish family added parapets and installed rich panelling and colourful wall paintings in the main rooms. Historian Anne Daye calls their work “bijou fortification”.
The reason for it surviving unmodernised is not uncommon – neglect. In 1984 English Heritage took over the castle and began restoring it. Some of the lower building ranges are windowless and roofless but are otherwise intact ruins. The Little Castle has been so restored it’s as if the Cavendishes have just popped out in their sedan chairs. Respectfully set back from the stone walled compound, a contemporary café in a slick single storey pavilion mightn’t cook banquets but does serve up rather good sandwiches and cake.
Finola O’Kane, Professor in the School of Architecture, Planning and Environmental Policy at University College Dublin, observes how, “Ruins in Ireland have always been political in light of the country’s history. There’s an insouciance about ruins in England.” Often in the Emerald Isle apathy is apparent towards country houses due to their Anglo Irish origins. There are no Calke Abbey-style tour queues or Chatsworth-like business ventures. Powerscourt House in County Wicklow is perhaps the exception but it has no historic interiors left to wander round. Bolsover Castle is sufficiently sprawling so as to accommodate the high volume of visitors.
“Aged 20 I’d just finished the final exams for my history degree,” reveals Lucy Worsley, “and in the few weeks between exams and our having to leave college for good, I happened to pick up a random book in the library by Mark Girouard. It was called Robert Smythson and the Elizabeth Country House and I can’t recommend it enough. It’s about a treasure hunt that Mark Girouard made in search of the houses designed by Robert Smythson. He’s the best known of the shadowy mason designers – before the age of the professional architect – and designed fabulous Elizabeth buildings like Wollaton Hall and Hardwick Hall. The book builds up to a climax in Jacobean England: a house on a windy hilltop in Derbyshire associated with Robert Smythson’s son, John. The pictures of this chivalric romantic recreation of a gothic castle really intrigued me and inspired me to get a job at Bolsover Castle, working for English Heritage.”
She adds, “Over the next few years I was the Assistant Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Historic Buildings responsible for a big re-display project at Bolsover. This included the conservation of the wall paintings, restoration of the battlements, a new exhibition and the return to working order of what The Guardian newspaper called ‘the rudest fountain in England’.” These interventions at the turn of the 21st century have imaginatively livened up the sparseness of the The Little Castle. Dr Worsley wrote the English Heritage guide to Bolsover Castle.