Before each of our holidays we go on a “reconnaissance trip” to ensure not just what the destinations are like, but also to determine tiresome details like where the car park is, where the entrance is, how many steps there are and seemingly trivial details that, if unchecked, can prove disastrous.
So, on Saturday my friend J. and I set out to visit Hardwick Hall and Bolsover Castle. For regular users of the M1 motorway these two great Elizabethan buildings will be familiar sights as you hurtle along the road. Towering over the landscape to the east of the carriageway, Hardwick’s presence is particularly emphatic as it looms above the trees surmounted by Bess’s less-than-diffident monogram “ES” on each of its turrets. Bolsover is less evident, situated as it is further along the same escarpment, but surrounded by the 19th century developments of a mining town. Hardwick Hall, The West Front.
J. had never been to Hardwick before so we aimed there just in time for lunch. Inner man satisfied we set out for the house in bright, azure-skied, Spring sunshine, (weather forecast, grey skies and rain). The scale of the mansion amazes, the windows glitter in the sunlight, the golden stonework is radiant. When this edifice was erected it must have appeared wondrous to the local peasantry in their wattle and daub dwellings, like the Gherkin appearing in Chipping Camden. What an extraordinary woman could create this in the late 16th century… and when she was in her sixties. The interior is no less spectacular, housing as it does a superabundance of 16th century textiles. The collection is one of the finest in the country. Dear Bess, ever keen to be number one, made sure that her visitors had a steep climb before they entered “The Presence” in the High Great Chamber. Two floors up with the biggest windows in the house, this majestic chamber staggers even the blasé 21st century. What effect can it have had on the 16th?. As if that were not enough, next door is the Long Gallery. Wallpapered with tapestry (economically bought from the cash-strapped Sir Christopher Hatton), this room is over 150 feet long and 25 feet high and hung with a succession of ancestors, culminating in a spectacular portrait of Bess’s rival Queen Elizabeth. This is truly a palace built for a self-made woman, as staggering in its assurance to the present as it was to the past.
On then to Bolsover. Not a terribly promising approach, then suddenly the Castle appears towering over the road, teetering on the top of a steep cliff, with the clutter of the 19th century mining village at its feet. This is a destination to which the world should be flocking, for it is not a castle at all but a delicious folly, a conceit, erected by Bess of Hardwick’s son and continued by her grandson for lavish entertaining and display. What a sight it must have been in its hey-day for even now it delights by the scale of its architecture and its sheer dottiness. First the Riding School with its Serlian window and vaulted roof, followed by the “Terrace Range”. This is grandson William showing off with a suite of Baroque chambers where he hoped to entertain the King and his Court. Now ruined, with breath-taking distant views over landscape, it is but a prelude to the “Little Castle”. Built by William Cavendish in 1618 as a “toy” castle designed for pleasure and intrigue. Not a fortification in sight but a sequence of gilded, marbled and painted chambers with elaborate fireplaces and vast glass-filled windows, all linked to one another by a serpentine staircase. It is so enchanting for being so unexpected.
So next time you are passing this stretch of the motorway, give a thought to the delights that await you in these two places, and perhaps detour to visit them. A visit will be far more restorative than any Costa-coffee at a motorway service-station!