“On a dark night, the ghosts emerge to fright”. That’s what people say about Bolsover Castle in Derbyshire, dubbed England’s “most haunted”.
The notorious reputation of the castle has grown over the years with sightings of ghosts, unexplained apparitions and paranormal activity.
Earlier this year, I embarked on a trip to this creepy castle to find out if its reputation for weird ‘goings-on’ has any substance…
The castle was built in the 17th Century for Cavalier ‘playboy’, William Cavendish during the English Civil War.
It sits on the ruins of an earlier medieval fortress founded in the late 11th century by William Peveril, one of William the Conqueror’s knights,
Mysterious spectres and unexplained footsteps are not uncommon. There have been sightings of ghostly women, a howling dog, and a small child sitting on the castle stairs.
There are also tales of an army wearing Civil War uniforms approaching the castle from the hills beyond the house.
The castle historian claims that a number of people have heard the sound of a horse’s hooves followed by the emergence of a lone horseman at the castle gates who then disappears into the ether.
Unsurprisingly, I felt a sense of trepidation as we approached the Castle, even though it was daylight and gloriously sunny outside.
The castle sits on top of an exposed hill and looms ahead ominously as you approach it. Once inside there are dark shadows, creepy corners and cavernous chambers everywhere you look.
The whistling wind blows through the castle’s empty rooms and its long deserted spaces feel echoey and creepy.
I felt like someone was watching me as I made my way through the rooms on my own – and this was in broad daylight.
This is clearly an unnerving place. There are endless stories of doors swinging open and closed of their own volition, and objects physically moving or flying around.
Perhaps I was overthinking the weird atmosphere of the castle but then I read the reports of strange sightings by the staff at all times of the day.
There’s the story of builders working during the Covid lockdown who claim they saw the figure of a man in period dress who inexplicably disappeared into thin air.
The ghost of a boy has also been spotted, apparently holding visitors’ hands without them noticing. The same figure has also been seen dancing around the fountain in the castle gardens.
Riding School Riddle
One of the most imposing areas of the castle is the old riding school, built by William Cavendish, an avid horseman. His passion for horses and equestrian events led him to being dubbed “the father of British dressage”.
The Riding House is one of the earliest surviving equestrian rings in Britain dating from the 1630s and comprises four buildings – stables, a shoeing room, a forge and a large horse ‘schooling’ room.
It was here that William indulged his passion for training his horses in dressage. The horses were trained to manoeuvre around pillars or white posts and undertake “acrobatic” moves along the floor.
The Riding School has a particularly weird ambience, even in daytime, whilst the upstairs attic gives off a strange and slightly malevolent vibe. I felt a weird chill as I wandered into this cold, creepy space which overlooks the arena.
I could almost imagine the ghostly ranks of horses entering the arena and performing their dressage exercises right in front of my eyes.
The castle staff have reported hearing loud knocking and banging noises at night as well as noisy footsteps. Could this be “all in the mind”, a psychological reaction to a creepy old building?
The Little Castle, which lies within the ruins of the earlier 11th Centre fortress, is another place I wouldn’t fancy venturing late at night.
Its interior is more complete with the original rooms, resplendent with furniture, paintings and decoration. Once again it has a distinctly creepy feel – and not just because it lies abandoned and empty.
Photo – The Cavendish family c/o Bridgemen Images and the Peter Jackson Collection
William Cavendish was renowned for holding wild parties at the castle and the decor reflects his predilection for the exotic and erotic.
Wall decorations in the ‘Elysium Closet’ feature images of Heaven and Hell which bear down on you as you gaze upwards. There’s something disconcerting and chilling about the theme of the paintings and their imagery.
Visitors claim to have heard unexplained footsteps whilst staff are wary and nervous about staying late into the night.
Elsewhere in the castle, there have been sightings of a woman in a “pale blue dress”, rumoured by some to be William Cavendish’s wife, Margaret.
Down in the basement I stumbled into the kitchen, a cold and stark space, which also has a strange vibe.
It’s here where there have been reports of a baby crying. There have also been sightings of a ghostly maid carrying a baby wrapped in cloth which she then throws into the kitchen fire.
It has been suggested that she was an unmarried mother with an illegitimate child although the veracity of this story has not been proven.
A grey lady is sometimes seen walking through a wall which was the old entrance to the castle before disappearing into thin air.
There’s also a woman in a black and white Victorian costume, perhaps Mrs Robins, the housekeeper from the old vicarage? They’ve even named a room after her – the ‘Robins Bedroom’.
Why there should be so many odd sounds and strange sightings is a mystery. But Bolsover Castle is thought to be built on the site of burial pits during the Plague and Black Death.
The furnished rooms also gave me an uneasy feeling although I couldn’t quite put my finger on why this might be.
The impressive decorative ceiling of the Heaven Closet features a painting of the Ascension with angels surrounding the ascending figure of Christ. There is something unnerving about its assembled group of cherubs.
It has a slightly nightmarish, dream-like quality which made me feel a little dizzy.
House on Fire
The Little Castle is a maze of rooms and alleyways, and almost every room has a record of paranormal activity.
A room called the Pillar Parlour, designed by William Cavendish, is thought to be haunted by his ghost. I’m told that he’s been spotted in the corner by the fireplace. Who knows if this was a trick of the light or something more sinister!
Another strange phenomenon is the number of highly decorated stone fireplaces at Bolsover Castle. They look like somebody is about to descend down them, perhaps a witch on a broomstick.
It’s probably just my overactive imagination… after all, a large castle with so many rooms and high ceilings would’ve required a lot of heating especially during cold Derbyshire winters.
The Sign of the Witch
Witchcraft was still prevalent in the 17th and 18th centuries, and Bolsover is a hotbed of carved symbols designed to ward off evil spirits.
A study of witch marks by archaeologists reveals extensive groups of ‘protective signs’ in most of the castle buildings. These are some of the best examples of ‘protective’ symbols anywhere in Britain.
Over at the Riding School, archaeologists have found 20 marks including hexfoils, pentangles, starbursts, compass circles, tally marks, ‘X’ motifs and ‘mesh’ designs (see above left).
It was common in the 1600s for protective signs to be placed in stables and agricultural buildings. In folklore, there were tales of horses being borrowed or ‘hag ridden’ by witches at night.
The signs at Bolsover were deliberately located in specific places to protect William Cavendish’s prized horses from evil spirits.
Photos – Bolsover Castle Riding School, dressage horses and William Cavendish on horseback c/o Trustees of the British Museum
The Riding School’s doors all had a compass circle inscribed on their doors whilst the windows also bore protective marks. The west door has a triple ‘X’ design to block the entry of witches.
There are also numerous anti-witch signs in the the Star Chamber, one of the most impressive rooms in the castle. It features a strange set of concentric circles, carved into the wall to one side of the the bay windows.
These ‘apotropaic marks’ take the form of a never-ending circle designed to trap witches who might be trying to enter.
The witchcraft symbols are ‘counter-spells’, and are similar to the old superstition of putting ‘witch bottles’ and shoes in chimneys to stop witches gaining entry to a portal in a building.
Pentangle and compass designs are intended to ensnare malevolent demons by pinning them against a wall. A double ‘V’ sign calls on the protective power of Mary, the ‘Virgin of Virgins’.
I hadn’t spotted all of these markings on my trip because the interpretation at the castle doesn’t draw attention to them, but they are a reminders of an earlier superstitious age. Look out for them on your castle visit.
Satanic Capital of Britain
Today, many people are still wary about wondering around Bolsover Castle on their own, especially after dark.
Bolsover recently came top in a poll of Britain’s scariest places, organised by English Heritage. As a result, the castle has created a book where staff and visitors can record their paranormal experiences.
In its pages there are reports of unexplained occurrences, orbs of light and pinches. Visitors even claim they’ve seen William Cavendish wandering the lonely corridors.
The village of Bolsover has also been dubbed “the Satanic capital of Britain” because it has the highest proportion of Satanists anywhere in the country.
In the 2011 Census, 17 people in Bolsover declared their religion as ‘Satanism’. Whether this was a prank or they were dead serious about Satanism is open to question. But it does cast a dark shadow around this spookiest of castles.
I don’t think that I have the courage to traipse around the creepy rooms late at night by torchlight… but if you’re braver then me, why not take an evening tour?
Tammy’s Top Tips – A Spooky Trip to Bolsover Castle
Bolsover Castle is located in the village of Bolsover which is east of Chesterfield in Derbyshire. England.
The castle is open daily 10:00-17:00. Admission prices apply – there’s no need to pre-book tickets. There is limited parking on site.
The castle has capitalised on its “most haunted” reputation and runs ghost tours and evening events.
Photo – Bolsover Castle Wall Walk
Halloween is the best time of year to catch the tours when you can join costumed storytellers and ghostly guides.
Don’t forget to take a torch!
I’d strongly recommend the Wall Walk which provides unsurpassed views of the castle and surrounding countryside.
Just keep an eye peeled in case you see the marauding and bloodied ghostly army of Cavaliers!
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