This English castle, situated in North Yorkshire, next to the village of Castle Bolton, and built by Sir Richard, 1st Lord of Scrope, was started in 1379 and finished in 1399. It’s reached by driving, very carefully, along a narrow lane leading off the winding country road from Redmire to Carperby, just north of Aysgarth.
The car park is west of the castle and the daily charge was £4 in August 2019, £3 of which is refunded if you pay for entry into the castle. Our visit was shortly before the castle closed for the winter and, as far as I can tell, it hasn’t re-opened since. In common with most such buildings in the UK, it has been closed due the coronavirus pandemic and will only re-open when that crisis has been brought under sufficient control.
There were few cars when we arrived. There’s a public loo on the car park for visitors. And a short walk through the village will take you to the Bolton Arms should you feel like some refreshment.
I’ll give you a potted history of the castle before describing the place and the visit, as this piece is a guide for those who’d like to visit, and information and entertainment for those who’ll never make it.
The castle was more than a defensive stronghold; it was a luxury home that broadcast the status and royal approval of the family at the time of construction. In 1536, the 8th Baron Scrope upset Henry VIII and the castle was ‘fired’ as a result, suffering major damage. And in 1647 it was ‘slighted’ and left militarily useless by Oliver Cromwell’s forces following a 6-month siege when the family backed the losing side in the Civil War.
Nearby Bolton Hall became the new home of the family in 1675. In 1761 the North East Tower collapsed during a damaging storm.
Just before the end of 1999, extensive conservation work was completed to make the castle accessible for visitors. Today, virtually the whole castle normally remains open to the public from 1st April to 3rd November each year, charging £9.00 per adult for entry to the building and gardens, £7.50 for ‘concessions’, including derelicts over 60 (that’s us) and children aged 5-18 (younger ones get in free).
On entry, you’re given a useful sheet giving details of the history and how to make the most of your time, along with a plan detailing each of the five floors of the remains. This useful guide, together with the many information boards throughout the grounds, gives a great many useful facts.
You enter on the ground floor and collect your tickets from the gift shop, accessed through the Tea Rooms. The advice is that you go first to the Courtyard, a wide-open area in the centre of the castle giving access to several rooms on the ground floor.
Having arrived here in wind-blown autumn drizzle, we were glad to get under cover. As we ventured back out we were pleased to discover the rain had stopped. We visited the Armourer’s Workshop, where various replica weapons from the Wars of the Roses (a civil war) in the late 15th century are displayed. You’d have to be fit and strong to wield those swords and pikes! Only the wealthy could afford the solid armour needed to avoid sudden death from the powerful longbows in use at the time. The peasantry, forced into acting as foot soldiers, had to make do with whatever protection they could muster and were therefore more likely to be killed than their masters.
From there we entered the Threshing Floor, where a pony or donkey would have been bound to the grinding wheel to make flour from grain, tended by a single man; probably the most boring job imaginable, as the poor beast of burden walked in a small circle without halt all day.
The Brew House is where beer was made. Here, you’ll find a board giving information about ‘small beer’ being used as a substitute for polluted water. However, you should take that story with a pinch of salt, as there’s evidence water was commonly consumed at the time. Whilst some was polluted through poor sanitation it wasn’t considered to be unhealthy as a drink; the reality was it generally tasted foul. The brewing process rendered the liquid more palatable and provided an energy source. Many people, including infants, drank beer; but usually from choice rather than through fear of disease, which wasn’t suspected as water-borne until Dr John Snow produced evidence of its cause of Cholera in London in 1856. Before then, it was widely considered the smell of bad water caused disease.
The Bake House, with its large open fire, fed the bread ovens behind. The bread was covered with red hot embers that burnt the bottom of the loaf but left a relatively clean and tasty ‘upper crust’ which was reserved only for the wealthiest. This process is often considered the origin of the expression relating to the high-born in use today. However, the evidence on this is somewhat different, with the earliest reference to the upper crust in relation to people occurring from 1823, when it was considered low slang.
With the Provender House, full of food, and the Kneading and Proving room, always a warm space to allow the bread to rise, doing their specialist jobs, the whole area was no doubt popular for its heat in winter and appetising smells throughout the year. Next-door is the Guard Room, all that’s left of the South East Tower. Above it would have been the Garrison Mess Hall, which gave access to half a dozen accommodation chambers.
We returned to the Courtyard to visit the Guest Tower, most of which is no longer standing. And then along to the outdoor Forge, a stores area and, rather surprisingly up a short flight of stairs to reach the outer cell underneath which lay the Dungeon, cut into the bare rock. This tiny, windowless cell is entered only by a gridded opening in the floor of the room above. Prisoners were either lowered by rope or tossed down to the stone area and generally left to rot. Cruelty was common at the time, but, in reality, very few prisoners were subjected to this form of torture.
In the castle, apart from the defending forces, the family, guests, servants, and clerics, were also a good number of craftsmen and women. These included stonemasons, blacksmiths, carpenters, foresters, millers, bakers, candlemakers, thatchers and many others. Not all lived within the castle walls, of course. Many lived in the small village and the surrounding countryside, but all would have been subject to the rule of the resident Lord of the castle.
Back up to the 1st floor and the Malting House and Old Kitchen, where we were engaged in conversation by a small group of men and women preparing the place for a private party that weekend. The food due to be served sounded delicious, but the place wouldn’t be open to the public for this event.
It’s from this level that you access the gardens. As the rain had returned with a vengeance, we gave the outside a miss, which meant we also didn’t see the Falconry Display or Archery Demonstrations generally held for visitors a few times each day.
On up to the second floor with the Solar, the Nursery, where some old games were available for play and a chest of clothes made available for children who want to dress in costumes of the time. And there are also the Monks’ Cells; simple and small but relatively comfortable livings within the security of the castle.
Next to the nursery, once used by ladies in waiting to Mary, Queen of Scots, was the Great Chamber, originally a comfortable and less formal gathering area for the immediate family.
From there we climbed to the 3rd floor and visited the room that was usually the bedchamber for the then Lady Scrope, with her husband’s chamber above. It served as the bedchamber for Mary, Queen of Scots, during her period of imprisonment. She brought 51 people with her, including a secretary, physician, 2 cooks and 3 laundresses (imprisonment was a little different for royalty than for the common folk consigned to the dungeon!). Bolton Castle was one of a number of prisons she occupied until a plot to assassinate Queen Elizabeth I was discovered, and she was executed for treason in 1586.
Above the luxury temporary prison is the fourth floor, giving access to Lord Scrope’s bedchamber, first occupied more than 600 years ago by the then Chancellor to King Henry II. Richard le Scrope died in 1403 and was succeeded by male offspring throughout the following centuries. There are a couple of info boards in this room, giving details of the exploits of various Lords of the castle from its building until 1653.
Beyond this room, a small part of the tower rises above the rest, providing views of the castle and the open countryside beyond. In spite of the returned drizzle and threatening cloud, we climbed the narrow stairs to get to these wonderful vistas and were rewarded with the sight of the distant fells with their heads in low clouds. On a clear, bright day, these panoramas would be truly spectacular.
We made our way back down to the 1st floor and entered the Tea Rooms, where we had a good, tasty lunch and warming drinks of tea and coffee, all very good and reasonably priced, served by friendly local women who made the whole experience a pleasure.
Back outside, we crossed the car park to catch sight of the wild boar kept in a wide area of trees and undergrowth on the rise above. But, being sensible pigs, they were sheltering out of sight.
This castle is a well-maintained and well-presented mix of ruins, grounds, and standing ancient buildings worth the visit. The place also welcomes school trips and is available for hire as a wedding venue. A good visit, which we all enjoyed.
I hope this account and the pictures accompanying it have been of interest and provide information for those curious about the history of our splendid little island.
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Stuart Aken is an English author, writing novels, short stories and a regular blog on topics of interest to writers and readers. Since April 2020 he has been posting daily pictures of natural beauty on his website to give some enjoyment to those people confined indoors due to the Covid pandemic. He writes in a number of different genres including adult epic fantasy, science fiction, romance, and literary. He reviews every book he reads, and usually posts a feature on the places he visits with his wife when on holiday.
You’ll find his work on his website – https://stuartaken.net
And his professional photography on his pages on Picfair - https://stuartaken.picfair.com/