‘Of all the houses I have seen,’ wrote Louis Jennings in 1880, ‘the castle at Bolsover is the most weird and ghostly.’ Strung out along a hilltop, its history reaches back to William the Conqueror, who gave the site to William Peveril.
Jennings describes wandering through the ruined parts of the castle, knocking in vain on doors until at length he found the old caretaker. She admitted him to the rooms that were still roofed and furnished – a vaulted hall with portraits, the Star Room with a chair in which the famous Bess of Hardwick (b. 1527) used to sit in her days at Bolsover, bedrooms called ‘Hell’ and ‘Heaven’ and ‘the Duke’s Chamber’, dark recesses in the tower with grated windows, one of which, the old woman said, was ‘Mary Queen of Scots’ dungeon’. The place had a feeling to it which Jennings had not encountered elsewhere. ‘It looks like a haunted house,’ he said to the woman. ‘You would say so if you lived here,’ she answered, but for the time said nothing more.
She then took him downstairs to cellars and passages said to be the remains of the Norman castle. Here was the high vaulted chamber used as the kitchen, which was connected by a stone passage with a sort of crypt. Beneath this, she said, was a church, never opened since the days of William Peveril. Their footsteps had a hollow sound, and Jennings thought there must have been empty space below the stone floor, but what it had been used for no one seemed to know. He remarked jokingly that this was where all the ghosts came from, to which the old woman replied seriously:
‘It is, sir; and when the family are here the servants sometimes will not come down here except by twos and threes. Oh, many people have seen things here besides me. Something bad has been done here, sir, and when they open the church below they’ll find it out.’
She went on to talk of uncanny experiences of her own:
‘Just where you stand, by that door, I have several times seen a lady and gentleman – only for a moment or two, for they come like a flash. When I have been sitting in the kitchen, not thinking of any such thing, they stood there – the gentleman with ruffles on, the lady with a scarf round her waist. I never believed in ghosts, but I have seen them. I am used to it now, and don’t mind it.’
What she and her husband, who came to sleep there at night, did mind were the noises, which disturbed them, on occasion seeming to follow them round the house, carrying on worse when they left a room but always falling silent when they were in it.