Grimsthorpe Castle is a country house in Lincolnshire, England 4 miles (6.4 km) north-west of Bourne on the A151. It lies within a 3,000 acre (12 km²) park of rolling pastures, lakes, and woodland landscaped by Capability Brown. While Grimsthorpe is not a castle in the strict sense of the word, its character is massive and martial – the towers and outlying pavilions recalling the bastions of a great fortress in classical dress. Grimsthorpe has been the home of the de Eresby family since 1516. The present owner is Jane Heathcote-Drummond-Willoughby, 28th Baroness Willoughby de Eresby, granddaughter of Nancy Astor, who died at Grimsthorpe in 1964.
The building was originally a small castle on the crest of a ridge on the road inland from the Lincolnshire fen edge towards the Great North Road. It is said to have been begun by Gilbert de Gant, Earl of Lincoln in the early 13th century. However, he was the first and last in this creation of the Earldom of Lincoln and he died in 1156. Gilbert's heyday was the peak time of castle building in England, during the Anarchy. It is quite possible that the castle was built around 1140. However, the tower at the south-east corner of the present building is usually said to have been part of the original castle and it is known as King John's Tower. The naming of King John's tower seems to have led to a misattribution of the castle's origin to his time.
Gilbert de Gant spent much of his life in the power of the Earl of Chester and Grimsthorpe is likely to have fallen into his hands in 1156 when Gilbert died, though the title 'Earl of Lincoln' reverted to the crown. In the next creation of the earldom, in 1217, it was Ranulph de Blondeville, 4th Earl of Chester (1172–1232) who was ennobled with it. It seems that the title, if not the property was in the hands of King John during his reign; hence perhaps, the name of the tower.
During the last years of the Plantagenet kings of England, it was in the hands of Lord Lovell. He was a prominent supporter of Richard III. After Henry VII came to the throne, Lovell supported a rebellion to restore the earlier royal dynasty. The rebellion failed and Lovell's property was confiscated and given to a supporter of the Tudor Dynasty.
This grant by Henry VIII, Henry Tudor's son, to the 11th Baron Willoughby de Eresby was made in 1516, together with the hand in marriage of Maria de Salinas, a Spanish lady-in-waiting to Queen Catherine of Aragon. Their daughter Katherine inherited the title and estate on the death of her father in 1526, when she was aged just seven. In 1533, she became the fourth wife of Charles Brandon, 1st Duke of Suffolk, a close ally of Henry VIII. In 1539, Henry VIII granted Charles Suffolk the lands of the nearby suppressed Vaudey Abbey, founded in 1147, and he used its stone as building material for his new house.
Suffolk set about extending and rebuilding his wife's house, and in only eighteen months it was ready for a visit in 1541 by King Henry, on his way to York to meet his nephew, James V of Scotland. In 1551, James's widow Mary of Guise also stayed at Grimsthorpe. The house stands on glacial till and it seems that the additions were hastily constructed. Substantial repairs were required later owing to the poor state of the foundations, but much of this Tudor house can still be seen today. During Mary's reign the castle's owners, Katherine Willoughby and her second husband, Richard Bertie, were forced to leave it owing to their Anglican views. On Elizabeth's succeeding to the throne, they returned with their daughter, Susan, and their new son Peregrine, later the 13th Baron. He became a soldier and spent much of his time away from Grimsthorpe.
By 1707, when Grimsthorpe was illustrated in Britannia Illustrata, the 15th Baron Willoughby de Eresby and 3rd Earl Lindsey had rebuilt the north front of Grimsthorpe in the classical style. However, in 1715, Robert Bertie, the 16th Baron Willoughby de Eresby, employed Sir John Vanbrugh to design a baroque front to the house to celebrate his ennoblement as the first Duke of Ancaster and Kesteven. It is Vanbrugh's last masterpiece. He also prepared designs for the reconstruction of the other three ranges of the house, but they were not carried out. His proposed elevation for the south front was in the Palladian style, which was just coming into fashion, and is quite different from all of his built designs.
Inside, the Vanbrugh hall is monumental with stone arcades all around at two levels. Arcaded screens at each end of the hall separate the hall from staircases, much like those at Audley End House and Castle Howard. The staircase is behind the hall screen and leads to the staterooms on the first floor. The State Dining Room occupies Vanbrugh's north-east tower, with its painted ceiling lit by a Venetian window. It contains the throne used by George IV at his Coronation Banquet, and a Regency giltwood throne and footstool used by Queen Victoria in the old House of Lords. There is also a walnut and parcel gilt chair and footstool made for the use of George III at Westminster.
The King James and State Drawing Rooms have been redecorated over the centuries, and contain portraits by Reynolds and Van Dyck, European furniture, and yellow Soho Tapestries woven by Joshua Morris around 1730. The South Corridor contains thrones used by Prince Albert and Edward VII, as well as the desk on which Queen Victoria signed her coronation oath. A series of rooms follows in the Tudor east range, with recessed oriel windows and ornate ceilings. The Chinese drawing room has a splendidly rich ceiling and an 18th-century, fan-vaulted oriel window. The walls are hung with Chinese wallpaper depicting birds amidst bamboo. The chapel is magnificent with superb 17th century plasterwork.
** – The Park – **
The park was originally the southern edge of the great Lincolnshire forest, and its medieval deer park and Tudor oak park are crossed by fine avenues of trees. Oak trees which will have been among those recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086 were growing in the park when drawings of the park were made in the early 18th century. Some of these ancient trees were reportedly still alive in the 20th century. The present Grimsthorpe Castle park was designed by Lancelot "Capability" Brown (1771) and implemented by his patron, the 3rd Duke of Ancaster.
There are three species of wild deer in the park, but they are nervous and secretive creatures that are usually only glimpsed in the distance. There are Red Deer and Fallow Deer in the compound close to the car park. It is not possible to gain access to the compound but as many of the animals have been hand reared it is quite likely that you will be able to see them during your visit. Please note that the field is surrounded by a live electric fence. Small children must be supervised at all times and it is not advisable to try and put hands through the fence netting.
** – Vaudey Abbey – **
In the 12th century the park at Grimsthorpe was still covered in dense woodland, and it is thought that the Earl of Albemarle granted the use of this land to the Cistercian Order of monks. They sent an abbot and 13 monks from Fountains Abbey to clear the land and build. The monks called the area Vallis Dei, meaning the valley of God, today known as The Vaudey.
The monks created stews, or fishponds. They cleared and enclosed land to hold deer. The wealth of the monastery was based on the wool trade that declined in the 14th century. Bu the time the Abbey was suppressed, on the orders of Henry VIII in 1536, few monks remained. By 1736 little was left of the Abbey buildings and a local antiquarian, William Stukeley, noted that ‘the foundations of the ruins of the abbey generally remain from the gatehouse to the dovecote’.
** – The Gardens – **
The garden contains a knot garden, hedged rose gardens, a terrace with herbaceous and shrub borders, and a summerhouse designed by Vanbrugh. The formal flower and topiary garden leads imperceptibly into the woodland garden, and provides a fine setting for the ornamental vegetable garden and orchard, created in the 1960s by the Countess of Ancaster and Peter Coates. Intricate parterres marked with box hedges lie close to the Castle, and a dramatic herbaceous border frames views across the lake.
The 1st Earl of Ancaster was very interested in technology, and attempted to improve the productivity of the estate in a number of ways. He organised an early demonstration of steam ploughing, built a private railway and used portable steam engines in the sawmill and for pumping.
Known as ‘Lord Willoughby’s Railway’ the line that ran from the village of Edenham, across estate land to its junction with the main London line at Little Bytham, was operational between July 1856 and July 1873. It carried both goods and passengers and would have been at the cutting edge of technology in its time.
The route of the line is still visible on maps and it is possible to walk or cycle along part of the route when the park is open to the public. The fascinating story of this life-sized train set can be found in a book, available to purchase in the gift shop, written by RE Pearson and JG Ruddock.
During the First World War Grimsthorpe Park was used by the Royal Flying Corps and Royal Air Force as an emergency landing ground. During the Second World War the central part of the park, near the Vaudey Abbey site, was used a bombing range. In 1944 the castle housed a company of the Parachute Regiment while it was recovering from operations in Italy and training for what became Operation Market Garden. Their flight for Arnhem began from RAF Folkingham. Grimsthorpe and Drummond castles are now owned and managed by a trust.
** – Visiting – **
A visit to the castle is something you should consider doing at least once. On weekdays you will be given a guided tour that lasts around one hour. The guides are experts on the history of the house, the family and the contents. They help to bring the story of the place to life. If you are here on Sundays you can stroll through the castle at your own pace. The guides are still there but they are located in the rooms where you can talk to them as you walk through.
Access to the first floor is by two flights of stairs. These have handrails but of course stairs also need to be descended when you are about to leave. There is a ‘virtual’ tour of the State rooms that can be watched on their laptop for those unable to gain access to the first floor. In order to protect the tapestries and other furnishings curtains are drawn closed in the state rooms.
The Castle collection includes tapestries, furniture, ceramics and paintings. In most of the State Rooms the shutters and curtains are closed. This ensures that the fragile contents in the rooms are protected from direct sunlight. The sun’s rays will fade fabrics very quickly, as well as damaging delicate woodwork. The electric lighting used in the rooms helps to create an intimate and more home-like atmosphere. There is a lot to see in each room and the Castle guides will always aim to answer any questions you have about the objects on show. They are unable to allow photography in the building, but a well illustrated guide book, complete with the history of the family and the estate is available to purchase in the gift shop.
The gardens surrounding an historic house are great places to visit. They usually have a relaxed and tranquil feel to them and somebody else does all the work to keep them looking good! At Grimsthorpe there is a long history of gardening, which continues to this day with fresh planting ideas that provide something to enjoy whenever you visit.
The formal flower and topiary garden leads into the woodland garden and provides a fine setting for the ornamental vegetable garden and orchard, created in the 1960s by the Countess of Ancaster. Intricate parterres marked with box hedges lie close to the Castle, and a dramatic herbaceous border frames views across the lake. Before the introduction of small petrol engines horse mowers would have kept the lawns trim. The horse would have worn leather slippers to ensure that no hoof marks were made on the newly mown grass. There are now over 20 acres of lawns to be maintained by the gardening team and they use very sophisticated (and expensive) ride on mowers.
There are no records left of the Tudor gardens, but a housekeeper’s book from the 1560s does mention payments made to part time female gardeners, called in to weed the ‘inner courts’. Early indications of how the gardens looked comes from a painting of c1700. Formal parterres and a long yew tunnel can be seen in addition to a bowling green and orchards. Since that time there have been many changes to the appearance of the gardens. If you are a member of a garden history club and want to find out more, it is possible to book a lecture on the history of the gardens.
The gardens open at 11am on standard open days. Once you have purchased a park ticket you will have access to the park and gardens. There’s always something to see during the season: from spring flowers in April through to laden fruit trees in the autumn. The kitchen garden is a favourite spot for many of their regular visitors. Tranquil and sheltered, it’s a great place to sit and read a book. They have provided parking for disabled visitors close to the entrance to the gardens. Ask about special parking when you arrive at the ticket hut. They do request that dogs are not taken into the formal gardens and that cyclists leave their bikes at the garden entrance.
The information room used to be the garage for steam-driven lorries that were used on the estate. The tower on the north-east corner held a water tank that fed the lorry bolier. It is located next to the cycle hire shop. Today you can stop off here and read about Grimsthorpe as well as being able to pick up leaflets on local attractions. They also have a blackboard that carries up to date reports by the park ranger and head gardener. Take a look at some of the messages already ‘leaft’.
They’d be delighted if you want to leave a message for other visitors, letting them know what you enjoyed doing or seeing whilst you were with them. The LEAF A MESSAGE board is located in the information room, meaning that you can leave a message before you return to the car park. Your message can be written on a MAGNETIC LEAF (as in ‘LEAF’ a message!) and then stuck onto the magnetic tree on the board. Everyone can take part but they’re sure that their younger visitors will enjoy sticking the leaves onto the tree.
Newton's Trail. There is so much to see and enjoy in this quiet part of Lincolnshire. Use the trail map to guide you between places on the country lanes, either by car, bike or on foot. Have lunch in one of the pubs, stock up on supplies in the Pantry and simply soak up the special atmosphere of their churches and country houses. Click here to Download the Trail and use the contact details located on the reverse to make sure the places you want to visit are open, as some of them operate seasonally. They look forward to welcoming you.
There are two areas of reserved parking, one near the Castle, the other close by the Coach House Yard. A wheelchair is available for loan (by prior arrangement). Access to all facilities in the Coach House Yard is possible and most of the garden paths are level, with a covering of gravel.
It is not possible to obtain wheelchair access to the first floor of the Castle, but four ground floor rooms can be viewed (there is no charge for this). It is also possible to watch a 37-minute ‘virtual tour’ of the State Rooms, complete with commentary. Please ask at the Castle reception desk.
A large section of the woodland walk is also level and accessible with care, but they would advise that you contact a member of staff before commencing the route. If you need help with gaining access to the gardens, castle, coach house or car park please ask any member of staff about their Electric Buggy. They are happy to transport you in this vehicle, subject to the availability of a driver.
There is full access for assistance dogs. Please note that there are small ponds close to the Castle and a large ornamental lake. Parents must surpervise small children at all times, particularly when close to open water.
There are two sets of lavatories, both with facilities for disabled people. Tea room, gardens and grounds are mostly accessible for wheelchairs. There are gravel paths close to the house. Visitors in wheelchairs are welcome to visit three ground-floor rooms in the Castle. There is a “virtual’ tour of the first floor rooms available to view on their laptop computer. A wheelchair is available at the ticket reception for visitor use and folding walking stools can be borrowed at the castle. Please note that the Castle tour involves ascending/descending several flights of stairs.
** – Opening Times – **
Thursday, 29th March is their first open day. Sunday, 30th September is their last open day of the season. The Castle is open on the same days as the Park and Gardens.
PARK & GARDENS open 10.30am to 6.00pm.
GUIDED TOURS obligatory on weekdays (tour duration is around one hour). Tours depart every hour during April, May & September, starting at 12 noon and places are limited. During June, July & August tours depart every half hour from 12 noon. Please collect a timed ticket from the Gift Shop before going to the Castle. Self Guided on Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. The site is closed on Fridays and Saturdays.
A Season ticket gives access to the Park and Gardens on standard open days and one visit to the Castle plus other benefits. Purchase online (from December).
Location : Grimsthorpe Estate Office, Grimsthorpe, Bourne PE10 0LY
Transport: Grantham (National Rail) then taxi (14 miles). Bus routes: 303 stops near by OR contact Call Connect.
Opening Times : Please See Above.
Tickets Park and Gardens: Adults £7.00; Concessions £6.00; Children (5 - 18) £3.00.
Tickets Whole property: Adults £13.00; Concessions; £12.00 Children (5 - 18) £5.50.
Tickets Season Ticket: Adults £23.00; Children (5 - 18) £7.00.
Tel: 0778 591205