The New Keeper of Bolton Castle | Living North

The New Keeper of Bolton Castle


image of Bolton Castle
Former army captain Tom Orde-Powlett, heir to Bolton Castle, tells us why he’s now on a mission to conserve his centuries-old family estate
‘As well as fishing and tours of the castle, visitors can now enjoy falconry days, meeting the resident wild boars, Wensleydale sheep and bees (don’t worry, they’re in a hive)’

There is no such thing as an average day for Tom and Katie Orde-Powlett. The only thing they know for certain when they open their eyes in the morning is that they probably won’t get a moment to rest again until bedtime.

‘We have four children, aged five to 10, four dogs and some chickens and ponies,’ says Tom. ‘The children have to be at school by eight, so we have very busy mornings. People might think it sounds a bit frantic, but we’re used to it; it just feels very normal to us. And it’s so much easier than it used to be. At least the children can feed themselves now and there are no nappies to deal with.’

Hector, 10, Flora, eight, Cressida, six, and Rufus, five, are the latest in a long line of Orde-Powletts (and, before them, Scropes) to call the Bolton Castle estate home. They live at Bolton Hall, a Grade-II listed country house on the Wensleydale estate, which Tom and Katie moved their brood into last year. Tom’s father, Harry, the 8th Baron Bolton, is still very active and looks after about two-thirds of the 12,000-acre estate, while Tom takes care of the rest.

‘My father’s ideology that he has passed down to his children is that we are custodians of the estate for the next generation and that we should strive to hand it over in a better condition than we inherited it,’ says Tom. ‘It’s a little like the Native American saying that we don’t inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.’

Bolton Castle was built by Sir Richard le Scrope, Lord Chancellor of England to Richard II. Building work began in 1379, when the licence to crennelate was granted, and was completed in 1399. It is reputed to have cost 18,000 marks (the unit of currency used at the time), in addition to the 10,000 Richard spent at the same time to secure the Kingdom of the Isle of Man for his son, William. This represents about £90 million in today’s money.  

The castle enjoys a prominent position in history for ‘hosting’ Mary, Queen of Scots, who was held captive within its walls for six months. Ostensibly a prisoner, she actually enjoyed quite a high level of luxury in The Solar, a well-appointed suite of rooms that comfortably housed her and her many servants.

While the castle itself has not been a family home for many years, the Orde-Powletts have enjoyed continued residence on the wider estate throughout. 

‘The hall is incredibly antiquated,’ says Tom of Bolton Hall, which was built in the 17th century and rebuilt after a fire in 1902. ‘The boilers were fitted in 1904, so it can be a little chilly. But I’m not going to complain about living in such a lovely house. We are so lucky to be able to raise our family at the hall. And, anyway, our children are pretty resilient and tough.’

It’s clear that he’s passionate about his family, their home and the estate – his feelings perhaps amplified by a seven-year stint away in the army as an officer in the Irish Guards. He was awarded the Military Cross in Iraq in 2003, where he commanded a platoon at the age of 23 and was among the first wave of soldiers into Basra. All 36 members of his platoon came home and he was later promoted to captain.

‘Being in the army was an amazing experience and prepared me for pretty much anything,’ he says. ‘Apart from dealing with accounts and finances – that’s been the steepest learning curve for me. 

‘I loved being in the army but when I came home on leave, I always left Wensleydale again with a heavy heart. I have a long-standing connection, as does my family, with this wonderful place. It’s very much my spiritual home and, frankly, I couldn’t countenance the thought of living anywhere else. Wensleydale has such an amazing natural and built environment, and such a lovely community.’

His father had already been running the castle for 22 years when Tom returned home with his new bride, Katie. Her family live and farm in Sussex – ‘at the other end of the country, but not a million miles from what we do here’ – so she was not as daunted as someone with less of a rural background might have been about the time and hard graft it takes to look after such a large estate.

‘She came here with lots of fresh ideas and lots of energy,’ says Tom. ‘And she’s certainly never been afraid of hard work.

‘My priority when I arrived back home was setting up commercial fly fishing for trout and salmon (on a catch and release basis), conservation and management of the river. Ultimately, I’m happiest when I’m outside and away from the office.’

As well as fishing and tours of the castle, visitors can now enjoy falconry days, meeting the resident wild boars, Wensleydale sheep and bees (don’t worry, they’re in a hive) and re-enactment weekends. The castle also hosts weddings and private celebrations, and acts as a film location (it previously ‘starred’ in All Creatures Great and Small, Heartbeat and the Oscar-winning film Elizabeth, starring Cate Blanchett).

‘We have all manner of events happening throughout the year,’ says Tom. ‘Our Medieval Music in the Dales event is the only medieval music festival in the world. It’s niche but very relevant to the castle – and it attracts visitors from all around the globe.’

Tom also runs a biennial Curlew Festival, which celebrates our native Eurasian birds and draws attention to their plight as a breed ‘vulnerable to extinction’.

‘Curlews can live for a long time – up to 30 years or more – but predators are decimating the eggs and young,’ he explains. ‘People hear the lovely bubbling call of the adults and assume they are happily breeding when, in fact, numbers are not being replenished. We are maintaining our own curlews quite well because parts of the estate are managed for shooting so we control the predators. It is a tragic story of decline but we must also spread the good news that curlews are, at least, surviving.’

The gardens around Bolton Castle were largely reinstated by Tom’s parents, Harry, and Philippa who sadly passed away three years ago. An archaeological survey in 1994 revealed an interesting range of medieval plant life around the castle, so, when rebuilding and replanting, they tried to adhere to the principles set out by medieval writer Albertus Magnus, who described the plants in a pleasure garden as, ‘refreshing the sight with the variety of their flowers and causing admiration at their manly forms in those who look’. The herb garden now contains more than 50 varieties of culinary and medicinal herbs, including betany, bugloss, yarrow and lovage, all of which were in common cultivation in the medieval period. 

They also established a vine in the lee of the castle, stocked with a modern frost hardy, early ripening red grape hybrid, and created a private maze, planted to reach maturity in time for the millennium celebrations.

‘My parents did an incredible job restoring the gardens and pleasure grounds,’ says Tom. ‘I’d like to continue the work they started, but we’ll need another commercial element in place before we can restore the glasshouses and finish the garden as we’d like. Rewiring the castle is another job on our to-do list. Needless to say, it is a rather long list.’

Because the castle is in private hands, without the support of charities like English Heritage and the National Trust, every penny spent has to be earned by the family first. This means they always have to be on the lookout for new commercial opportunities while maintaining a pleasurable visitor experience, not overcrowding the castle and grounds and conserving the landscape for future generations. To say it’s a tricky balance is understating it somewhat

‘It’s not easy,’ says Tom, ‘but the way we run the estate now means I have space to develop new ideas rather than treading water. We run things in a more flexible, dynamic way now. I gauge our success by what we can put back into the place. But success is also seeing people enjoy the castle and its gardens.’

So, does he enjoy sharing his home with hundreds of weekly visitors, school groups, wedding parties, garden enthusiasts, medieval history buffs, anglers, bird-watchers and conservationists?

‘I really do; I get a real buzz out of it,’ says Tom. ‘Perhaps it would be a little different if we lived here, rather than at the hall. Although I wouldn’t rule out introducing a commercial element to the hall eventually, perhaps for weddings. But while the children are still so young, they need to be able to enjoy their family home on their own terms. Their happiness is our number one priority.’


For more information on visiting Bolton Castle visit

Published in: August 2019

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