Gillette Castle and Chester, CT
Did you ever turn a corner and suddenly feel like you’ve driven off the map? Discovered your own little patch of unspoiled turf?
It’s happened to me in Spain once or twice, and Scotland, too, backing up on a long dirt road. Where I got the feeling, just for a second, that nobody else knew about this place. How great is that.
Weirdly, I had that sensation driving into Chester, Connecticut.
And while that is so clearly NOT the case—Chester’s only a couple of hours from NYC by train, after all—the beauty of this little burg is that it succeeds in giving that impression.
While at the same time serving up robusto cappuccino and dangling some nervy little shops and restaurants at your pocketbook.
Plus there’s a cool ferry just minutes from town that crosses the Connecticut River and drops you at the foot of a crazy, Gaudi-like stone castle teetering on the tip-top of a precipice.
Pretty fine entertainment for a sunny afternoon.
So after our previous evening at the Madison Beach Hotel, with a crow’s nest view of the Long Island Sound,
we skedaddled off to Chester, a pleasant 30-minute drive away. Once in town, we hit Simon’s Marketplace, a gourmet general store;
then, cup in hand, we strolled past Restaurant L&E (contemporary French, “excellent eel,” says the NY Times), Pattaconk 1850 Bar &Grill (upscale pub grub), and River Tavern (brick chic). Plenty of dining options—definitely not back-road cuisine.
Ducked into a few pretty shops, but blue skies lured us on to the Chester-Hadlyme Ferry, a “historical landmark” that’s been operating for over 200 years (it was used during the American Revolution), and is definitely the most fun way to reach Gillette Castle.
A budget-travel $3 ferry ride later (car rate, but rates are doubling—walkers will now pay a whole $2), with the castle looming ever nearer, we debarked the Selden III after our 5-minute boat trip and began the vertiginous ascent (there’s a driving road, too, but the climb is fun, and over quickly).
The castle is amazing. From a distance, it looks like a medieval sand castle, dribbled on top of a cliff.
Up close, it’s a handmade work of art, with no uniformity, and plenty of crooked lines and unmatched stones. It jigs and jags and meanders and soars.
It’s living and breathing, and speaking of breath, the views of the Connecticut River from the terrace will certainly take it away.
The story of the castle is almost as good as its looks.
It was designed and built by William Gillette in 1914, who portrayed Sherlock Holmes on stage for over 30 years. An inventor as well, he tinkered with the insides as much as the outsides, designing most of its contents, and taking 25 years to complete the 24-room mansion, raised from local fieldstone.
With no heirs, his will stipulated that the estate could not go to a “blithering sap-head who has no conception of where he is or with what surrounded.” The state took over the property in 1943—there are hiking trails encircling the castle like webs of time.
A definite off-the-map day….