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Day Tripping: A Tour of the Castle

Kathi Caldwell-Hopper - July 29, 2013





Castle Gardens

The gardens at the Lucknow Estate provide a beautiful setting overlooking Lake Winnipesaukee.

For long-time Lakes Regioners such as myself, there is only one castle. Not castles in Europe or other far-away lands; the “castle” I refer to is Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough, also known as the Lucknow Estate.

We all recall certain places and things from childhood and I have fond memories of touring the castle and gazing in awe at the perfume bottles and trinkets on Mrs. Plant’s vanity table. I saw that this was how the very rich lived and to get so close to such a lifestyle was something I never forgot.

It recently occurred to me that I have not taken a castle tour in some years. The property is another of those Lakes Region attraction/icons that deserve special attention and, on a hot, mid-week July day, I was determined to return for a castle tour.

The drive to Route 117 in Moultonborough is pretty from any direction in the Lakes Region. I chose to do some shopping in Wolfeboro and then travel to the Castle via Route 171/Old Mountain Road.

From Wolfeboro, the castle is about a 25-minute drive (probably less in the quieter fall season but allow for heavier summertime traffic if visiting in July or August.) It does not take much searching to see the gatehouse and stonewalls shouldering Route 117 to know you have arrived at the castle property.

The gatehouse attendant greeted me and took a minute to chat about the hot weather, the property, and, of course, the man who once owned it all: Thomas Plant.

I drove the winding, deeply wooded road up, up, up the mountain and I loved every minute of it. A brook ran beside the road, adding to the beauty of the surroundings. I turned off my car’s air conditioning and rolled the windows down in order to enjoy the coolness of the shaded forest and the sounds of the water rushing over the rocks.

The first of the many amazing things I saw on this afternoon day trip was The Pebble. The huge boulder must have rolled down the mountain many years ago — perhaps during the Ice Age — and rested at the spot where spectators can enjoy its amazing height. I wondered what millionaire Thomas Plant thought of the huge boulder when he first saw it on his property. I could well imagine him out for a horseback ride, gazing in wonder at the big rock in what was then perhaps dense forest.

I drove on and saw a sign and parking for the Falls of Song; I had recently visited the rushing waterfall so I opted not to stop on this particular day. The falls are well worth seeing and the woodsy walk to reach the waterfall is brief and easy.

The road continued to wend its way up the mountain until reaching a large parking area with an observation deck and incredible views of the Lakes Region far below. No other visitors were at the spot when I pulled in and parked. The solitude was soothing and I gloried in the views and the sounds coming from the natural world: birds chirping, the hot breeze rustling through the leaves, and the scramble of a squirrel darting up a tree.

Anyone who loves nature and solitude will fall in love with the property, even before they see the castle. I must say the long, winding road up the mountain would have been worth the admission price in and of itself. With a little imagination, one can picture Thomas Plant and a horseback riding party glorying in the views and the wilderness that is still so much a part of this unique place today.

Once at the Carriage House portion of the property, signs direct visitors to the parking area. It is a brief walk to the gift shop, a pretty little building with all sorts of castle-related gift items as well as New Hampshire products for sale.

Nearby, the Carriage House is a hub of activity. Within the stone building that once housed Plant’s stable of fine horses, a lot still goes on. The Carriage House Café is located here, with lunch served from 11:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. I must stress that this is not a “hotdog and bottle of soda” eatery. Sandwiches to full entrees are offered and guests can sit in the former horse stalls surrounded by horseback riding memorabilia or they can choose to sit on the terrace with incredible views of the surrounding mountains. Either way, visitors will not soon forget this wonderful way to dine.

The Art Gallery is located in the Carriage House and features some of the best art in New England and beyond. Various exhibits showcase paintings, prints, and other artwork. When I visited, a wonderful exhibit featuring paintings from the late 1800s and up was on display.

Castle Trolley

A trolley takes visitors to the Castle in the Clouds in Moultonborough.

After browsing the exhibit, I heard the trolley driver announce, “Trolley’s leaving for the castle!” I was ready to board the charming little trolley for the ride to the gem of this property, the famed Castle in the Clouds.

The trolley driver was a wealth of knowledge about the property and chatted easily with the tourists who came from far away to see this magical place.

Once at the castle, a tour guide greeted us and invited us into a porch area where lemonade was offered. The group sat and listened to the guide’s brief introductory talk on the castle, Thomas Plant, and what we would be seeing during our self-guided castle tour.

Historically, Thomas Gustave Plant was born in 1859 to French-Canadian parents. He grew up poor and was a self-made millionaire, eventually owning one of the largest shoe factories of the time, Queen Quality Shoes. At age 51, Plant retired when he sold his factory for $20 million (today’s equivalent, we were told, would be a half-billion dollars).

Plant built the castle for his second wife, Olive. Work commenced on the castle in 1910 and it was completed in 1914. While Mrs. Plant was quite a bit younger than her wealthy husband, they shared many common interests, including a love of the outdoors, hunting, fishing, and other sports. In a word, they were outdoorsy types. Therefore, the castle was the perfect place for the Plants, with miles of woods, streams, wildlife, and, of course, not far away, Lake Winnipesaukee.

Talented stonemasons were brought in to build the castle with quarried New Hampshire stone; trees from the property also were used in the building of the home. The completed castle was like nothing else in New Hampshire at the time: It featured its own hydro-electric power, an interior furnished by top decorators of the day, needle showers, a central vacuum system, and a communications system, to name some of the state-of-the-art features.

Plant lived at the castle from about 1914 until his death in 1941 at age 82. I have heard the story before, but it is always worth hearing again: Plant lost his fortune due to bad investments and he tried everything possible to recoup the losses. Eventually, he attempted to sell the estate but could find no buyers. After his death, Olive was allowed to take her personal belongings from the castle before it was auctioned off. She left the area, which was probably the best thing for her. To stay and live nearby where she would be reminded of all she had lost would have been horrible.

It is a sad story but also one of determination and courage and vision.

With all that in mind, I began the self-guided tour by walking onto the lawn with more breathtakingly beautiful views of the lake far below and the surrounding mountains in every direction.

A charming fountain sits on the lawn and visitors can toss a coin in the water and make a wish. The doors to the main hall were open on the sunny, hot day. Just inside, tour guides invited me to browse the historic pamphlets and magazine articles about the castle. It did not take long to get chatting with the knowledgeable guides who love to talk about the property and the Plants.

I learned that the hall was where Thomas and Olive greeted their guests. They must have loved showing off the room, with its wood-paneled walls and built-in organ designed by the Aeolian Organ Company. This was the age of Gatsby with lavish parties and living large. The castle was most likely the location where guests came and stayed for long weekends for hunting and socializing.

The adjacent library is a sunny room with bookshelves, comfortable furniturem and a gold marble fireplace. I recalled a secret room from previous visits and was glad to see it is still part of the tour. A paneled door in a library wall reaches the room. In the tiny cubicle room, Plant would escape to sit and think and read in blessed solitude.

A tour guide answered my questions about the beautiful painted Rondels in some of the Castle windows. I learned the Rondels are painted glass, not stained glass. Various scenes were painted on the glass and the deep colors glowed in the windows when the light hit them. One Rondel was of a horseback rider, and others depicted scenes from nature.

I especially loved the octagonal-shaped dining room off the Hall. The dining room had seating for 12 people; I mused that Plant must have loved sharing the beautiful room with guests during breakfasts or luncheon parties.

The kitchen was fun to view with a servants’ hall, cook’s pantry, and butler’s pantry. The kitchen was a modern wonder in its day, with a self-cleaning, built-in stove, refrigeration unit, and interlocking rubber flooring.

Each room on the second floor was decorated beautifully with period items, such as vintage clothing in the closets, bedspreads from the 1920s, and old photos. The second-floor bedrooms are a maze and it takes a bit of getting familiar with the halls and rooms to orient oneself. A grand staircase leads to the second floor and on one wall hangs a large portrait of Thomas Plant.

View from the Castle

Each bedroom has incredible views of the property and Lake Winnipesaukee.

Each bedroom has incredible views of the property and Lake Winnipesaukee. Dressing rooms offer a glimpse of the way the rich dressed and lived long ago. Many things about the rooms and furnishings remind me of the currently popular television show, Downton Abbey, set in roughly the same time period. Like the owner of the Downton estate, Plant knew hard times and worried over losing his fortune.

As I walked through the most intimate of the Plants’ rooms — their dressing areas, bathrooms, and bedrooms — I could imagine them gazing out the windows and wondering how they could possibly leave the magical place, should they lose it all. They must have heard the chatter of their servants and worried what would become of the maids and cook and other staff if the castle were auctioned.

There is poignancy about the castle, as well as a deep beauty that lives on in the rooms and in the views. Everywhere one looks, there is artistry and nature’s beauty. How difficult it must have been to watch his fortune ebb away and to know someone else would one day own the estate that defined so much of Thomas Plant’s life.

After the tour of the castle, I returned to the Carriage House via the trolley and then walked to my car. There was still time before day’s end to enjoy an ice cream at the Cones in the Clouds snack bar shop by Shannon Pond. I sat at a picnic table and enjoyed an ice cream as I gazed over the fields.

I overheard some visitors talking about the horseback riding stables on the property and how much fun they had visiting Zeus, the largest horse in the country, who is housed there. (Also offered at the stables are guided trail rides, pony rides, and horse-drawn carriage rides.)

While Thomas and Olive Plant are long gone from this magical, special place, they have left a legacy of beauty for others to enjoy. The Castle Preservation Society, which oversees management and care of the castle property, has a big job to keep the buildings in top-notch condition. Like all old homes, the castle is constantly in need of upkeep. Currently, work is being done on the stonework of the castle; while I was aware of some construction in progress, it did not in any way hinder the tour or the views of special places around Mr. Plant’s former home.

For complete information on Castle in the Clouds, events taking place during the summer and fall, and to become a Friend of the Castle, visit www.castleintheclouds.org or call 603-476-5900. 

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