19 February 2011

Bishop’s Castle - Medieval Castle in Cowboy Country

Colorado, San Isabel National Forest – the heart of what many call Cowboy Country. Yet stray of the beaten path and you come across Bishop castle – a 160-foot high structure that weighs in at an estimated 50 thousand tons. Incredibly, it is the work of a single man – Jim Bishop. Strangely though, if you are a tourist to the state, you will not find a mention of Bishop Castle on any official brochure.

That’s a shame because the place is magnificent. You might be forgiven that for believing that you had stumbled upon the home of the Colorado branch of the Addams family or perhaps a set mock up for a Tolkien inspired movie. With the wrought iron, dragon’s head and formidable masonry it even has the look of a post apocalyptic stronghold for survivors. Yet it is a family home.

The castle, although a home, is open to the public all the year round. All you have to do to visit it to sign a guest book, releasing Mr Bishop from any liability if you plummet one hundred and sixty feet to the ground or something falls on your head from a similar height. There is no insurance at the castle – as it is effectively a working construction site. Like many other castles of history, this one you enter at your own peril.

However, you won’t be cast in to the dungeon or hang, drawn and quartered at the baronic whim of Jim Bishop. A 90 minute drive away from Colorado Springs, the castle is still in the process of construction and donations are most welcome. It is certainly an ambitious project and must have cost a great deal. It is made of local stone which Bishop quarried from the adjoining national forest land (with permission).

The castle is full of eye catching features. The extensive wrought iron suspension bridges and walkways that grip its towers give it an air of eccentricity and creeping functionality, of ideas tossed back and forth and of a history that belies the fact that construction only started in the last year of the 1960s.

Perhaps the most noted feature is the dragon’s head which sits atop the castle. You can imagine a medieval metal worker hammering the sheets of iron in to this shape but it is in fact made from recycled hospital meal trays. This wonderful feature has utility though – the smoke from the fireplace comes out of the dragon’s nostrils.

The owner, Jim Bishop, had not envisioned this structure from the get go, however. At the tender age of fifteen he bought the land – not quite three acres – with the idea that he would build a family cabin. Over forty years later the cabin has grown somewhat – to the more than occasional chagrin of the local authorities.

However, it is easy to imagine the glee that many visitors (if not the Bishop family themselves) feel when they catch sight of the castle for the first time. It is like the adventure playground that should have been built in your neighborhood in your youth. To say that there is plenty of clamber space is one of life’s great understatements.

The interior is something else too. Stained glass gives the heart of the castle a warm glow. If a state displaced Dorothy was visiting she would surely know that she wasn’t in Colorado anymore. The light which cascades in to the castle through its enormous windows, many of which are stained, bathes it in the kind of light you might associate more with cathedrals than with castles.

Mr Bishop is well known in the nearby town of Pueblo as, to put it mildly, something of an anti-government eccentric. Yet while some construct bunkers (which frankly shows a lack of imagination), Jim Bishop has built a castle. Although his father helped for the first year or so of the project, since then it has been his hands alone which have shaped the place.

Zoning laws have meant that Mr Bishop and the State of Colorado have not always seen eye to eye. This is the major reason that the castle does not feature in any travel brochures for the area – and the unease between man and government can be seen on many displays at the castle.

Perhaps that might change as the years go by and more people realise that what they have here is something unique to Colorado. In the interim, the family’s plans advance. Bishop’s son is currently working on a contraption which will throw fire from the mouth of the dragon up to as much as thirty feet.

Although hardly any of this gargantuan project was designed on paper the end product is something that will in the future surely become one of Colorado’s claims to fame. The official site is here.