William Gillette had it right when he was writing his will regarding the future of his castle on the banks of the Connecticut River. He wrote his "castle in the sky" should never be in the "possession of some blithering saphead who had no conception of where he is or with what surrounded."
The words come to mind whenever I visit Gillette's Castle State Park on top of the southernmost Seven Sisters Hills in East Haddam and Lyme. My visit usually begins through the main gate that winds its way to the castle built by Gillette, an actor, director and playwright who often portrayed Sherlock Holmes. Many come to enjoy the spendor of not only the castle, but its picturesque grounds that include a lily pond and whimsical bridge, and the trails that follow the abandoned 3-mile narrow-gauge railroad that operated around his 184-acre estate in the 1920s and 1930s.
But the best way to visit the grounds of the nearly century-old castle is by boat – the circa-1769 Chester-Hadlyme ferry that once connected the King's Highway to Norwich Road. As in get-out-of-your-car-and-hop-on-the-ferry-and-walk visit. With the U.S. flag on top of the ferry snapping in the stiff breeze, I make my way to the front for the quick five-minute ride across the river, the castle looming high above and stellar views up and down the river.
After being dropped off on the Lyme side, I take a quick side trip through a picnic area and along a sandy beach. Watch out for the wakes of big boats, as their waves crash along the shore and gobble up much of the narrow beach. The remains of Aunt Polly, a houseboat Gillette lived on during the five years it took to build his castle, can be seen at low tide.
An unmarked access trail takes visitors from the beach to the bottom of a huge rock ledge known as the Hebron Gneiss formation, upon which the castle sits. Side trails take visitors out to an overlook with sweeping views of the Connecticut River. Each time I come, I try and find an old broken trestle railroad bridge you can see from the river, but the ruggedness of the area prevents its discovery.
The southern entrance is marked by a series of rustic stone staircases and an old carriage road lined with beautiful stone walls. The steep road brings visitors to an outcropping and eventually to the castle's southern overlook and its panoramic views of the river.
A mile walk along Route 148 will give visitors an appreciation of Whalebone Cove – a huge swath of tidal marshes and home to one of the largest stands of wild rice in the state. The bright green stalks with yellowish tops sway in the wind and blend into the horizon of twisting channels and distant forests. Although a canoe or kayak showcases the cove best, the hike along the road has splendid views of what The Nature Conservancy calls the "most undisturbed and biologically significant freshwater tidal marshes on the Connecticut River." The old 1826 Cove Cemetery is also a must-see, with neat old stones.
This time, I never saw the ghostly bones of Aunt Polly. My search for the railroad bridge ruins came up empty. Again. But I know where I was and what surrounded me. And after each visit, I discover a new appreciation for the castle in the sky.
The ferry is located at the end of Route 148 off Route 154 in Chester. There is a small parking area at the ferry landing. Visit http://www.ct.gov/deep/lib/deep/stateparks/maps/gillettecastlemap.pdf for a map of the castle.
Peter Marteka may be reached at 860-647-5365, at pmarteka@ courant.com or at The Courant, 200 Adams St., Manchester, CT 06040.