Groton’s quirky landmark on Gibbet Hill makes for an interesting quick-and-easy hike in Massachusetts.
Wikipedia says a gibbet (pronounced jibbit) is “any instrument of public execution,” usually a gallows, so a place named Gibbet Hill would traditionally be a nice, high-up spot where public executions could go down with a decent view from below. Warm popcorn would be served and light clapping would be permissible.
There weren’t any documented public executions at Gibbet Hill in Groton – it was likely named after another hill in England – but there is some other cool stuff here, including the old stone ruins known as Bancroft’s Castle.
It’s a great place to hike around, learn some local history and take in views, especially in the fall. It’s also a peaceful dog- and kid-friendly trail that can be done with minimal snacks and complaining.
Bancroft Castle History
Before you hit the trail, it’s helpful to know how Bancroft’s Castle came to be.
Back in 1902, Groton-born William Amos Bancroft, a former soldier, politician and mayor of Cambridge, bought his old family property and additional land around Gibbet Hill.
The idea was to build a real dope looking estate, starting with the front gates on Main Street – which are still there, near the Boutwell House – and leading up to a “I’m crazy but in a rich sort of way so what can you do about it” style castle at the top of Gibbet Hill.
Like many ambitious projects, this one ran into financial problems and the castle was abandoned before it really got underway. From what I gather, which is not much, the ruins of the “castle” today are actually from a stone bungalow and observation tower Bancroft built first – not the actual grandiose mansion-y castle he had in mind. Those plans can be found in Boutwell House to this day.
Eventually the land and stone structure was sold to Harold Ayres, who turned the place into a sanitorium in the 1920s treating tuberculosis patients, but not the “insane or contagious.” Seems a little discriminatory, but no one asked my opinion.
The castle was later used by the Groton Hunt Club to get into what I can only imagine are typical hunting club shenanigans: puffing on large pipes, wearing knee-high shooting stockings and swapping tales of wild foxes, including the age old yarn about THE ONE THAT GOT AWAY.
Then, in 1932, a fireworks mishap burnt down the wooden parts of the structure, leaving what you see today: some neat stone ruins covered in vegetation. If you look close inside the tower, you can still see some of the charred wood stuck in the tower’s beam slots.
To bring the history of the castle full circle, it would appear that Bancroft’s nickname at Harvard was “Foxey,” which could be considered foreshadowing if you’re into that sort of thing.
Hiking to Bancroft Castle
The hike to Bancroft Castle is more like a leisurely, rural walk around a large field framed by trees. It’s gorgeous, especially in fall, but it’s also pretty quick, so don’t expect anything too hardcore going up. That said, there is a section that climbs uphill for a good stretch, so you will get some good exercise in.
There’s a trail that starts at the farm, hugs the road and passes by the small parking area on Lowell, so no matter where you park you can jump on the path and head up.
Bancroft’s Castle Ruins
The “castle” ruins were more impressive than we expected, and even though we went in late October, there were still plenty of fall colors and fallen leaves to make the place look even cooler.
Looking at the ruins’ structure and details, you can get an idea of what the original stone bungalow looked like many years ago.
You can circle the ruins and see vines growing along the backside of the walls.
The stone fireplace is particularly impressive, and makes you want to build a double-decker fire on the spot.
There should be more haunted tales related to the observation tower, like someone from the Groton Hunt Club jumped off the top after a particularly unsuccessful fox hunt, but alas, no such tales exist.
Take in the Views
After you’ve explored, head past the ruins along the farm’s pasture, where Black Angus cattle have been raised since the 1940s. There’s a sign that says the resident bull can cross the field in just over 3 seconds, but I can’t tell if this is just to scare folks away from going into the pasture.
The views of Gibbet Hill farm and the rolling hills beyond are incredible. Of the leaf-peeping spots we’ve found in Mass this year, this is one of the better ones that includes an easy hike, some quirky history, up-close foliage and far-off colors.
If you keep going, eventually you’ll cross a small bridge and connect to the Groton Trails Network, an impressive web of 100 trail miles that weave through Groton. If there is a ghost at Bancroft Castle, you’ll definitely lose him or her in the Groton Trail Network.
Know Before You Go
Bancroft’s Castle is located in Groton, Massachusetts, on Gibbet Hill Farm. There’s limited parking off Lowell Road that can fill up fast, so if those are taken, you can park at the Gibbet Hill farm parking lot and walk over to the trailhead.
Side note: it may be tempting to park in the “no parking” areas beyond the few spots on Lowell, but we did see the po-po writing tickets for cars parked in restricted areas. And really there’s no reason to risk it – parking at the farm is easy, they have a nice map up there and it extends what is otherwise a pretty short hike.
To make the most of your visit, hit up Gibbet Hill Grill afterward – it’s an award-winning “farm-to-fork” restaurant serving meals with grown-on-site produce and the farm’s signature USDA Choice Black Angus. There’s also Forge & Vine near The Groton Inn for more killer local fare.