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The phoenix of Christchurch

Tony Burton-Page tells the story of the rise, fall and rise of Highcliffe Castle

What is a castle? Scholars will answer this by telling you that it is the private fortified residence of a lord or noble. It is ironic that some of Dorset’s most famous castles do not fit this description at all. Some do not even look like castles at first glance: Maiden Castle could be just another hill and residents of Corfe Castle are frequently asked: ‘Where’s the castle?’, by bemused tourists, to which the answer is: ‘That was it on the right.’

Highcliffe Castle from the south-east. The oriel window above the south porch was salvaged from the ruins of a French manor house.

Highcliffe Castle from the south-east. The oriel window above the south porch was salvaged from the ruins of a French manor house.

Highcliffe Castle in Christchurch fits this pattern. It is an extravagantly ornate 19th-century mansion, without the slightest hint of fortification and no more defensive capability than a paper portcullis. Yet Highcliffe Castle has been described as ‘the most important surviving house of the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture’, which flourished in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Architectural writer, Christopher Hussey, described it as ‘one of the most extraordinary country houses in Britain.’

It is a 19th-century mansion, but parts of which date from 1547. The saga of its decline into dereliction and subsequent resurrection as a tourist attraction is as remarkable as the story of its origin.

John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, was a Scottish nobleman who came to the area as a respite from political life. He was George III ‘s Prime Minister for under a year, had been unpopular, eventually falling out of favour with the King himself. He was a keen botanist – one of the founders of Kew Gardens – and the area held the prospect of new specimens to tick off in his spotter’s book. When he came to Christchurch Bay and saw the view with the Isle of Wight and the Needles in the distance, he was enchanted, calling it ‘the fairest outlook in England’. He decided that this was the spot for his retirement, and in 1775 started to build a modest home there.

A more distant view of Highcliffe showing its woodland, beach proximity and the more urban hinterland

A more distant view of Highcliffe showing its woodland, beach proximity and the more urban hinterland

Whatever his intention, by 1787, High Cliff, as Bute named it, had more than thirty bedrooms, as well as two libraries, a laboratory and a 300-foot-long conservatory for his botanical interests. The estate stretched from Chewton Bunny in the east to near Mudeford in the west, and Bute used Capability Brown to help with the landscaping.

When Bute died in 1792, High Cliff passed to his fourth son, Sir Charles Stuart, whose army salary, even though he rose to become a general, was insufficient. In 1795 he moved to Bure Homage, a small house on the estate’s outskirts and sold the vast mansion and estate to Gerard van Heythausen, a Chancery official of Dutch descent.

The Great Hall as it was in 1942 before the removal of the double staircase

The Great Hall as it was in 1942 before the removal of the double staircase

Van Heythausen died soon afterwards and the estate was bought in 1799 by James Penleaze who, the story went, had found a hat-box stuffed with banknotes in a house he inherited. He set about restoring parts of the mansion that had collapsed because of poor construction. But the former surgeon had reckoned without the volatile cliffs of this part of the coast: erosion by the sea brought the edge closer and closer, and in 1813 he was forced to abandon High Cliff, most of which was demolished, and to build a smaller house further inland, where he lived until his death in 1819.

Meanwhile, plans had been forming in the brain of General Sir Charles Stuart’s son, also called Charles Stuart. When his father had sold the estate in 1795 he was only sixteen, but he made up his mind that one day he would get it back. He had a distinguished career as a diplomat, rising to the rank of ambassador. By 1808 he was able to buy back part of the estate from James Penleaze, who had not found another money-bearing hat, and Stuart acquired much of the remainder in 1824 when Penleaze’s widow died.

The Jesse Tree window in the Great Hall, reinstated in 1999

The Jesse Tree window in the Great Hall, reinstated in 1999

Charles Stuart was knighted for his services as the Duke of Wellington’s right-hand man, then served as ambassador in Paris from 1815 to 1824, and then again from 1828 to 1830, by which time he had been created Baron Stuart de Rothesay. During these two periods of office in France he was constantly thinking about his plans for his dream home at High Cliff, and he gathered together a remarkable collection of French artefacts for it, including stonework, stained glass, panelling, furniture, tapestries and books. Much of the stonework had been salvaged from a 16th-century house called ‘La Grande Maison’, which was being demolished when Lord Stuart happened to arrive at the little town of Les Andelys during a tour of Normandy. He also picked over the ruins of a Benedictine abbey at Jumièges, rescuing not only some of its medieval stonework but also more than thirty carved oak panels depicting events in Christ’s life. His collection of stained glass was amassed from churches not only in France but also Germany, Switzerland and Belgium.

Stuart had the stone shipped across the Channel and deposited on his estate near Steamer Point. He enlisted William Donthorn as his architect and building work started in earnest in 1831, using the Penleaze house as the base of an L-shaped design. The two men let their imaginations run riot and by 1834 Stuart’s wife was able to describe it as ‘something between a palace and an abbey.’ The new wing included a ‘Wintergarden’ (a conservatory), a library and a porte-cochère leading to an immense hall in which Stuart was able to display his stained glass collection. The large north window used panels from the ruined church of St Vigor in Rouen, which depicted the family tree of Jesus from his ancestor Jesse.

The Wintergarden is a now a very popular wedding venue

The Wintergarden is a now a very popular wedding venue

Neither of Lord Stuart’s daughters had any children, so the castle passed to a distant cousin, Major-General Edward Stuart Wortley – another army employee whose salary could not keep up with the bills. The family sold the property and in 1950 it became a children’s home and later a training college for Claretian Missionary students.

The castle was up for sale again in 1966 when the Claretians left. By now it was grade 1 listed building, so would-be developers were unable to demolish it. For a decade it lay empty and became a victim of fires, weather and vandalism, roofless and decaying, until Christchurch BC bought it in 1977. Much criticism was heaped on the Borough Council for this brave act, for whoever takes on a listed building is legally obliged to maintain it in its condition at the time of listing. This was a daunting financial commitment as Christchurch was one of the smallest local authorities in the country.

Luckily times were changing and the heritage movement was gaining momentum. Over the next two decades, thanks to ceaseless campaigning by such groups as the Highcliffe Castle Action Group, help came in the form of grants from English Heritage and the Heritage Lottery Fund. By this time, however, the castle was too far gone to restore. All that could be done was to repair and conserve: to turn the building from a ruin into a structurally sound, watertight shell. Even this cost more than £5m. Work started in 1994 on the southern arm of the letter L; by 1998 the whole building was secure and it could now start earning a salary for itself as a tourist attraction, exhibition venue and wedding location.

The last ten years has been a story of gradual, continuing success. The Wintergarden has become one of the most popular wedding venues in Dorset, the Drawing Room, Library and Ante-Library are in demand for history, art and craft exhibitions; the staterooms host talks, workshops, craft fairs and evening concerts and there are outdoor events in the grounds ranging from car rallies to big band jazz.

Much remains to be done. The Jesse Window has been restored, but the rest of the stained glass collection is still in storage. The East Wing needs refurbishment before it can be opened to the public; the grand double staircase in the Great Hall, removed by the Claretians, has not been reinstated. But, for the first time in a century, Highcliffe Castle can look forward to the future with optimism.


Highcliffe Castle is open from 1 February until 23 December from 11 am to 5 pm.

Telephone: 01425 278807




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