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A very honest building – Highcliffe Castle

Highcliffe Castle has been described as ‘one of the most extraordinary country houses in Britain’. Having visited it, John Newth agrees.

Highcliffe Castle

Charles Stuart became a distinguished diplomat, successful enough in his career to be ennobled as Lord Stuart de Rothesay, but he never forgot the happy days of his childhood spent by the sea at the Highcliffe home of his grandfather, Lord Bute. When his father sold that house, which in any case was threatened by coastal erosion, Charles was determined to bring its estate back into the family and to build there the country house of which he had always dreamed.
This was all in the first quarter of the 19th century, and Charles owed much of his successful career to his work with the Duke of Wellington. He became the Duke’s indispensable adviser during the Peninsular War and was in Brussels before Waterloo, even lending his servants to wait at the Duchess of Richmond’s famous ball. He was appointed ambassador to Paris after the battle, a post he held with a short break until 1830.
It was not until 1824 that he actually bought the estate, which in those days ran as far as Chewton Bunny, but he had already salvaged a collection of stonework, stained glass, panelling and furniture from buildings in France that were being demolished. This material was floated across the Channel on twelve barges in which, it is said, Napoleon had planned to carry his army for the invasion of England. However, it was another seven years before Charles could start to make his dream a reality.
Charles had married Elizabeth, the daughter of the wealthy Earl of Hardwicke. Her money was to pay for much of the project and when she departed for a long stay in London to care for her ailing father, she understood that the plan was for a fairly modest building. Her husband had other ideas, though, and Elizabeth eventually returned to find something far grander than she had ever imagined. She persuaded Charles to rein in his ambitions somewhat and, after her initial horrified reaction, came to love the place.
Charles and Elizabeth had two daughters, neither of whom had children, so on the death of the younger, Louisa, in 1891, the castle passed to a distant cousin, Edward Stuart Wortley. The Stuart Wortleys struggled financially to keep it up and during their ownership much of the estate was sold off and the castle itself was let to several tenants, including Gordon Selfridge, founder of the department store.
A distinguished visitor in 1907 was Kaiser Wilhelm II, who stayed for three weeks at the suggestion of his cousin, King Edward VII. The King persuaded Rosa Lewis of the Cavendish Hotel, ‘the Duchess of Duke Street’, to come to Highcliffe to cook for the Kaiser and stationed the Royal train at Hinton Admiral to collect from the London markets anything that she could not buy locally.
Eventually the castle descended to the husband of Edward Stuart Wortley’s younger daughter, who in 1950 gave up the unequal struggle and sold the castle out of the family. The building became briefly a children’s convalescent home and then, for thirteen years, a seminary for the Claretians, a Roman Catholic order. When they left in 1966, three local businessmen bought the site, but their plans to develop it were hampered by the castle’s grade I listed status. In 1967 and 1968, two fires caused extensive damage and the castle became derelict. Its condition worsened still further through the ravages of the weather and of vandalism – the wrought-iron floor plates from the Library’s gallery, for example, made ideal grills for beach barbecues.
The roofless ruin was eventually bought in 1977 by Christchurch Borough Council, who opened the gardens to the public but could afford to do no more than put up a fence to protect the castle from further vandalism. Ten years and several aborted development schemes later, talks began with English Heritage about limited restoration, but it was a further seven years before work began. Financially, it was all rather hand-to-mouth, but then the castle received £2.6 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund, one of its first grants, which opened the way to making the castle viable as the tourist attraction, wedding venue and art gallery that it is today.
From the start, the plan was not to restore the building to its original glories, even if such a plan had been affordable, but to make it safe while retaining original features. These patches of smoke-stained décor and charred beams on view against a background of raw brick, along with the size of the rooms, the layout of the castle and the prospect from its windows, create an atmosphere that helps visitors to imagine what it was like in its heyday, but it is not a replica; as David Hopkins, the castle manager, says, Highcliffe Castle is ‘a very honest building’.
Visitors enter through what was the garden entrance into the Octagon, once the centre of the house. The Dining Room, with its view of the Needles, leads off it. In the other direction is the Drawing Room, which was the most richly decorated room in the house. Some of its furniture is now in the Victoria & Albert Museum. Next comes a conservatory, known as the Wintergarden, which was the first room to be renovated, initially as a visitor centre and now as the room in which wedding ceremonies are held. Leading off that is the Library, now used as an art gallery for works by local artists; they do not pay a fee to exhibit here, although the castle takes a commission on sales.

The Great Hall in the castle’s heyday, showing the double stair (Alwyn Ladell)

The Great Hall in the castle’s heyday, showing the double stair (Alwyn Ladell)

From the Library, the Ante-Library leads back into the Octagon and so into the castle’s crowning glory, the Great Hall. This was the main entrance and the arriving visitor would have been faced by a double stair that ran up either wall to the first floor. The walls were lined with portraits, magnificent Gobelin tapestries and oak panels showing episodes in the life of Christ, which Lord Stuart de Rothesay had salvaged from Jumieges Abbey in Normandy. The cantilevered stone stairs were removed when the Claretians turned the Great Hall into a chapel; some of them can still be seen in the cliff-face, where they made steps for seminarians who wished to bathe.
As visitors reached the first floor, they could turn and admire, above the door by which they had entered, the magnificent Jesse Window, so called because it illustrates Christ’s family tree (‘the tree of Jesse’). Thirty feet high and dating from the 16th century, it came from the church of St Vigor at Rouen. It is almost literally a miracle that it survived the two fires of the 1960s. On his own initiative, a stained glass restorer from Norwich, Dennis King, drove down and removed it, then catalogued, cleaned, restored and kept it until it was once more safe to re-instate it in its rightful place.

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On the outside of the East Tower may be seen a huge stone fireplace surround, which Lord Stuart de Rothesay intended to install in the house. Possibly that ambition was thwarted by his wife’s determination to tone down his more grandiose ideas, so it was incorporated into the exterior. To the left is a balustrade with a quotation from the Roman poet, Lucretius, a rather smug reference to the view out over the sometimes turbulent waters: ‘Sweet is it, when on the great sea the winds are buffeting the waters, to look from the land on another’s great struggles.’ To the left again is perhaps the outstanding feature of the exterior: an elaborate oriel window brought from the manor house of Les Andelys, near Louviers.

 The fine oriel window is known as the King’s Oriel because in the manor house of Les Andelys, it lit the room in which King Antoine of Navarre died from wounds after the siege of Rouen in 1562

The fine oriel window is known as the King’s Oriel because in the manor house of Les Andelys, it lit the room in which King Antoine of Navarre died from wounds after the siege of Rouen in 1562

Highcliffe Castle has been restored primarily for its historical and architectural importance as part of the heritage of this stretch of coastline. But it must at least wash its face financially and its reputation as one of Dorset’s most popular wedding venues is helping it to do that. To achieve a balance, ceremonies are capped at 150 a year and receptions at 50, since public access is naturally restricted while a wedding is going on. Nor could the building operate without the support of 110 volunteers, whose contribution David Hopkins acknowledges enthusiastically and gratefully.
News is eagerly awaited on the success or otherwise of an application to the HLF for a grant for the next restoration phase. This would create a public heritage centre, a space to display the furniture currently in the V&A, a stained glass conservation studio, an archive room and an education suite. It would also provide the chance to display more of the castle’s stained glass treasures.

An impression of the corridor in which more of the castle’s stained glass will be displayed if a grant is received for the next phase of restoration

An impression of the corridor in which more of the castle’s stained glass will be displayed if a grant is received for the next phase of restoration

The creation of the castle, driven by one man’s ambition and taste, is a remarkable story, but it is matched by the building’s history over the last twenty years. How it went from a derelict and dangerous ruin to a facility providing enjoyment and interest for 20,000 visitors a year (not including those who come for weddings or other functions) is a story of some luck but mainly of imagination, persistence and hard work. ◗

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