DiCamillo Companion

Highcliffe Castle (High Cliff)

  • Earlier Houses: An earlier house was demolished in 1794.

    Built / Designed For: Lord Stuart de Rothesay

    House & Family History: Highcliffe Castle is a Grade I-listed building owned by Christchurch Borough Council. Lord Stuart de Rothesay built the current House between 1831 and 1835. It has been described as "the most important remaining example of the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture." (The Great Hall resembles William Beckford's Fonthill and the Duke of Bridgewater's Ashridge.) The Castle was built on the site previously occupied by High Cliff, a Georgian mansion designed for the 3rd Earl of Bute (a founder of Kew Gardens), with grounds laid out by Capability Brown. The earl's fourth son, General Sir Charles Stuart, who sold the Estate apart from Bure Homage (also designed by Donthorne), a small house on its outskirts, inherited High Cliff. All that remains of High Cliff today are the two entrance lodges, presently being used as a restaurant, and some of the garden walls and features on the current estate. The son of Sir Charles Stuart, also Charles Stuart, resolved that one day he would repurchase his grandfather's estate and build his own home there. A distinguished diplomat, his long and accomplished career resulted firstly in being given a knighthood and culminated in his being raised to the peerage by George IV. In 1827 Sir Charles Stuart became Lord Stuart de Rothesay. Early retirement meant de Rothesay could pursue his dream; by 1830 he had purchased back much of the eastern end of the Estate. He employed architect William Donthorne, a founder member of the Royal Institute of British Architects (RIBA), to design his new home, Highcliffe Castle. The design incorporated large quantities of carved medieval stonework, which De Rothesay had acquired from the Norman Benedictine abbey of St. Peter at Jumieges and from the Grande Maison des Andelys, both of which had become derelict following the French Revolution. The most famous pieces are an entire oriel window and a complete window of stained glass, both from the 16th century. Examples of stained glass from France and other European countries, dating as far back as the 12th century, were also introduced. The Castle was built almost L-shaped and positioned on a southeast axis with the oriel window placed centrally on the southeast elevation. This was to incorporate a vista through landscaped gardens across Christchurch Bay to the Needles and the Isle of Wight. The end result was a remarkable and unique building in the Romantic Picturesque style that remained in the family until 1950, when much of the Estate was sold separately from the Castle (between 1916 and 1922 Gordon Selfridge, founder of the famous London department store, leased the Castle). The land has since been developed, almost up to the Castle walls, with bungalows. Since then the future of the Castle has not been assured. Calls were made to demolish the Castle in the early 1950s, but a study carried out in 1953 by Hampshire County Council led to the building's Grade I listing. At the beginning of the 1950s Highcliffe was a children's home, before being sold in 1953 to the Claretian Missionary fathers as, firstly a noviciate, then for use as a seminary. However, rising costs and a restructuring of the scholasticate (body of students studying for priesthood) saw the Claretians moving in 1966 to be attached to Heythrop College. This led to the Castle being put up for sale once more. It was purchased from the fathers at auction by a group of local developers whose application to demolish the building was rejected, owing to its Grade I listing. Fires in 1967 and 1968 damaged the building; areas such as the East Tower were demolished or removed. The remaining valuable stained glass was also removed for storage. The continuous adverse affects of the weather contributed to the rapid deterioration of the fabric of the building. Christchurch Borough Council compulsorily purchased Highcliffe Castle in January 1977; the following June the grounds were open to the public to celebrate the queen's silver jubilee. During the 1980s public opinion was strongly against money being spent on the Castle and the council concentrated on attempting to keep it safe from intrusion and vandalism. Against this background it must be remembered that Christchurch is one of the smallest local authorities in the country, with a population of a little over 40,000. Discussions with English Heritage over the future of the Castle concluded in 1987, with a partnership between the two bodies and the commissioning of a feasibility study, which examined possible options for the Castle. The climate of local opinion was changing; in 1990 a further application for demolition was overwhelmingly rejected. In order to secure the building from further decay and the effects of future storms, roofing and temporary protection of important elements of the Castle were carried out at a cost of £200,000 each to the Council and English Heritage. Following public consultation and recommendations from the Buildings at Risk Trust, a zoned plan of repair and conservation works was adopted. The first phase of repairs and conservation was completed in 1994, when the Conservatory was officially opened: this now forms part of the Visitor Center and is licensed for civil weddings. Phases two and three were completed in 1996 and 1997, respectively. In 1995 an application to the newly-launched National Lottery to fund the final phase of repair (phase four) was successful in obtaining a grant of £2.65 million. This phase was completed in November 1998, when the final scaffold was removed. In April 1999 the Council took over the management of the Castle as a tourist attraction, comprising a gift shop, exhibition spaces, tearoom, and ground events. By 2001 visitor figures reached 40,000 per annum, with 250,000 visitors to the Park, and 100 weddings performed at the Castle. The Grand Staircase, built, it is rumored, to rival the enormous staircase at Fonthill Abbey, was removed by the Claretian Fathers circa 1960 to turn the Great Hall into a Catholic Chapel; thus, none of the original interior splendor is left. The Jesse Window (circa 1547) of the Great Hall is back in place, but the remainder of the stained glass removed after the disastrous fires of 1967 and 1968 is in store awaiting a grant to restore it and place it on display. (This history of Highcliffe Castle kindly provided by, and used with permission of, Christchurch Borough Council).

  • Architect: William John Donthorn

    Date: 1831-35
    Designed: House

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  • Country Life: XCI, 806, 854, 902, 1942.

  • Title: Destruction of the Country House, The
    Author: Strong, Roy; Binney, Marcus; Harris, John
    Year Published: 1974
    Publisher: London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.
    ISBN: 0500270052X
    Book Type: Softback

    Title: No Voice From the Hall: Early Memories of a Country House Snooper
    Author: Harris, John
    Year Published: 1998
    Publisher: London: John Murray
    ISBN: 0719555671
    Book Type: Hardback

  • House Listed: Grade I

    Park Listed: Not Listed

  • "Antiques Roadshow" (2007 - BBC TV series, episode 30.9). "Mr. Selfridge" (2013-16 - TV series, as Selfridge's country house).
  • Past Seat of: John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, 18th century; Lt-General Sir Charles Stuart, 18th century; Charles Stuart, 1st Baron Stuart de Rothesay, 19th century. Harry Gordon Selfridge, 1916-22.

    Current Ownership Type: Government

    Primary Current Ownership Use: Visitor Attraction

    Ownership Details: Owned and operated by Christchurch Borough Council.

  • House Open to Public: Yes

    Phone: 01425-278-807

    Fax: 01425-280-423

    Email: Enquiries@Highcliffecastle.co.uk

    Website: http://www.highcliffecastle.co.uk

    Historic Houses Member: No