History of High Cliff Mansion and Lord Bute
As a keen botanist, John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute, came to the New Forest area in the 1770s in search of rare plants. The Scottish nobleman, a friend and mentor of the young King George III, was escaping from a turbulent political life in which he served just 11 months as a very unpopular Prime Minister.
Reaching the coast, Bute was captivated by “the fairest outlook in England” – the sweep of Christchurch Bay with the Isle of Wight and the Needles rocks in the distance – and was determined to build there. Work began in 1775 on a house he called High Cliff.
It started as a fairly modest house, but was extended in 1778 and again considerably in 1787. Bute himself probably helped with the design, overseen by the architect Robert Nasmith.
The house has often been attributed to the famous architect Robert Adam, who designed earlier houses for Bute in London and at Luton Park. But High Cliff was not in his style, and the only link seems to be that the Adams family building firm was involved.
When completed, High Cliff had more than 30 bedrooms. Its living rooms included a 40ft saloon. Bute could spend his leisure hours in two libraries, a laboratory and a natural history and fossil room.
Most importantly for the man who helped to found the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, he could indulge his interest in botany and horticulture.
He created at High Cliff a scaled-down version of Kew. His vast conservatory was almost 300ft long, he used greenhouses to experiment with rare plants and he walled-in four acres of grounds for hardy plants.
Lancelot “Capability” Brown, the leading landscape architect of the day, was called in by Bute for advice and work on the large estate which stretched along the coastline from Chewton Bunny in the east almost to Mudeford in the west.
Bute’s love of plants probably hastened his end. Stretching for a specimen on the cliff top, he toppled 28ft and injured his leg. He never completely recovered from the fall and died 16 months later, in 1792, aged 78.