Rescuing the Castle
The Fall and Rise
Highcliffe Castle’s fate after the Stuart Wortley family sold it in 1950 was like that of many stately homes at that time: it found an institutional use. Local businessman J.H.Leonard Lloyd bought it to turn into a children’s convalescent home. Mr Lloyd already ran a similar home at Lynton, North Devon, and he claimed that the Highcliffe one would be “the finest of its kind in the country”. Fees for children staying there were four guineas a week. Within a year the home’s reputation took a severe blow when allegations were made in court that children had been indecently assaulted there. Although the allegations were dismissed, Mr Lloyd closed the home soon afterwards.
The Castle and its estate were put on the market for £45,000. It was bought in 1952 by a developer who sold in on the following year while retaining a substantial portion of land on which the homes of Rothesay Drive were built.
Three senior Roman Catholic priests from the Claretian Missionary Congregation came across the Castle in 1953 while looking for a large property where students could be trained for the priesthood. They were able to buy it for about £14,000. During their 13 years at the Castle the Claretians removed the stone double staircase from the Great Hall to create a chapel there. A building put up beside the East Wing to provide extra dormitories now houses the Castle’s tearooms. Faced with rising maintenance costs and falling numbers of students, the Claretians decided in 1966 to move out and sell up.
The Castle was bought for about £21,000 in 1967 by three local businessmen who had plans for development.
A fire just before this sale badly damaged the Great Hall and another the following year caused more devastation. Exposed to the weather and vandals, the Castle deteriorated into a ruin. For two decades the derelict Castle was seldom out of the local news as controversy raged over whether it should be pulled down or saved. Nationally, concern about its fate was voiced by organisations such as English Heritage, the Ancient Monuments Society, the Victorian Society, the Buildings at Risk Trust and SAVE Britain’s Heritage, as well as prominent architectural historians.
The businessmen who bought the Castle had sought at one time to demolish it and develop the site and grounds, but were blocked by Christchurch Council’s planners and by the Castle’s status as a Grade 1 listed building. Eventually the Council compulsorily purchased the Castle from them in 1977 for £65,000 – its valuation by the Land Tribunal – and opened the grounds and beach access to the public to mark the Queen’s Silver Jubilee. The Castle itself was surrounded by a security fence. Christchurch Council, as one of the smallest local authorities in the country, could afford to do no more than protect it from further vandalism.
In 1986 the Council offered the building on a 125-year lease for it to be restored for residential or hotel use with three acres of land for enabling development. Although several companies put forward schemes, none materialised. Discussions between the Council and English Heritage led to them in 1989 jointly commissioning Niall Phillips Architects of Bristol to consider what future the Castle might have.
Following storms in early 1990 in which the remaining trusses of the Great Hall roof collapsed, the first positive move was made towards saving the Castle. With financial help from English Heritage, a shroud of scaffolding and sheeting was put around it to protect it while plans were made to repair it and ensure its future. Local campaigners such as the Friends of Highcliffe Castle Action Group were ecstatic when a start was made in 1994 on a phased scheme to repair and conserve the building, funded initially by Christchurch Council and English Heritage. Working with consultant architects Niall Phillips, other specialist consultants and Highcliffe Castle Charitable Trust, Linford and other contractors set about providing new roofs, repairing and conserving exterior masonry, windows and doors and installing new structural supports and ties.
The first phase was to repair the Castle’s south wing, including the Wintergarden, Drawing Room and Library. Just as the Wintergarden was being opened to the public as a visitor centre run by Highcliffe Castle Charitable Trust came news that Christchurch Council’s bid for a £2.6million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the Castle had been successful. The grant ensured that all the stages of the major repairs could be completed. This work, which finished in 1998, included the rebuilding of the East Tower which had been demolished in 1974 when it became unsafe. Craftsmen and women from the Dorchester-based St Blaise company, experts in stone conservation, won a prestigious Stone Federation award for their work on the Castle. The judges described it as “a textbook example of great care and skill”.
With the whole building secure, Christchurch Council gratefully took over the visitor centre from Highcliffe Castle Charitable Trust in 1999 and pledged to run the Castle as a tourist attraction, an arts and exhibition venue and a wedding location. The Drawing Room, Library and Ante-Library became very popular for exhibitions ranging from the Castle’s heritage to contemporary art and crafts, while the Wintergarden emerged as one of Dorset’s most sought-after wedding venues.
Exciting plans to open up much more of the Castle’s interior were set back when applications for a further Heritage Lottery Fund grant of up to £3.1million failed in 2002 and 2005. However, Christchurch Council agreed in 2007 to make a repayable loan of just over £1million from its capital reserve fund to finance a reduced scheme and awarded the contract to Poole-based Greendale Construction. Main features of the scheme – completed in early 2008 – were the upgrading of the Great Hall, including underfloor heating to allow functions to be held all year round, refurbishing the bare Dining Room into an attractive venue for wedding receptions and other events, and creating an access for disabled people.