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Highcliffe Castle is a Grade I listed building owned by Christchurch Borough Council. It was built between 1831 and 1835 by Lord Stuart de Rothesay. It has been described as "the most important remaining example of the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture."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, 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.

The son of Sir 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 1828 Sir Charles Stuart became Lord Stuart de Rothesay. Early retirement meant Lord Stuart could pursue his dream and by 1830 he had bought back much of the eastern end of the estate.

He employed architect William Donthorne, a founder member of RIBA, to design his new home, Highcliffe Castle. The design incorporated large quantities of carved medieval stonework which Lord Stuart 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 also a complete window of stained glass, both from the sixteenth century. Examples of stained glass from France and other European countries, dating as far back as the twelfth century, were also introduced.

The Castle was built almost "L" shaped and positioned on a south-east axis with the oriel window placed centrally on the south-east 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, which remained in the family until 1950 when much of the estate was sold separately from 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 so assured. At the beginning of the 50s the Castle 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.

The 1950s and 1960s
  • Calls were made to demolish the Castle but a study carried out in 1953 by Hampshire County Council led to the building's Grade I listing.
  • The Claretian Fathers who occupied the building until 1966 purchased the Castle in 1953. Shortly after they vacated the building there was the first of two severe fires.
  • The Castle was then 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 building fabric.

The 1970s

  • 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.

The 1980s

  • 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 and in 1990 a further application for demolition was overwhelmingly rejected.

The 1990s

  • 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 zonal 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 Centre and is licensed for civil weddings. Phases 2 and 3 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 4) 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 gift shop, exhibition spaces, tea room and ground events.
  • By 2001 visitor figures have reached 40, 000 per annum with around 100 weddings performed at the castle each year.

 

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