Wight Life

The Forgotten Castle

by David Paul

Picture of Steephill Castle

SEPARATING Niton Village from Ventnor are six miles of lush green woodland, overshadowed by a high, jagged rock-face. It is known as the Undercliff. During the last couple of years a considerable amount of building has taken place there especially near Steephill which lies close to Ventnor. Here a large, modern complex known as Steephill Castle Estate has grown up. Most of the residents around that part know of the existence of Steephill Castle, on the remains of which their houses now stand. But what of its story?

It starts during the mid-seventeen hundreds when the governor of the Island, Hans Stanley, had a building erected called 'The Cottage'. It became well-known for its picturesque setting and artistic design. A description of the time goes as follows: `... it has captivating rustic simplicity with plain walls, bow windows and a thatched roof...' It was also said to have a very beautiful garden.

Hans Stanley was thought of most highly by George III and this was reflected in the appointments given to him by the King. In 1780, however, Stanley committed suicide and the estate of Steephill was bought by the Earl of Dysart. Although he owned several other estates, Steephill Cottage was the Earl's favourite residence until his death some forty years later.

It was then handed over to his sister, Lady Louisa Manners, who sold the property eight years later to Mr John Hambrough. Hambrough demolished the cottage and several other buildings — one of which was an inn — in order to make way for the proposed building of Steephill Castle.

The construction started in 1833 but was not completed until two years later. It was built in an oblong shape and featured a square battlemented keep with a high rounded tower. Inside, magnificent carvings and oak panelling adorned the rooms. The lay-out of the house consisted of a billiard room given light through a stained-glass window, library and study, and a dining room with a large black marble chimney piece and polished pine ceiling. The drawing room stretched the whole length of the west wing which was thirty-two feet. On the arched entrance to the drive were carved the initials of Hambrough and his wife, Sophie Townsend.

Picture of Steephill Castle staircase

When completed the total cost of the Castle was said to have been approximately £250,000 but John Hambrough never saw it finished because he lost his sight. During the following years, Steephill had many famous visitors. Queen Victoria and the Prince Consort would visit the Castle in order to enjoy the wonderful view and terraced walks. One of her favourite walks was named after her: Victoria Promenade. Much later in history, King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra also visited the Castle and its grounds.

A wonderful story concerns the Empress of Austria, another royal visitor, who occupied a suite in the building for almost a year. She would spend hours just walking silently in the grounds and during this time she would frequently visit the 'Holy Thorn' — this is a rare plant in England, coming from the East. Legend has it that soldiers used the bush to make the crown for Christ's head, the leaves being exceptionally prickly. This bush had an irresistible attraction for the Empress and she would stand silently, touching the thorny leaves.

Afterwards she remarked to her maids that a crown made of leaves such as those would have caused a great deal of pain. She in fact eventually suffered an awful death at the hands of an assassin. John Morgan Richards was the next owner of Steephill and it was here that his elder daughter, dramatist and playwright, Pearl Craigie, wrote many of her works, her pen-name being John Oliver Hobbs. During the years that followed, Steephill became well-known for its social life and garden parties, fetes and open days. However, all this came to an end on the death of Mr J M Richards just after the First World War. The mansion that he had bought for £14,000 was up for auction.

At this time England was rapidly changing its ideas and a small revolution was taking place, a part of this being the auctioning of many large privately-owned estates. No more could people manage to maintain them in the manner in which their grandfathers had, and such was the fate of Steephill. Most of the surrounding land and buildings were auctioned to private buyers as was the Castle itself. The stables and clock tower also came under the hammer. These buildings still remain at the junction of Undercliff Road and Castle Road in Ventnor, and are little changed up to the present day.

However, after the auction, although the Castle and surrounding grounds were not altered, the roles played by them changed considerably. The Holiday Friendship Association took over its ownership and it then served as a hotel, leading a fairly mundane existence until it was turned into a school in the Second World War. After this if resumed its role as a hotel. The Holiday Friendship Association gave up the ownership in 1959 due to more stringent regulations concerning fire-escapes, coupled with the cost of the general upkeep. It was decided that Steephill Castle was no longer a viable proposition and many prospective buyers were put off for the same reason. After four years of neglect and consequent deterioration, a demolition order was obtained.

Work on the Castle and the surrounding wilderness — once beautiful gardens — began in the early part of August 1963 and was completed four months later. A great deal of the metal fittings had already been removed during the war but most of the stone was put to good use during the repairs to St Catherine's Church in Ventnor, which dates from the same period as the Castle. The stone for both buildings was quarried locally. It is quite a coincidence that the first owner of Steephill, John Hambrough, lies buried in the vaults of the church. A hotel on the outskirts of Ventnor can boast of the fireplace and staircase from the Castle, and many of the locals went to the site to obtain souvenirs.

During this time, a great argument developed as to whether the main entrance gate should be preserved but it was finally decided that the structure was too dangerous and that too should be taken down. It was at this point that some amazing information came to light. The staircases, ceiling and wall panelling, all thought to be oak, proved to be' a clever imitation in deal wood. Also, the wonderful ornate carvings were found to be plaster mouldings!

Was Steephill Castle just an ex- travagant Recency folly? From the findings made during the demolition, it certainly seems so. It is now a decade since it was erased from the Undercliff but parts of the walls and cellars can still be seen, and the odd overgrown walk remains – a last reminder, to all who pass by, of the forgotten Castle of Steephill.