The Forgotten 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. 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
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, drama-list 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 it 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.