Harry at Highcliffe

Recently in an idle moment I was reading a post entitled ‘So what brings you here’ from one of my favourite London bloggers, who questioned the perverse searches people made to land on her blog.

This got me to investigate whether unusual search terms had been used to choose CabbieBlog. Alas, as I might have expected, many were asking about aspects of cabbie life.

[S]orry, my working day is much the same as yours, except you spend more time taking to strangers. And no, I’m not saying how much a cabbie earns. But what was by far the highest non cabbie related search term
– at 450 – was Harry Selfridge. Which brings me to my Open House visit this year.

On holiday in Dorset we visited Highcliffe Castle near the picturesque town of Christchurch which is like a throwback to the 1950s with its quaint Art Deco cinema. The ‘behind the scenes’ tour of Highcliffe Castle nearby, where at his most flamboyant (and reckless) London storeowner Harry Selfridge once lived.

Listed as Grade I and the most important surviving house in the Romantic and Picturesque style of architecture you might have though this beautiful building with views across the sea to The Needles was kept in pristine condition.

Built between 1831-1836 and decorated with medieval French masonry shipped across the Channel from ruined Les Andelys manor house. Known as the King’s Oriel, Highcliffe Castle’s most prominent window had lit the room where Antoine de Bourbon, King of Navarre, died after being wounded in the siege of Rouen in 1562. Beside him knelt his son, who became the first Bourbon King of France, Henri IV.

Highcliffe’s ancient stained glass has looked down on many luminaries: King Edward VII, Kaiser William II, William Gladstone, and Nancy Mitford before Harry Selfridge took out the lease.

Within 6 years with Selfridge’s fortune in terminal decline Highcliffe Castle passed on to a number of private individuals before being used as a children’s convalescent home.

By 1953 it had become a seminary for the Roman Catholic priesthood. The stone double staircase from the grand hall was removed to create a chapel and a new kitchen installed. This was the start of Highcliffe’s decline.

Sold again in 1967 to three local businessmen who wanted to re-develop this prime piece of real estate. A fire just before the sale failed to convince the authorities that Highcliffe Castle should be demolished due to its Grade I listing .

Harry-2 Highcliffe’s kitchen

Another fire the following year and 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.

Compulsory purchased in 1977 and now surrounded by a security fence (something that should have been done decades ago), the castle was put a further risk following storms of early 1990 when trusses of the great hall collapsed.

A £2.6 million grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund has allowed this beautiful building to open as a visitor centre and repairing the stonework won the prestigious Stone Federation Award described as ‘a text book example of great care and skill’.

Unfortunately two further bids for Lottery funds have been unsuccessful and much of the building remains just a shell. Exciting plans as a stained glass workshop and opening the kitchen has had to remain on hold until further funds can be obtained.

Harry-1 Harry Selfridge’s grave

As for Harry Selfridge, his forgotten grave, like his castle is left in a dilapidated and sorry state just across the road from Highcliffe Castle in St. Mark’s Church.

Picture Highcliffe Castle by Mike Searle via Wikimedia Commons.

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