ELIZABETH SLEPT THERE

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:44

When building their castles the Victorians, it would seem, had a flair for including turrets and towers which gave the impression they were not integral parts of the original design. Steephill Castle, which stood on sloping land opposite the Ventnor Cricket Ground, was no exception. A photograph of the front elevation in a book published for private circulation shows its eighty-five foot tower, as incongruous as a factory chimney, rising from the north-eastern corner of the keep.

The castle, started in 1833 to designs by James Sanderson, was erected on a site formerly occupied by ‘The Cottage’ – a picturesque eighteenth century dwelling built for a governor of the Island, the Hon. Hans Stanley, and for four decades the favourite home of the fifth Earl of Dysart.

Subsequent to the Earl’s death in 1821 ‘The Cottage’ passed into the hands of his sister, Lady Louisa Manners, from whom John Hambrough bought it seven years later.

To build his castle, John Hambrough demolished an inn and several small cottages in addition to the historic residence of the late Earl. He did, however, do his utmost to retain the natural beauty of the surroundings.

The castle, constructed of grey and yellow stone quarried on the site, was of rectangular shape with a square battlemented keep at the north-eastern end and an imposing octagonal tower (lower than the north-eastern one) at the south-eastern corner.

John B. Marsh, author of the above-mentioned book and a visitor to Steephill Castle in 1905, makes particular reference to the vestibule with its rich ceiling, carved bosses, and gothic folding doors, which led through a carved oak screen to the Grand Hall and a gallery staircase of polished oak lavishly decorated with heraldic beasts, saints, and soldiers. He mentions also the Study and the Library – both well stocked with books to suit all tastes.

In describing other rooms, the author gives their dimensions. The Billiard Room was 30ft by 21ft; the Dining Room 27ft by 20ft; the two Drawing Rooms, one 32ft by 20ft and the other 28ft by 19ft, could be made into one apartment. One wonders if the fireplaces were large enough to keep them warm.

Oak panelling and polished pine were used extensively for the ceilings, and in the windows there was a certain amount of stained glass.

On an arched gateway the initials of John Hambrough and of his wife, Sophia Townsend, were conjoined in a true lovers’ knot, and ‘JH’ with his armorial bearings appeared over the main doorway. The owner, however, never saw them, for prior to the completion of the castle in 1835 John Hambrough lost his sight.

Standing apart from the main building were the stables, a large conservatory, an enclosed swimming bath, an overflow four-bedroomed villa, and a gardener’s cottage. The total outlay for the castle and its appurtenances was a quarter of a million pounds.

By the time of John Marsh’s visit, the castle had become the property of John Morgan Richards, father of Pearl Mary Teresa Craigie, the novelist and playwright who wrote under the pseudonym of ‘John Oliver Hobbes’.

Although Mrs Craigie had a villa of her own in St Lawrence, much of her writing was done in Steephill Castle where a special room was provided for that purpose. There, on the day before her sudden death, she wrote the opening paragraph of a new novel entitled A Time To Love.

During its lifetime Steephill Castle was more than once honoured by the presence of royalty. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert were there on several occasions to enjoy the scenery, their favourite walks being the south and west terraces – the former afterwards known as the Victoria Terrace.

King Edward the Seventh and Queen Alexandra, when still the Prince and Princess of Wales, also went there to admire the castle and its supremely beautiful setting.

Another royal visitor was the courageous, eccentric, and extremely lovely lady, the Empress Elizabeth of Austria, who arrived with her suite in the autumn of 1874, the visit being made on account of her daughter’s health. The Princess Valerie was delicate, and her doctors had recommended a course of sea-bathing. Steephill Castle was taken in advance by Count Beust, new bathrooms were installed, the Billiard Room converted into a gymnasium, and mother and daughter, living as the Countess and Fraulein von Hohenembs, moved in for a stay of six weeks. They were accompanied by a considerable retinue and, in Ventnor, the influx of French, Hungarian, and Austrian attendants caused a nine days’ wonder. When the Empress went bathing, the cliffs were so thronged with people that, to enjoy privacy, she was compelled to use one of her maids as a decoy. She loved walking, and the Island’s country lanes delighted her.

Soon after her arrival she received a visit from Queen Victoria; but the Queen and the Empress were not compatible. Elizabeth was shy: Victoria rather awe-inspiring. When invited to dine at Osborne, Elizabeth asked to be excused. A second invitation was declined. It is said Queen Victoria did not forget this apparent rudeness, and in later years when Elizabeth, for political reasons, was anxious to be received, the Queen regretted she was “too busy” to grant her request.

Among the beeches, chestnuts, cedars, magnolias, myrtles, rhododendrons, and other flora too numerous to catalogue which beautified the garden, there grew a deciduous shrub popularly known as ‘Christ’s Thorn’ and reputed to be of the species from which the crown of thorns was woven. This shrub fascinated the Empress and she went to it repeatedly, and after touching its needle-pointed leaves would comment on the torture caused by wearing such a crown. It is to be hoped that the enchantment of Steephill Castle and its environs did something to compensate for the mental agony the wearing of her own crown had engendered.

In 1963 Steephill Castle was pulled down to be replaced by a housing estate. In spite of its incongruity, many of us would prefer again to see that north-eastern tower overlooking the Channel.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
If this article is reproduced please acknowledge the author.

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