Highcliffe Castle, perched on the cliff top on the outskirts of Highcliffe, isn’t quite as old as the name ‘Castle’ might suggest. The original Highcliffe Mansion was built (too close to the cliff edge) in 1775. Once this house was lost to coastal erosion, the current Highcliffe Castle was built, slightly further inland, in the 1830s.
Highcliffe Castle is 8 miles east of Bournemouth, it can be reached by car along the A338/A35/A337. By bike or on foot, it is possible to make almost the entire journey along the seafront, with a ferry crossing at Mudeford. If you’re feeling less energetic, the X1/X2 Buses stop at the Lord Bute, a 6 minute walk from the castle.
The castle has its own Pay & Display car park (good luck finding a space in summer). Parking fees are seasonal, ranging from 80p for 4 hours in winter to £1.70 for an hour in summer. Further details can be found here. There is free roadside parking in front of the castle between October and March.
The castle is not open all year, closing for a few months over the winter. For the remainder of the year, it is open from Sunday to Thursday between 10 am and 4 pm. On Fridays and Saturdays, the castle is a popular wedding venue, so is closed to the public. However, the grounds, car park, café and shop remain open. In winter when the castle is shut, the car park and grounds are open daily from 7 am, closing around dusk.
Admission costs £8 for adults. Full details of concessions and family tickets can be found here.
The first house at Highcliffe was built in 1775 for John Stuart, the 3rd Earl of Bute, who came to Highcliffe after being ousted as Prime Minister. Stuart was one of Britain’s shortest serving Prime Ministers, not least because he introduced a tax on cider!
Upon his death in 1792 (he fell over the cliff collecting plants), the house passed to his son Charles Stuart. Charles couldn’t afford the house’s upkeep and it was sold, ending up in the possession of Dr James Penleaze, a surgeon from London. It is alleged that the good doctor found a hat case stuffed full of cash which he used to purchase Highcliffe. Ultimately, it was too close to the cliff and had to be demolished.
The land then found its way back into the possession of the Stuart family and current castle, a Grade I Listed Building, was built in 1831 in for John Stuart’s grandson, Lord Stuart de Rothesay. This former ambassador to France imported stone and stained glass from derelict French churches to be incorporated into the construction.
Later, from 1916-1922, the house was rented by Harry Gordon Selfridge, founder of the Selfridges Department Store in London. Mr Selfridge loved Highcliffe and hosted lavish parties there. During the war, a convalescent camp for American soldiers was set up in the castle grounds.
After functioning as a children’s home and a religious seminary, the building was partially destroyed by fire. A period of neglect followed before it was compulsorily purchased by the council in 1977. The partially renovated castle is now owned by BCP Council.
The interior is still in need of much restoration, but it is still worth taking a tour. There is plenty of information about the history of the castle and its residents, along with some interactive activities to keep you entertained.
The Jesse Window
The focal point of the castle entrance is the 200 year old Jesse Window. It measures 9 x 4 metres incorporating a central panel from a derelict 16th Century French church.
The castle even boasts its own stained glass studio where you can observe crafts(wo)men at work.
The castles grounds were designed in 1775 by famous landscape architect Capability Brown, who planted trees to stabilise the cliff top as well as introducing more formal gardens and a beach hut. To the rear of the castle is the formal parterre. From here, woodland walks extend along the coast.
The castle tea gardens are closed for 2023. In the meantime, local restaurant Cliffhanger has a takeaway van located at the castle selling drinks, snacks and ice cream.
A nice ‘circular’ walk to take is to follow the path west along the cliff top to Steamer Point, then descend and return along the beach. Steamer Point is so- called as in 1829, the castle’s owner decided to have a steamer lodged into a gap in the cliff top because – well, she liked paddle steamers.
Steamer Point Lodge
The steamer is long gone but there is a house built above where it used to lie called Steamer Point Lodge. This two bedroom former warden’s lodge on the cliff top is now a holiday rental with stunning views and beach access.
Steamer Point Nature Reserve
The surrounding area forms Steamer Point Nature Reserve, which consists of a wooded area running alongside a lake.
Steamer Point Woodland Information Centre
There is a small building where you can learn more about the nature of the surrounding area with interactive displays for children.
Highcliffe Castle Beach
From here, you can take a cliff path to return along the beach. Alternatively, the beach can be reached from the castle via a gently sloping zigzag (no steps) or by a path with 118 steps (yes I counted).
There is a trail along the beach heading east to the Blue Flag beach at Highcliffe.
Highcliffe Castle for Children
There are plenty of activities for children as you walk round the castle, such as designing a stained glass window and dressing up as a servant to serve dinner to the King. There are also regular activities (mainly in the school holidays) such as crafting, trails and story telling. And it’s only a few minutes walk to the beach, so makes for a perfect outing.
Dogs are permitted in the castle grounds, but must be kept on a lead in the area around the castle.
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