Over the years the Isle of Wight has lost many buildings — sometimes good, sometimes not so good, all depending on one’s individual point of view

Overlooking the Ventnor Botanic Garden is Castle Close, comprising of many dwellings dating back to around the 1970s.

When you stand on Undercliff Drive around the area of the cricket ground and look up you will notice the remains of a very ornate and substantial old stone wall. This is all that remains of the castle that once occupied this site.

Steephill Castle was demolished to make way for the present housing complex, unfortunately wiping away any old or historic structures was a popular pastime during that period of time.

Isle of Wight County Press: The remaining terrace walls at the Steephill Castle site. Photo: David White.The remaining terrace walls at the Steephill Castle site. Photo: David White.

The castle which stood on that spot was originally the concept of a Mr John Hambrough.

The construction started in 1833 and took two years to complete. It had a square keep with battlements, and inside it was lavishly furnished with oak panelling, marble and a 32ft drawing room. These were but a few of its grand features.

When completed it had cost a staggering £250,000 — a considerable sum during that period. Unfortunately John Hambrough never saw the result as he lost his sight shortly before completion of his project.

Over the following years, Steephill Castle had many famous visitors. Queen Victoria, together with Albert, would visit in order to enjoy its terraced walks and magnificent views.

Later in history King Edward VII and Queen Alexandra would visit and stroll the extensive grounds.

Isle of Wight County Press: Steephill Castle, which was demolished in 1963. Photo: IWCP Archive.Steephill Castle, which was demolished in 1963. Photo: IWCP Archive.

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 would frequently visit the “holy thorn” a rare plant in England which originally came from the East.

Legend has it that solders used such a plant in order to make the thorn crown for Christ’s head, because the leaves were extremely prickly.

This bush had an irresistible attraction for the Empress who would stand silently touching the thorny leaves.

Afterwards she remarked to her maids, that a crown made of leaves such as those on the plant would — when stabbing one — cause such pain.

She eventually suffered an awful death after returning to Europe, when she was attacked some time later by an assassin who stabbed her.

Eventually the castle was sold to a Mr John Morgan Richards, and it was here that his eldest daughter, dramatist and playwright, Pearl Craigie, wrote many of her works — her pen name being John Oliver Hobbes.

Following the death of Mr Richards, shortly after the First World War, the castle was sold again.

It was during this period that large private estates were being broken up and sold off — many people no longer had the finances to run them in the way that they used to be run.

Such was the fate of Steephill Castle — most of the surrounding land and buildings were auctioned off to private buyers, as was the castle itself.

The stables and clocktower also came under the hammer. These buildings however still remain today, at the junction of Undercliff Road and Castle Road in Ventnor, and are little changed up to the present day.

Isle of Wight County Press: In 2006, Ventnor History Society unveiled a plaque to commemorate Steephill Castle. Left, mayor Brian Lucas unveils the plaque with Ventnor and District Local History Society's Graham Bennett. Photo: IWCP Archive.In 2006, Ventnor History Society unveiled a plaque to commemorate Steephill Castle. Left, mayor Brian Lucas unveils the plaque with Ventnor and District Local History Society's Graham Bennett. Photo: IWCP Archive.

The castle and the remaining grounds were eventually purchased by a holiday company and run as a hotel, while during the Second World War it was turned into a school.

Following the Second World War, it went back into the ownership of the holiday company and in 1959, owing to more stringent regulations regarding fire escapes, coupled the cost of upkeep, it was put up for sale.

However during this period in time prospective buyers with money enough were thin on the ground. So followed four years of disuse and neglect, which caused increased deterioration.

As was popular at the time with large old buildings, a demolition order was applied for and subsequently granted, in order that a new upmarket housing estate could take its place.

Demolition started in 1963 and took four months to complete. Much of the stone was recycled for repairs to St Catherine’s Church in Ventnor.

It had turned out that Steephill Castle had one last ironic trick to play.

Hambrough, who had Steephill built as his dream residence, now lies buried in the vaults of St Catherine’s Church, the church that had benefited with the stone taken from the demolition.

A hotel on the outskirts of Ventnor can boast of having one the fireplaces and one of the staircases, and many locals went to the site and took souvenirs.

Finally some amazing information came to light — the staircase, ceiling and wall-panelling that was thought to be oak, proved to be a clever imitation in cheaper wood, plus the wonderful ornate carvings were found to be plaster mouldings.

Was this the builders doing the old builders’ trick by short-changing a client, who beside being blind, had trusted them? Or was it short cuts decided by Hambrough himself?

That we may never know.

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