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Highcliffe Castle was built between 1831 and 1835 by one Lord Stuart de Rothesay on the site of an earlier Georgian house, Highcliff, built for his grandfather, the 3rd Earl of Bute (a founder of Kew Gardens).

The architect was William Donthorne, a founder member of RIBA, who incorporated a large quantity of carved medieval stonework that Lord Stuart had acquired from the Norman Benedictine Abbey of St Peter at Jumieges and from the Grande Maison des Andelys in Normandy.

Examples of stained glass from France and other European countries, dating as far back as the twelfth century, were also introduced, some of which can still be seen today.

It was privately owned until 1950 but has since had a somewhat checkered history. After brief spells as children's convalescent home and a catholic seminary, it became disused in 1966 following the first of two damaging fires.

It was then acquired by three businessmen whose application to demolish the building was rejected owing to its Grade I listing, and it was subsequently gutted by two further fires. Finally Christchurch Council acquired the site in 1977, and have now fully restored the exterior of the building (not, however, without some local controversy).

Inside, the restorers have managed the tricky task of maintaining the delicate balance between giving the visitors a flavour of what the interior was once like without over-restoring to the point of fakery. The Wintergarden is used for civil weddings and other rooms are used as exhibition spaces, a Visitor Centre and the inevitable Gift Shop.

At the time of my visit (2006) of the rooms open to the public, only the Entrance Hall was still awaiting restoration, and housed various exhibits relating to the history and restoration of the house. With its gothic architecture and magnificent stained class window, this room feels more like a church, and it is not surprising that it is here that the Claretian Missionary Fathers had their chapel.

In the grounds, Highcliffe Tea Rooms provide a welcome refreshment stop for people walking along the Coastal Path from Mudeford Quay to Chewton Bunny. For futher details, see the Steamer Point Stroll.

Check the Highcliffe Castle website for opening times etc.