Highcliffe Castle

Christchurch, Dorset, BH23 4LE
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In the 1770s Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown built a house and advised on planting for John Stuart, 3rd Earl of Bute on the coast at Highcliffe.

Capability Brown had a friendly relationship with the 3rd Earl of Bute, and had carried out large-scale works for him at Luton Hoo, beginning in the mid-1760s. It was during a visit there in December 1775 that Lord Bute asked Brown to advise him on Highcliffe, the property he had recently bought on the cliff top near Christchurch Bay, then in Hampshire (now Dorset). Brown is believed to have designed a house at Highcliffe, and perhaps a kitchen garden and pavilion in the grounds, as well as advising his client about tree planting.

Brown’s accounts

The record of payments for Brown’s project at Highcliffe is not complete. His surviving account book includes two references to Highcliffe under work Brown was carrying out for Lord Bute at his other properties at Luton Hoo and South Audley Street, London. In February 1777 Brown received payment of £140 (£211,500 in 2015) for Highcliffe and in July 1778 another £184 (£280,300 in 2015) to settle the balance on the house.

Cliff-top house

No plan has survived for Brown’s work at Highcliffe. Given his friendship with Lord Bute, it is likely that he visited the site in person to discuss ideas for the house. Unlike the inland estates where Brown usually worked, Highcliffe was bare heathland and offered a blank canvas. In 1779 the earl’s wife, Mary, wrote to a friend: “The mildness of the sea air (being due south) make up for the want of shelter, there not being a single tree upon our territory.”

Little is known about the house Brown designed there. An engraving from 1784 describes it as “a little Box”, though the building appears quite large and has a long façade with two bays, overlooking the sea. Landscaper Humphry Repton later referred to it as a “bathing Place” for Lord Bute.

Seaside landscapes

In the same period, Brown was working on his only other coastal property, which was at Cadland, on the River Solent. In partnership with architect Henry Holland Junior he built a house and landscaped the gardens at Cadland, so he would have been familiar with the problems of an exposed seaside location.

At Highcliffe Brown advised the earl to establish belts of Scotch firs and pines around the new house. The idea was that when these trees had matured they would act as shelter for other trees against the salty winds blowing off the English Channel. The writer William Gilpin called Highcliffe a “pompous pile” and doubted whether the plantations would survive in the exposed location, but he underestimated Brown’s expertise.

Lord Bute was very interested in rare plants, which was one reason why he chose to build a house in this area. He introduced many rare specimens from nearby into the garden at Highcliffe.

Highcliffe Castle after Brown

Brown’s building at Highcliffe did not last long. After the earl’s death in 1792 the next owner rebuilt the house. In 1830 the present Highcliffe Castle (listed Grade I; Historic England) was built for owner Lord Stuart de Rothesay, grandson of Lord Bute. Only the two lodges have survived from Lord Bute’s day.

Little remains of Brown’s work at Highcliffe, though work has recently been done to uncover what is believed to be his kitchen garden. Work continues to find the base of his classical-style garden pavilion. The house and gardens are open to the public.


Sarah Rutherford, Capability Brown and His Landscape Gardens, National Trust Books, 2016, pages 54 &124

Dorothy Stroud, Capability Brown, Faber & Faber, 1984, pages 178-179

Highcliffe Castle: www.highcliffecastle.co.uk