Vanbrugh Castle School

Castle Sales Articles

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A collection of newspaper articles about the sale of the Vanbrugh Castle.

Architects Journal

Castle reprieve


VANBRUGH Castle, built by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1719 as his own residence, now has a secure future. The Grade 1 building overlooking Greenwich Park is to be bought by the Blackheath Preservation Trust who are leasing it under strict controls as four family homes. The future of the castle, which Pevsner identifies as "the first private house ever designed consciously to arouse associa­tions with the Middle Ages", has been in doubt since its present owners, the RAF Benevolent Fund, decided to merge its school for sons of dead and disabled airmen with another in Sussex. A planning application to build 18 flats in three-storey blocks in the grounds was turned down last January on appeal, the DoE inspector con­demning the proposals as "destructive of the romantic silhouette of the castle in relationship with the nearby trees". Local conservationists then feared that the building wouid remain unsold, empty and begin to decay. The preservation trust founded in 1938 to buy, restore, safeguard and sell historic buildings on a revolving fund basis, is buying the castle and two neighbouring 19th century houses and associated land. It will lease the castle to four families wanting to buy sections of it but lacking any umbrella organisation to manage the building. The trust will execute covenants binding itself to preserve and maintain the building.

Sunday Times 6th March 1977

Gothic castle for family living

Four men's castle


A BARRISTER, an accountant and a civil servant have just re­captured an early eighteenth-century Gothic revival castle for family use. Vanbrugh Castle, a listed Grade I historic building dating from 1719, was bulk by the architect-painter-dramatist Sir John Vanbrugh as his own house while he was supervising the building of Greenwich Hospital (now the Royal Naval College).
The towered, turreted and battlemented brick building overlooks Greenwich Park from the edge of the Blackheath plateau and enjoys, from its towers and embrasured windows, superb views of the Queen's House, the Naval College and the Thames. Its previous owners, the RAF Benevolent Fund, used it as a school for the sons of dead and disabled airmen from 1921 until last summer, but then merged the school with another in Surrey.
Though for much of the nineteenth century Vanbrugh Castle was in institutional use (girls school, institution for spinal diseases, etc.), the building, full of tower rooms and other small spaces linked by ubiquitous Vanbrugh arches, does not readily lend itself to a non-domestic use. Prospective purchasers be­fore the school moved mostly wanted to build in the grounds; but in a planning appeal decision in January last year a Depart­ment of the Environment Inspec­tor ruled out one such development as " destructive of the romantic silhouette of the castle in relationship to the nearby trees," So what was to become of the castle? The RAF Benevolent Fund as a charity was bound to try for the highest price, but in a declining property market and with large-scale building ruled out, buyers were not easy to find.
Then architect Ursula Bowyer. who lives in a house just below the castle, suggested to barrister Alaistair Wilson and his wife Caroline that they and three other families might convert Vanbrugh's Gothic whimsy into four family houses.
This they are now all set to do, with the help of the Blackheath Preservation Trust, which has bought the castle, two nine­teenth century houses and a large area of wooded land below the castle, for £177,500. The Wilsons and two other families — accountant Anthony Herron and Customs and Excise official Paler Jackson and their wives — will each get a 999-year lease on one vertical section of it. The fourth unit is under offer. The trust, as freeholder, retains overall control and binds itself by covenant to preserve and main­tain the property.
Though the castle is in re­markably good structural state, these four successors to Sir John (architect of Blenheim Palace and author of "The Relapse" and " The Provoked Wife") will need to do a considerable amount of internal conversion and restoration work on their parts of the building.

Tony Aldous

Evening Standard 28 February 1977

THE CASTLE-DWELLERS—front row, left to right, Tony Herron, Tangy Herron, Caroline Wilson, Polly Wilson, Barbara Jackson, Alastair Wilson. Back row, Piers Jackson, Nicholas Jackson, Archie Wilson, Neil Rhind, Matthew Jackson.

Home for 3 families is - a castle

WHEN Alastair Wilson says an Englishman's home" is his castle he knows what he's talking about. For this weekend his wile and children and two other families became the owners of Vanbrugh Castle, Green­wich.
Behind them lies a year of planning and fund-raising; months more of hard work and headaches as the rambling red-brick structure is turned into four separate houses.
But, at the end of it all, they hope to share one of London's most unusual resi­dences—and live the country life within sight of the city.
The castle was built by architect Sir John Vanbrugh in 1717 to be his own home. It already has a maze of rooms, a secret passage and nearly two acres of garden with breathtaking views. Its new occupiers plan to intro­duce a few chickens, a pony and a swimming-pool.
They are not planning a commune, though. Each family—there should be four eventually—will have its own three-to-five-bedroom home, but will share the garden and other amenities.
The scheme began when Alastair, 30, a barrister, and his wife, Caroline, heard that the building was on the market for £200,000, which included the land and two Victorian houses. "We were attracted to it because it seemed such a romantic place," said Caroline, 33, a journalist. " Also, I like the country and Alastair likes the town. This seems the best of both worlds."
Raising the finance proved a major problem until the Blackheath Preservation Trust agreed to become the free­holders. Now each family has a 999-year lease on a house for no more than the usual price for that size and area.
"There were times we thought it would all fall through," said Alastair. " Conventional banks didn't really want to know us, and drawing-up leases and sorting out the legal side was a real night­mare."
Finding other people was almost as difficult. " A lot of people just wanted their own bit of garden and privacy - very conventional and boring." said Caroline.

4th April 1976

RAF benevolent school moves to new premises

By Penny Symon

The Royal Air Force Benevo­lent Fund is moving its school for the orphan sons of airmen from Vanbrugh Castle in Black-heath, London, and is merging with the Woolpit School near Ewhurst, Surrey.
The castle, nicknamed The Bastille, was once inhabited by Sir John Vanbrugh, the play­wright and architect. It is for sale at £200,000 and three people are interested in buying it.
The castle was given to the fund by Mr Alexander Duckham in 1921 to be used as a school for boys orphaned because of the First World War. Now it also takes sons of disabled airmen.
Mr Paul Cutting, the fund secretary (administration) said : " We are selling because we wanted to expand but this was not possible as we are in Greenwich conservation area. Luckily, the Woolpit School was virtually given to us by St Thomas's Church Schools Company, and we are merging our school with it.

Building Design April 20, 1979


Vanbrugh's picturesque castle is rescued from rot.
By Peter Weatherhead.

VANBRUGH CASTLE, the sham collection of battle­ments and turrets built beside Greenwhich Park by Sir John Vanbrugh in 1717, has been converted into four spacious dwellings by a consortium of owners to a design by architects Gordon Bowyer and Partners.
The castle is important in architectural history as it anticipated by several decades the picturesque movement of the later part of the eighteenth century. The grade I listed building is the first private house ever designed consciously to arouse medieval associations.
Vanbrugh built it and lived in it from 1719-26. It is of stock brick, rises to three storeys on an asymmetrical plan, and has three towers projecting from the main west front.
The conversion, which was carried out to a limited budget, will assure the future of this famous building which had become something of a white elephant after being vacated by its former owners, the RAF Benevolent Fund School. Minimal maintenance had been carried out for a long time and then the castle lay empty for two years. A plan to build flats in the gardens was turned down following a public inquiry and there were local fears that the building would be left to rot.
Enterprising initiative was shown by local amenity societies. The Greenwich Society helped to set-up the purchasing consortium and a society member advertised for others to join in this unique venture. The Blackheath Pre­servation Trust was persuaded to buy the freehold and sell 999-year leases to the individual owners.
Surveys showed that the main structure was in reasonable condition, although a small section of what was a twentieth century addition over Vanbrugh's kitchen extension had to be underpinned. A localised outbreak of dry rot was eradicated and leaking drains repaired.
The building converted fairly easily and most of the work involved stripping out the maze of pipework, passages and little rooms which had been installed by the school over its 50-year occupancy.
External alterations were limited to the formation of an entrance doorway with a flight of steps and a garden door in place of windows, the insertion of one new window, and the re­instatement of windows which had been blocked or made into escape doors. Unsightly metal fire escapes were removed.
The conversion has provided, two three-bedroom dwellings, one of four-bedrooms and one of five. During the school's occupation, the ground floor was mainly classrooms, the first floor dormitories and the second floor masters' accom­modation. Now the school library is a spacious living room and one unit has been created in the former laboratories and changing rooms. Work included the installation of two sets of internal stairs.
Basic costs were around £21,000, but the individual members of the consortium are continuing with internal work on a " do-it-yourself " basis.

IN THE MARKET ------------------------------------ ON THE MARKET

Their home is their castle

Building castles in the air became reality for four Blackheath men when Vanbrugh Castle came on the market.
Home for them is now one of the most bizarre castles in England — a fantastical tur-reted Gothic delight off Maze Hill built by Sir John Van­brugh, the creator of Blenheim Palace and Howard Castle.
He built his dream home in 1719, when he was surveyor of works at Greenwich Royal Hos­pital, basing his design on the Bastille, where he spent more than a year in jail accused of being a spy.
A little more than 250 years later, barrister Alistair Wilson and his wife Caroline saw it was on the market and their pipe dream began to take shape.
Their first problem was the cost. They could not afford the £98,000 price tag on their own and so set out to find three more people to come in on the deal.
The only way they were going to be able to live in the castle was to split it up into four separate houses. So Blackheath architect Ursula Bowyer carved out a plan for turning it into four five-bedroom units.
And the three other buyers turned up in response to advertisements in The: Times, the Financial Times and the South East London Mercury.
Alistair went along to the RAF Benevolent Fund, which then owned the castle, along with accountant Tony Herron, Greenwich customs official Peter Jackson and lung special­ist Dr Willy Seymour, and after a lot of talking and rushing around for mortgages a deal was struck.
But the sale could not have gone ahead without the Black-heath Preservation Society, which agreed to buy the free­hold and give a 999-year lease to each of the four buyers — a formula insisted on by the RAF.
Each of the four spent £10,000 on building work and restoration. Then, in 1979, the Englishmen's castle finally be­came their home.
They added their names to the illustrious list of past own­ers including Viscount Tyrconell, the second Duke of Richmond, Lord Baltimore, Baron Tyrawley and of course Sir John himself.
But first rows of basins and lavatories had to be removed and grim dormitories turned into sitting rooms and bedrooms — the tatty legacy of many years' service as a boys' school.
The walls were uniformly duck-egg blue and the general institutional atmosphere had already put off many buyers.
Alistair said: "It was festooned with strange plumbing pipework. There were glass-fronted doors everywhere and row upon row of boys' lavatories. It was really a bit of a pig sty."
Vanbrugh would have turned in his grave at the state of his castle. The distinguished architect and playwright built it when he was 55, the year he married his 20-year-old wife. He lived there until his death in 1726.
He also built four other houses nearby for his relations, but these were pulled down in 1900. They included two white towers, a low bungalow known as the mince-pie house, and a larger property called Vanbrugh House.
The castle was added to at different times in the nine­teenth century and is not pure Vanbrugh, although many his­torians and scholars call on Alistair requesting a guided tour.
There is a certain old world charm and atmosphere in the converted houses and although no surprise Vanbrugh plans or manuscripts have turned up there is a secret passage under the garden leading from the 60ft vaulted cellar.
Alistair, 38, is obviously thrilled to live in such a romantic folly, one of the first Gothic Revival buildings in England. And he enjoys one of the finest views in London from his turreted roof.
Local historian and secretary of the Blackheath Preservation Society Neil Rhind said: "It really is an important building, because Vanbrugh was such a genius architect. Without doubt he must rank in the top ten all-time greats. Who but Van­brugh could have designed Blenheim Palace as his first attempt?"
But one thing the present owners cannot be accused of is harbouring illusions of gran­deur. Alistair smilingly points out that most people, on learn­ing that he lives in a place called Vanbrugh Castle, assume they all live in grotty digs above a South East London pub.

From Country Life July 1992


Vanbrugh Castle: now divided into four separate homes, one of which has recently come on the market for sale

FROM the roof-terrace at Vanbrugh Castle, high on Maze Hill overlooking Greenwich Park in south-east London, the views over the Thames towards the City are breathtaking.
First there is the green of formal parkland and woods at the end of the garden: then there is Greenwich, with its majestic naval college and Georgian townscape on the banks of the river. On the far side, Canary Wharf lowers over the desolate urban landscape of the Isle of Dogs; and finally you are head­ing for the City with landmarks such as Hawksmoor's churches and St Paul's Cathedral.
When he picked a site for his Greenwich home, Sir John Vanbrugh, soldier, playwright, theatre manager and architect. chose carefully. This week, one of four houses built 15 years ago within the castle Vanbrugh constructed for himself in 1719. will be placed on the market.
Vanbrugh Castle is plain. surprisingly homely, and a world apart from the great architect's Baroque indulgences at Blen­heim Palace and Castle Howard.
Number 1 is a small, five-bed­room house with a main stair­case which spirals tightly up one of the turrets and would play havoc with children or high heels. Bui chances to buy a family-size London home built by Vanbrugh are few and far belween, let alone the outstanding views and two-acre shared garden. When put into thai context, John D. Wood's asking price of £425,000 does not seem unreasonable.
Vanbrugh moved to Greenwich in 1717, a year after he succeeded Sir Christopher Wren as surveyor to the Royal Naval Hos­pital. It was chiefly an administrative task but required his presence on site. He rented a house for £40 a year to save the trouble of commuting from Whitehall. In his defin­itive biography of the great architect and dramatist, Professor Kerry Downes suggests that soon after he moved to Greenwich, Vanbrugh began to consider "new ambi­tions in respect of both his house and his lifestyle: a little castle and a chatelaine".
Although he was 53 years old and claimed to have "have gone into a sort of retirement here at Greenwich", lie was courting Henrietta Maria Yarburgh from York (where he had been working on Castle Howard), the 25-vear-old second cousin of the Duchess of Newcastle.
Indeed, it was when he was staying at Castle Howard in the Christmas of 1719 that arrangements for their wedding were made. On Christmas Day, Vanbrugh wrote in a letter to the Duke of Newcastle that "'tis so bloody cold, I have almost a mind to Marry to keep myself warm". The following month he married Lady Henrietta, and moved with her into his rented house in Greenwich.
Meanwhile, he had taken out a long lease on a nearby "field and other grounds", and Richard Billinghurst, a master bricklayer was charged with building Vanbrugh Castle. Vanbrugh's design for a marital home was a mock medieval fortress. The dark brick castle, surmounted by a fairy­tale display of turret, crenellation and spire, has long, thin windows which add to the im­pression of height. Originally, the castle would have been the centrepiece of a small, walled Vanbrugh village: he built an impressive gatehouse: two crenellated, white brick towers; another small house; and a nunnery known as the mince pie house because of its extra­ordinary shape.
All that remains is the castle, divided vertically in 1977 into four terraced houses with the help of the Blackhcath Preservation Trust, its free­holder. All the rooms are their original shape. The interior was refashioned by the Duckham family, who owned it from 1907 to '20, which means plenty of oak and solid Edwardian joinery. Number 1 has not been sold since Alistair Wilson, its current owner, helped organise the conversion 15 years ago after the school it then housed closed down.
The castle was a romantic, revivalist pile built with grace and flair which, according to Dowries, created a great impression on Sir Joshua Reynolds 70 years later. The painter delighted in "whatever building brings to our remembrance ancient customs and manners, such as the castles of the barons of ancient chivalry . . . and it is from hence, in a great degree, that, in the build­ings of Vanbrugh, who was a poet as well as an architect, there is a greater display of imagination, than we shall find, perhaps in any other".