"Heavens! What's that odd place?" I asked, as I explored the views beyond Greenwich Park. "Vanbrugh Castle. It's a school now," I was told. Schooldays were fresh in my mind then, so I turned away and forgot.
Many years later, when I joined the staff, Vanbrugh Castle became a part of my Iife. Its daunting exterior gave way to a welcome within. In the rooms one could almost feel the genial spirit of Sir John Vanbrugh observing one's character in case it would lend spice to a new play; or watching for the gradual appreciation of the surroundings he designed.
Once happy inside the castle, the next delight is to see the world outside. As I write here in a secluded attic, a glance through the windows shows the setting sun reflected in one of the Thames' voluptuous curves, with the Royal Naval College solicitously in attendance. St. Paul's in silhouette, and the Post Office Tower winking its red eye. Our Castle boasts no "come hither" light, but the view from its tower is, I believe, finer than any the P.O can offer. "On a clear day you can see the Malvern Hilis." some body said. I doubt it, but you can see rural Essex, Woolwich, Shooter's Hill, Greenwich Park and far across London. How that skyline has changed in the last few years! Now it bristles with tall buildings, where once the snouts of power stations alone rose above the general level.
In much earlier times one can imagine Saxons gathering on this hill to watch invaders finding a safe anchorage in the bend of the river. From here it is possible that helpless Christians witnessed the martyrdom of St. Alphege (the Danes, fired by mead and heather ale, pelted him with the remnants of a huge feast before they applied the coup de grace) — but all this was long before Vanbrugh's time.
In the early years of the 18th century Wren and Hawksmoor were busy building Greenwich Hospital where once the Palace of Placentia stood. When Vanbrugh joined them in this work, he enjoyed the Greenwich countryside so much that he bought land and built several houses, including his castle, which was finished in 1717. He added to the buildings five years later and died in 1726. The Duke of Richmond, that zealous patron of 18th-century cricket, lived in Vanbrugh Castle for a while — it is good to know that cricket still has its devotees in these grounds!
The 19th century saw Mrs. Potts here — graciously condescending to receive young ladies into her home (I often wonder whether this refining process was a happy one).
Whilst the castle lay empty at the start of this century, the wall and original gateway were removed for the widening of Maze Hill. By 1907 entrepreneurs were eagerly discussing the profits they could make by developing the site, but Alexander Duckham. of the well-known oil firm, rescued the castle from their grasping hands, and added a new wing to the S.E. The building itself is virtually unchanged since then. Duckham, in 1921, most generously transferred the property to the Royal Air Force Benevolent Fund for use as a boarding school for boys. Vanbrugh Castle is listed as a preparatory school, but there is more to it than that! Besides statistics of success, old pupils from all generations constantly visit us: the early ones tell tales of canes and underground tunnels, and the recent ones confess to smoking in remote turrets or even midnight picnics — reasonably innocent misdeeds by modern standards!
The school now has the chance to move out of London and expand in the country. Soon the castle will be empty again — does anyone need this lovely place ?