Vanbrugh Castle


Sir John Vanbrugh is a classic example of the Renaissance Man (even if he was a bit late to be truly from those times.) There aren’t too many people who can have claimed to have written some of the rudest, funniest and most influential plays of their day, become Surveyor to Greenwich Hospital with vitually no experience and been the architect of several of the largest and most opulent palaces in Britain. Hardly surprising, then, that when he came to building his own dwelling, he wasn’t going to settle for any old boring house.

He didn’t start out very well. The son of a linen merchant in Chester, he decided that the best way to see the world was to join the army. Trouble was, he had a bit of an unusual surname and he managed to get arrested in France because they thought he was Dutch. Since he didn’t have any papers on him, they decided to throw him in jail. Rather optimistically, they had assumed that he was really important and put him up for ransom in exchange for some high-end French prisoners. Sadly for Vanbrugh, no one gave a stuff and he ended up there for five years before the French gave up.

By this point he was nearly 30, so he had a bit of catching up to do. He claims to have written The Relapse, or Virtue in Danger in six weeks. Whether he did or not, it was an instant hit, and he was suddenly the toast of seamy, seedy, fashionable London. A natural bon viveur, he was extremely popular with his public (The Provok’d Wife came hot on the heels of his first hit) but not so popular with the other bon viveurs of the day, upon whose square-capped satin shoes Vanbrugh was joyfully treading. He built himself a very curious house in Whitehall, which Jonathan Swift reckoned looked like a Goose Pie (whatever one of those looks like,) everyone laughed heartily and it was known as Goose Pie House ever after.

I have no idea how John Vanbrugh persuaded Lord Carlisle to ditch the highly experienced architect he had asked to build what was to be Castle Howard and hire the experience-free Vanbrugh instead, but that man must have had some gift of the gab. This guy had never built anything bigger than his extremely odd house and had no skill at all as a draughtsman. I mean – the man couldn’t even draw. He built a little wooden model to show Carlisle what he had in mind. Presumably he got some tips from his mate, Sir Christopher Wren. Mr Swift was even more scathing. But Castle Howard, with all its turrets and ramparts and crenellations went up and got Vanbrugh another commission.

Blenheim Palace was next. But he started doing all sorts of things not in the original model (actually, he started adapting the old castle in its grounds as, ahem, a bijou residence for himselfand ended up with a very angry duchess, so he wrote some notes about the aesthetics of architecture to placate her and inadvertently created a seminal treatise that is still valued today. But the duchess wasn’t impressed, and Woodstock Castle was demolished.

Vanbrugh’s fascination with the theatrical pervaded everything he did. Virtually everything he built looked like a stage set. He was renting a place in Greenwich that he hated (John Evelyn visited and even he had to admit it was “wretched.”) But he did like the view – and let’s face it, the view from the little mini roundabout outside Vanbrugh Castle is still one of the great sights of Greenwich (if a little changed from Vanbrugh’s day.)

Because his job was now there (he was surveyor to Greenwich Hospital though frankly didn’t do an awful lot) he decided to set up his new roots and Maze Hill, handily next to the park, was as good as any. Vanbrugh Castle was his usual concoction of towers and crenellations, gatehouses, ramparts, arch-y windows etc, in brick rather than stone,and he made sure that he kept his view by making the lead roof accessible – possibly Greenwich’s first roof garden. It all looked very medieval and has been claimed to be influential in the beginning of the Gothic revival in the 19th Century.

I am glad that Vanbrugh Castle itself remains to this day (if vastly altered on the interior, presumably) but that makes me even sadder about what is not left. Vanbrugh built a row of about 5 follies in his back garden, placed prettily down the hill to a ‘fortified’ gatehouse at the road. It must have looked fantastic. It was meant to impress visitors who would travel past each of them as they wound up their own private road just to the east of Maze Hill. Romantic names like “The Nunnery” and “Mince Pie House” (clearly Vanbrugh had a bit of a thing for pies, and let’s face it, who doesn’t?) and “The White Towers” conjure images that can only be imagined today as I am pretty convinced none of them exist any more (please tell me I’m wrong and someone has one of these in their back garden…)

The Castle, at least, survives, albeit divided into apartments. I cannot comment on the interior as I have never seen it. Maybe you can fill me in? The yellow stock bricks have darkened with age, but that imposing frontage is still with us. Thank heavens.


8 Comments to “Vanbrugh Castle”

  1. Gamma says:

    I was there from 1965 to 70, my name is Martin Gribben. J.H.Corner was a tyrant and alcoholic. I was caned several times, mostly my fault for getting caught. We were continually frightened of this man. He taught French, my French is quite good because of him. He beat it into us. Mike Morton was great. As was Daphne Oldacres and Miss berry matrons. I have many memories of those 5 years. I played clarinet in the band, I had no choice as to which instrument a learnt!Clarinet. I sang in the choir at the Royal Naval colledge. I climbed the Castle roofs at night with other brave boys. I climbed onto the roof of the Wakefield wing regularly at night. This I now realise was very dangerous, but in those days it was fun. I remember , Gregory Sanders, Peter Borthwick, Peter Fenadry Butler, Andrew Butler, Stephen Kimber, Mark McConnell, Webber, Mark Fifield, Brian Tykiff, the Seaton Brothers, the Quail brothers, Billy and Brian Jakeman, Ian Jackson, Stephen Baker, Eliot. I'm in the 1966 photo 4th from the left bottom row.

  2. gamma says:

    I was there from 1965 to 70, my name is Martin Gribben. J.H.Corner was a tyrant and alcoholic. I was caned several times, mostly my fault for getting caught. We were continually frightened of this man. He taught French, my French is quite good because of him. He beat it into us. Mike Morton was great. As was Daphne Oldacres and Miss berry matrons. I have many memories of those 5 years. I played clarinet in the band, I had no choice as to which instrument a learnt!Clarinet. I sang in the choir at the Royal Naval colledge. I climbed the Castle roofs at night with other brave boys. I climbed onto the roof of the Wakefield wing regularly at night. This I now realise was very dangerous, but in those days it was fun. I remember , Gregory Sanders, Peter Borthwick, Peter Fenadry Butler, Andrew Butler, Stephen Kimber, Mark McConnell, Webber, Mark Fifield, Brian Tykiff, the Seaton Brothers, the Quail brothers, Billy and Brian Jakeman, Ian Jackson, Stephen Baker, Eliot. I'm in the 1966 photo 4th from the left bottom row.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I was there from 1965 to 1970.
    was caned by J.H.Corner on quite a few occasions.
    It was like a prison.

  4. Dave says:

    I found Vanbrugh a brilliant experience and like Jo was one of the last pupils before moving onto the Duke of Kent school in Ewhurst.
    The access although out of bounds from the wood near the 5 a side football pitch was tight but fun.also the course we all tried walking around the side of the building ending up by the sand pit near the sunken garden.Great days
    Dave

  5. robin jakeman says:

    I am Robin Jakeman was there from 1965 -67
    I remember Corner caning me a lot I am on the far let as you look at 1966 photo middle row

  6. Philip Rainbird says:

    I was a 3rd year boy at nearby Roan grammar at this time and remember stone fights with the inmates of Vanbrugh castle at this time. It was great medieval history re-enactment fun returning catapult fire at shooters in the upper windows. If this was you, fraternal greetings, and glad the Bastille was finally liberated.

  7. Wilson says:

    My mum and dad were one of the first families who converted the castle into dwellings. It was an amazing place to grow up with all that garden and the woods. I remember the boys loo cubicles – with evidence of weeing contests – being dismantled. We watched Charles and Di’s wedding fireworks from the flat roof. Dad installed a speaking tube from the roof through all floors to communicate supper time etc – I’d love to know if that is still there! Dad left in about 1994. It all looks rather posh driving past now.

  8. Ray Reeder says:

    Have i read that there have been some well known residents in Vanbrugh since it’s conversions, Manfred Mann & Joules Holland in particular ? i went to schol there from 1961-63 “Nightmare Headmaster”