Inside Our Best Buildings (1) Vanbrugh Castle

Vanbrugh Castle is one of those subjects I periodically return to from time to time – and hey – why not – it’s one of the most curious, secretive buildings we have. Most of us have never seen inside the gates, let alone inside the place itself. I was enjoying a picnic on One Tree Hill last summer and saw people on the roof garden (Vanbrugh lead-lined it so he could use it himself.) I confess I was one very jealous Phantom.

So today, I’m starting a new (very, very) occasional series, where I play at being Lloyd Grossman (now that’s not a phrase I ever thought I’d write…) and take Nosy Neighbours on tours around Greenwich’s best private buildings.

Since I have no more access than anyone else on this one, I’ll be relying on you lot to tell me all about fab places around here – so if you visit somewhere lovely (or even live in one of our best buildings???) I would LOVE to hear from you.

I make no apology for returning to Vanbrugh Castle yet again (the first visit was a couple of years ago and we’ve been back several times since.) Because today, courtesy of Michael who spent a pleasant afternoon there recently, I bring you a sketch of what this incredible, strange construction is like inside now (aw- c’mon – don’t tell me you’ve never wondered…)

The place is divided into four apartments. Today it would have been carved up into about fifty rabbit-hutches with all manner of nasty plasterboard walls, where the whole thing would collapse if you stuck so much as a drawing pin into the paper-thin membrane between you and your neighbour, but Vanbrugh Castle wasn’t converted in these times.

It was the late ’70s when local lawyer Alistair Wilson saw the old pile up for sale for £100,000. That was a lot of money then and he couldn’t afford it all by himself so he advertised for people to go in with him on the project. He got three replies, so the house was divided into four. There isn’t, according to old newspaper reports, an awful lot of heavy partitioning – just a few blocked-up doors and one dividing wall.

There are two apartments in the 1716 towery-turrets, one in the middle, which is part Victorian, part Edwardian, and one detached from the main house, in the bit nearest the entrance that would almost certainly have originally been a stables or coach-house. There are extensions, but only two-storey, and (I’m told) in keeping with its Grade I listed status.

Michael tells me that there is just one of the original four owners left, living in the oldest part of the castle – but that the apartments seldom change hands – two were last sold 20 years ago; the middle one which he visited was bought 5 years ago.

It’s an airy modern family home, and sounds like it has a few partitions to make it a sensible place to live. The ground floor used to be the games room when it was the RAF children’s school. It’s now bathrooms and bedrooms, with high ceilings and fabulous arched doorways. There’s also a sympathetic extension containing a magnificent kitchen (yup, I’m drooling all over my keyboard here).

Upstairs, it used to be the boys’ dormitory – but it’s easy to see why the bedrooms have now been moved downstairs – the view is staggering, and the upstairs is now an enormous sitting room, looking out over Greenwich Park then London itself. Michael spotted the Houses of Parliament and the London Eye from there.

I’m finding it hard to imagine room for a two-acre garden out the back (though of course in Vanbrugh’s time it would have been much bigger) – everything looks so built-up down Maze Hill way – but it just goes to show how many places in London do still have enormous grounds. Sadly Chez Phantom isn’t one of them…

Part of the grounds are formal gardens but there are also lawns, a large cottage vegetable garden (the Phantom swoons…) the outline of where the old school tennis courts once were, an underground garden room and the old 1950s school gym, before you get to the path leading down to the boundary with the Westcombe Woodland (again, I can never work out exactly how the Woodland actually fits in…) Sadly it lost most of its crenellated walls long ago.

Michael didn’t get to go into the really old bit with the turrets, but form the gardens he spotted the rooftop gardens and the glass viewing room on the castle roof itself. He says “With such incredible views from the first floor in the house I visited, I can only imagine how breathtaking it must be from the castle roof!” Me too, Michael, me too.

And what of the fabled tunnels? Sadly Michael didn’t get to see those either, though he is assured they’re “real, very low, and that they are believed to go under the woods towards the river direction with speculation that they may have been for escape, or water tunnels for the Tudor Palace once, or some other purpose.” I have a horrid feeling the water tunnels are more likely than the escape routes, but I’m a romantic Phantom, so I’ll run with the former anyway.

So there we have it – a little tour around Vanbrugh Castle. But there are about twenty houses I’d give my cloak and tricorn to see inside – if you’ve ever visited one, and can give me a description, I’d just love to hear from you. I won’t give you a wish list – just hit me with any places that have inspired you…

9 Comments to “Inside Our Best Buildings (1) Vanbrugh Castle”

  1. Adam Greenwold says:

    I used to go to school in the Castle.
    There is a tunnel exiting into the woods or Dell as we always called it.


  2. Fred says:

    Isnt there a older rock star living there now? of 1960 and 70′s fame??

  3. Arthur Rodgers says:

    Interesting reading your article of Vanbrugh Castle as I was a young boy at the school in the 60′s. Games room , dormitory tennis courts and woods(which we were not allowed in) and sports hall all remembered. Now work at the school in Surrey where it moved to in 1976 when castle was sold, Duke of Kent School.

  4. Rob Elliott says:

    Mr Rodgers….my brothers remember you well!

  5. Martin Fletcher says:

    I hope it was a nice school. Alexander Duckham,who was an aeroplane enthusiast,gave the building to the RAF Benevolent Fund. He was my great uncle.His brother Sir Arthur had a whacking great house in Ashtead,which I saw on Sunday.
    My grandfather,their elder brother,’went through five fortunes’ according to my father,but outlived his two wealthy brothers by decades.
    Glad the duck is still there.

  6. Wilson says:

    I never went down the tunnels as was too little but I remember games in the gym and mum kept a goat behind the gym that we sometimes took for walks in the park. We lived in one of the turreted bits. Some rooms were huge but others quite dinky. Mum and dad did a great job initially and dad carried on doing great things until he left – herb garden and folly over tunnel entrance. A great time and place!

  7. Susan says:

    My husband was a teenager when his parents bought the detached portion of Vanbrugh Castle in the late 1970′s. I visited the home many times before they retired and sold their house in the late 1990′s. When they bought it, it was still configured as a science lab left over from the school days, complete with bunsen burners and the building built out back was a classroom that they kept as a summer cabana. It was always referred to as the classroom. Since they were starting from scratch, they created a reverse floor plan with 4 bedrooms and 2 bathrooms on the lower level. An wrought iron spiral staircase takes one upstairs through an oversized arched door into the formal living spaces which is a large open living dining room, very high ceilings and windows with lovely views. The kitchen and study are adjacent to the living/dining room. My husband tells me that as a teenager, he did indeed go into the tunnels and while he never actually went the entire distance… his guess is that one of the tunnels ends near Maze Hill Station. Perhaps dug out as evacuation tunnels for the school during WWII? He and his brothers also made use of what they called the “dungeon”. A large underground room which they and their mates decked out with music and cushions to hang out and be a loud as they pleased. In one instance, one of the lads had rather smelly socks and at the heckling of the mates, he took them off and set them on fire as they exited the dungeon to go to the local pub. As you can imagine, the inevitable smoke billowing out from the dungeon sent his father into an absolute panic (not knowing that the lads had already exited) What followed was the full scale comedic panic on the level of “Faulty Towers” A full fire brigade responded when they heard a fire at Vanbrugh Castle. As my husband and his mates made their way back from the pub, they noticed all the commotion and had no idea that it was the burning smelling socks that had created such a panic!
    The gymnasium was in very good condition but not used much. In the mid 1980′s a few scenes from the movie “Mona Lisa” with Bob Hoskins was filmed in the front circular driveway of the Castle. With the proceeds obtained from Handmade Films for the use of the driveway, the driveway was graveled. At the time my husband lived there, one of the neighbors was Jules Holland on the Westcombe Park Road side and Manfred Man lived on the Maze Hill side of the house.
    We live in America now, but when we visit London, we make a point of showing our children one of the most unique homes in London!

  8. Matt says:

    I was watching the film Mona Lisa last week with Bob Hoskins and Michael Caine. Was sure I recognised the house of the Arab gentleman that Bob parks up outside. I’m 99% sure it’s Vanbrugh Castle…

  9. I believe you are right, Matt. I think part of it was filmed there.