In search of Cowes’ lost castle on the Isle of Wight
PUBLISHED: 00:00 06 May 2020
On the 185th anniversary of his death we look back at architect John Nash’s fairy tale Gothic Isle of Wight home.
Cowes is famous for many things. Yachting as home to Cowes Week in August and the Royal Yacht Squadron (RYS); the floating bridge connecting East and West Cowes, with the 2017 version’s attendant teething problems; the ferries from Southampton; and the fort dating back to Henry VIII’s time at West Cowes which is now incorporated into the RYS. It’s unlikely anyone would suggest East Cowes Castle, for there isn’t one, although that wasn’t always the case.
The name Cowes (or ‘Cows’) dates back to 1414, the year before Agincourt, although a settlement had existed at East Cowes from at least the 13th century, which by the 1300s was known as ‘Shamblord’. Come the 18th century a mix of shipbuilding, trade and sea-bathing was making Cowes wealthy. The building of Osborne House from 1845-51 and the establishment of the RYS in 1854 made this a happening place.
One man who saw Cowes’ possibilities was the architect John Nash (1752-1835). He became noted for his country house designs, coming to the attention of no less than the Prince of Wales – the future Prince Regent and George IV. Nash designed the layout of the new Regent’s Park in London (1811-25), recreated Buckingham Palace, designed the Marble Arch, and rebuilt Brighton’s Royal Pavilion, as well as promulgating the use of steel girders.
Nash had begun visiting the Isle of Wight from 1793 and five years later he bought his plot and began building. Nash chose East Cowes as the place to hang his hat and retire to. It’s said that he built the castle at ‘unlimited expense’ – castles don’t come cheap, especially when they include castellation, turrets and towers, all the stuff you’d expect of a fortified dwelling. It was his bit of ‘fairy-tale Gothic’.
The rich and famous would visit Nash at his island pile, including the Prince Regent and esteemed landscape artist JMW Turner, who got his brushes working there. The place was sheltered, had a vista, was ivy-clad, benefited from a ‘bowling green terrace’ and generally sounds like it was to die for. The only problem was Nash couldn’t stop tinkering, adding bits here and there, leaving a veritable hotchpotch that might not be to a future owner’s taste; quaint perhaps, but hard to maintain.
After Nash passed away, the castle was sold to the 3rd Earl of Shannon, Henry Boyle, 1771-1842, who was among the last surviving members of the Parliament of Ireland, which was disbanded at the end of 1800. Shannon added a South Lodge house, which has failed to survive (the North Lodge is extant). Having been let to a Mr Nathaniel Barwell, then briefly owned by another politician – George Tudor, MP for Barnstaple – the castle passed to the Viscount Gort family, who owned it until 1934. The most famous of the Gorts was the 6th Viscount, John Vereker (1886-1946), aka ‘Lord Gort’, who had purchased the castle by 1906. He won the VC during World War I, then became Chief of the Imperial General Staff and was commander of the British Expeditionary Force in 1939, at the start of World War II.
The castle was requisitioned during World War II. While being utilised by the War Office, it suffered misuse and neglect, which hastened it towards its ultimate end. In the early 1960s it was pulled down. It wasn’t enemy bombing that damaged it but our own ‘friendly fire’, courtesy of the British Army. East Cowes was by no means the only country pile to be taken over by the forces during the war, then bashed about a bit for its pains. Sadly, there was no such thing as a listed building when the decision came to dispense with Nash’s creation.
Little remains today, except for a gatehouse, the North Lodge and a buried ice house, while the castle’s one-time iron, brass and steel clock is on display at the museum at Carisbrooke Castle. Dating from 1819, and manufactured by John Moore of Clerkenwell, London, the East Cowes Castle clock mechanism was rescued when the castle was demolished, passed to the Isle of Wight College for restoration, and then donated to the museum.
Over the 30 years following demolition, housing popped up on the former estate, which had once occupied the site delineated by Old Road, New Barn Road, York Avenue and the aptly-named Castle Street. Nash himself was originally interred in the grounds, but has now found another safe haven, at St James’ Church, in East Cowes, which appropriately he’d designed a few years before his death.
Anyone fancying a peek at East Cowes Castle is around 60 years too late. But Lough Cooter (or Cutra) Castle, near Gort, in Ireland’s County Galway, is an exact copy of Nash’s former home. The story goes that John Prendergast-Smyth, 1st Viscount Gort, saw East Cowes Castle when Nash was still alive and fancied an identical edifice back in Ireland. Nash was happy to build it for them, and so built East Cowes Castle not once, but twice. Ironically, the Gorts were forced to sell their Irish ‘copy’ in the 1840s, due to financial difficulties. When the 6th Viscount got his hands on East Cowes Castle it must have felt like coming home.
Nash’s Isle of Wight
East Cowes Castle (to 1802) – Nash’s home until his death in 1835.
Nash rebuilds St Mildred’s Church, the nearest church to Osborne House.
Nunwell House (to 1807) – at Nunwell, on the Isle of Wight.
The Guildhall, Newport, on the Isle of Wight.
St James’ Church, East Cowes, where Nash would ultimately be buried.