Chronicles: Cook’s Castle, Wroxall – gone but not forgotten

Cook’s Castle, shown in the photo gallery below, stood on St Martin’s Down above Wroxall and was a folly built in the late 1770s by Sir Richard Worsley in an attempt to enhance the view from his home, Appuldurcombe House, across the valley.

Appuldurcombe House, said to be the most haunted house on the Isle of Wight, began life as a priory in 1100 before becoming a convent and later the Elizabethan home of the Leigh family. It was bequeathed to Sir Robert Worsley in 1690 and he immediately began planning a replacement, designed by the architect John James, and begun in 1702, although Sir Robert never saw the house completed; he died in 1747. A monument to him was erected behind the house on Stenbury Down, over-looking the estate.

The house was greatly extended in the 1770’s by his great nephew, Sir Richard Worsley, 7th Baronet of Appuldurcombe. The newly extended mansion was where he brought his new wife, 17-year-old Seymour Dorothy Fleming, whom he married “for love and £80,000” (about £5.5 million in today’s money). In 1779, Capability Brown was commissioned to design the ornamental grounds in parallel with the building extension. It was also at this time that the romantic folly, known as Cooks Castle, was built on St Martin’s Down opposite the house. Sir Richard’s marriage quickly fell apart after the couple’s only child, a son, died in infancy. He gained (unwanted) national notoriety in a 1782 court case in which his wife admitted to having 27 lovers! The couple informally separated, but Seymour could not re-marry until Richard’s death and she became a professional mistress (or demimondaine), living off the donations of rich men in order to survive.

Sir Richard died of apoplexy on 8 August 1805 at Appuldurcombe and is buried in Godshill Parish Church. His title went to his fourth cousin, Henry Worsley-Holmes, but the Appuldurcombe estate passed to his niece, Henrietta. In 1806 she married the Hon Charles Anderson-Pelham who later became the first Earl of Yarborough, founder of the Royal Yacht Squadron at Cowes. They were quite happy to retain the property as it was, and it soon became a convenient base for his Island activities. In 1855 the estate was sold and after an unsuccessful attempt to run it as a hotel, it was leased as Dr Pound’s Academy for Young Gentlemen. Between 1901 and 1907, over a hundred Benedictine monks, exiled from Solesmes Abbey in France, occupied the house until their final move to Quarr Abbey.

Troops were billeted in the house in both World Wars, and during WW2, on 7 February 1943, a German bomber dropped a land mine very close to the house which destroyed a large part of the roof. The damage was never repaired, and after the war the rest of the roof was removed for safety reasons; although most of it is still missing, the front section of the house has been repaired and glazed and a small part of the interior has been recreated. The estate is managed by English Heritage and is open to the public. It once extended to 300 acres and some features are still visible, including the entrance to the park, Freemantle Gate, now used only by farm animals and pedestrians.

Nothing now remains of Cook’s Castle except a stone cairn on the hill, inscribed with the words Site of Cook’s Castle.  However, there is another reminder on the road out of Wroxall with its sign to Cooks Castle Cattery. And, of course, Castle Road, next to the church, is still there as testament to the original pathway to Sir Richard’s 240-year-old folly.

Colin Beavis, Ventnor & District Local History Society. Photograph from the author’s personal collection.  This article was first published in the South Wight Chronicle on 9 July 2020.