janette heffernan's world : caldecote towers/rosary priory

My Castle in the Air

Caldecote Towers Bushey Heath


As a child I dreamt of living in a Fairy Castle. This is not always possible but I experienced the next best thing. I went to school in one. Caldecote Towers, a romantic Victorian pile or a architectural curiosity is certainly that. Situated on top of a hill in Bushey Heath it is a breath taking vision of loveliness .

I know but little of its history. It seems it was built by a Captain William John Marjoribanks, (pronounced Marchbanks) Loftus Otway and his son Jocelyn Tufton Otway owned it between 1877 and 1898. Names to conjure with! A Sir Robert Leicester Harmsworth, MP for Caithness and Sutherland, used it as his southern home from 1898 to 1902. After that it took on a religious flavour first as the Mother House for the Roman Catholic Order of the Dominican Sisters, then as a covent school for young ladies known as Rosary Priory and now stranger than fiction, and many of the former inhabitants must now be very surprised, an Orthodox Jewish School called Immanuel College which it is today.

This short factual history does not do Cnaldecote Towers justice. It is a Fairy Castle par excellence and one of which I still dream. If I was a multi- billionaire I should buy it immediately. I cannot imagine a more beautiful place to live. I am not sure whether any of what I am going to relate is true but it ought to be. This is a house of romance, mystery and tragedy and even if what I am to tell you is completely wrong but it sounds much better than the actual facts. This is what I was told by one of the sisters when at the age of eight. I was curious to know how this strange beautiful chateau had come to be built. It was like nothing I had ever seen and I realized even then that houses never usually had so many styles. They were usually one thing or another, Gothic or French Renaissance, Norman or Elizabethan, Indian or Chinese but Caldecote Towers had the lot!

I was told this 'fairy palace', for it is certainly that, was built by a young lover for his fiancee who he loved to distraction. The builder was rich, very rich, for no expense was spared on the construction, and well traveled. He had visited many strange and exotic parts of the world and he wanted a house that would remind him of all the different architectural styles he had encountered on his travels. And he had his wish. Caldecote Towers had everything! You name it, it had it.

Where to begin? That is the question. At first glance the exterior looks a bit like a typical French Chateau with mansard roofs and round Oriel windows, and loads of iron lacework balconies a la Paris. The front door or maybe the back door was a conventional entrance to a French chateau. Well it was oval in shape, to this type of building but then there were the Italian-ate campaniles and the Palladian tower that reminds one of Queen Victoria's Palace Osborne, on the Isle of White.

The tower was huge and commanded extensive views of glorious gardens and the countryside which was still around in my day early 1950's. Now it is surrounded by horrid suburban squalor, tacky semi-detached. The building is not a rectangle either it is sort of pointed at one end and round at the other and gives the impression of a Mississippi paddle steamer under full steam. The roofs are a mish-mash of differing sorts, some give the impression of the height of the Indian rajah and one expects elephants to appear any moment and that is just the back side. If one drives around to the other one is confronted which what is obviously meant to be the front door. An entry worthy of a Roman emperor with a vast marble staircase arising to a colonnade of pillars, like the Forum in Rome but topped off by an Indian temple. Two magnificent redwood trees complete the picture. Unfortunately the nuns added a rather huge ordinary Lutchyns 1930's convent but this I always mentally edit out. Sort of spoils the view. If I owned Caldecote Towers I should knock this monstrosity down.

The gardens too had been carefully landscaped with many unusual and valuable trees. A rose walk led down from the terrace to a huge Spanish chestnut tree. There were rhododendrons in abundance as well as tennis and croquet courts. The croquet lawn was especially inviting as it had a little pavilion a la Marie Antoinette and I saw a post card of it in its hey day and there were peacocks on the lawn. I feel in love with croquet at this moment, and this was just the outside.Inside it was palatial.

Two enormous and fantastic staircases with huge niches for Greek Statues. We had to make do with a huge statue of Our Lady of Lourdes in the hall with the spiral staircase which was a copy of the Duke of Wellington's at number one London but we did not have the nude statue of Napoleon. The staircase, rose in three flights and was topped with a cupola of star filled stained glass in many colours. It was high and impressive and gave me vertigo when I looked dow to the hall beneath. The main entrance hall had a smiler but more conventional marble staircase with lace ironwork and mahogany rails but rose in two flights . It too had niches for statues and we had St Anthony. The hall was paved in black and white marble like a chess board and it was here we had assembly.

The two halls were joined by a glass conservatory which would have been filled with exotic plants. The rooms were huge and very French in style. One was obviously a ball room and had rounded glass windows and a joining french doors. All the rooms had wonderful French fireplaces and all were extremely elegant in the Louis XIV period.But the tower was the most enchanted and mysterious place as it had two large rooms half way up. One we used as a science lab and the top most was an art room. Magical. The tower was just the sort of place for imprisoned princesses.

My imagination ran riot. I used to spend hours a day dreaming and redecorating in my head. Sadly the education offered by the nuns was not really up to the standard one expects today and a lot of very bright little girls were left to the mercy of eighteen year old Irish nuns who really had no idea of how to teach. I had plenty of time to mentally redecorate.

Now comes the tragic part of the Tale of Caldecote Towers. The beautiful fiancee died, the young rich builder was heartbroken and the building was sold and never really lived in. Some say he commited suicide by jumping from the tower. United in death. So romantic. Don't think that quite fits the actual facts but that was what I believed and still want to believe. One good thing about nuns is they are very good at getting you to believe anything and for Caldecote Towers I do believe in the fairytale.

In the 1980's brick rot set in and the place was within a whisker of being pulled down. I don't know how it was saved but it has been and now Jewish six formers occupy the building. I hope they love it as much as I still do. I can still see it on Google Earth although much more building has arisen on the once manicured lawns. So my convent education was not a complete waste of time. I know what it is like to live in a palace marvelous! Everyone should do it so much better than my semi detached in Stanmore or my Victorian Terrace in Shepherds Bush but not as nice as my Kauri Villa in New Zealand.

Now that is a house!

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