IT was once a wreck of a building that many believed was an unwelcome drain on council finances.

Today, though, Highcliffe Castle is one of Christchurch’s undoubted assets.

As reported in the Daily Echo last week, the latest 18-month restoration project has opened up areas of the building which have been impassable for half a century.

Greendale Construction is nearing the end of its work on the Penleaze Wing, which will reveal more of the castle to the public and allow for a heritage centre.

The castle was built for the diplomat Lord Stuart de Rothesay between 1831 and 1836, but you might be forgiven for thinking it was older. He used materials salvaged form French medieval buildings, including stone gargoyles and coloured glass windows.

Lord de Rothesay had loved the clifftop location since he was a boy, and the construction of the castle was a fantasy come true for him. He furnished it lavishly in the 18th century French style.

Among those who visited were prime minister William Gladstone; the future Edward VII when he was Prince of Wales; author Nancy Mitford; and Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm, who came for a “rest cure” in 1907 and became popular with local children, just seven years before his country would declare war on Britain.

From 1916-22, the castle was home to a famous name in shopping, Harry Gordon Selfridge.

The Wisconsin-born owner of the famous department store was keen to move his family out of London in case of Zeppelin raids, and rented the castle for £5,000 a year fully finished.

Selfridge’s wife Rosalie established a convalescent camp for US soldiers at what is now Highcliffe Recreation Ground. His daughters became Red Cross volunteers and worked at Christchurch Hospital.

His wife died in the influenza outbreak of 1918, but Selfridge continued to live the life of a country gentleman, hosting a fete which attracted 5,000 people to the castle on Whit Monday 1926. Selfridge, his wife and mother are all buried at St Mark’s Church in Highcliffe.

In the 1950s, the Stuart-Wortley family sold all the home’s furnishings and then the house itself. It became a children’s convalescent home for a while, before parts were sold for housing.

Three senior Roman Catholic priests from the Claretian Missionary Congregation owned the house form 1953-67, but it was severely damaged by fire before its sale to three local businessmen. There was another fire in 1968, and the castle’s condition worsened after vandalism and exposure to the elements.

Christchurch council compulsorily purchased the castle in 1977 to stop it deteriorating further, but for a long time, improving it seemed a remote prospect. By 1990, when scaffolding was put around the castle, there were those who thought demolition was the only option.

However, the arrival of the National Lottery in 1994 offered fresh hope. With the help of a lottery grant, Christchurch council began a major refurbishment.

The work brought the council back as a venue for education and for events. And a second Heritage Lottery Fund grant in 2016 made possible the current work, which will open doors to parts that the public has not seen for many decades.