Among the hidden gems of south east London is the little-known Severndroog Castle, on Shooter's Hill. Run by councils until funds dried up in 1988, it suffered a period of dilapidation until 2003 when plans to lease the disused building as offices galvanised a group of residents. They didn't want the surrounding ancient woodland chopped down, so formed the Severndroog Castle Building Preservation Trust, restored the building and reopened it to the public. We visited in 2015:
Approaching Severndroog Castle is like approaching a timid animal. Once it's mustered up the courage to reveal itself to you, you don’t want to move too quickly or too suddenly for fear of scaring it back behind its veil of trees.
Having conquered the hill — because really, what self-respecting castle doesn’t sit atop a hill? — and woven your way through the trail of ancient woodland which skirts it, the purpose of the building still isn't immediately obvious to the casual observer.
The Grade II listed brown brick gothic tower was designed by Richard Jupp, who specialised in lighthouses and therefore knew his way around a tower. It doesn’t shout about its heritage as does its contemporary, Twickenham's Strawberry Hill House (which pipped it to the post for funding in 2004 BBC programme Restoration). Yet the similarities are there. Severndroog's circular windows, the same design as those at Strawberry Hill, are less than half the size. A decorative ceiling panel, discovered during the recent restoration, is similar to one on a fireplace at Strawberry Hill.
A gap in the perimeter fence reveals a smattering of tables on the paving, giving a clue as to the tearoom on the ground floor. Up the five stone steps, the front door sits below a store inscription, its letters rendered illegible by centuries of weathering. Through the door is the tearoom, a light and airy but compact space, with a timeline of the castle painted on the wall, and cakes laid out temptingly on the counter.
On the first floor, gilded ceilings, elaborately carved lion heads and central chandelier make it easy to see why this is a perfect setting for weddings and concerts (the second floor is more muted by contrast, and used as a venue for children's parties). The décor is more akin to a regal palace than a castle left dilapidated and decaying for 25 years, revealing Severndroog's biggest secret: it's not really a castle.
Built in 1784 by grieving widow Lady James, who wasn’t shy of a penny or two, the so-called castle has never been used as a residential building, nor in battle, so has no right to the moniker. This is a folly. A jolly good folly, but a folly nonetheless.
As for that mystical name: Sir William James was a Commodore who attacked and destroyed the island fortress of Suvarnadurg in India. On Sir William's death, Lady James bought the highest land in Eltham, and had the castle built within site of her own house, where it caught the attention of then-local author E. Nesbit, who rebranded it as the "Tower of Mystery", complete with fictional ghost, in 1901 children's novel The Would-Be-Goods.
In addition to a marital memorial and literary fodder, the castle has served several purposes, mainly due to its prominent position 132m above sea level. A call in a 1788 issue of Gentleman magazine advised that the Trinity lighthouse company would be testing lights from the castle, and asked all gentlemen within a 30 mile radius to report back on the effectiveness of each.
A direct phone line to Whitehall was installed during the second world war, when the tower's height rendered it the perfect lookout point. Today, despite the ever-shifting skyline of the urban jungle just five miles away, it’s Severndroog that’s used as a navigation point for pilots flying into Biggin Hill.
87 well-trodden steps up a spiral staircase from the ground floor tea rooms lies a corker of a view. The Thames Barrier can just about be seen, winking in the sun. Planes come and go at City Airport, the cable cars volley back and forth across the river. In the distance are the glass skyscrapers of the Square Mile, not intruding on the view, but merely adding a dimension to it. Ancient trees grip the curvature of the hill like stubble on a face, and are responsible for similar levels of irritation; their tops just tickle the eye-line of the view, preventing any more than the briefest gander at the entirety of Woolwich to the north.
The sharp-eyed visitor, aided by a decent pair of binoculars, is rumoured to be able to see as far as Windsor Castle, bringing the visual remit of this folly up to a grand total of seven counties on a clear day (Kent, Surrey, Middlesex, Hertfordshire, Bedfordshire, Essex and Berkshire). Those binoculars may also serve twitchers keen to see the birds of prey ducking and diving around the surrounding woodland. Severndroog's lofty position offers a rare opportunity to look down on birds in trees, rather than up at them.
Beyond the seven counties, the most insightful aspect of the view is much closer to home. Eltham splays out immediately below, the eras of local history displayed within it like the layers of an onion. Here lie houses dating from when Henry VIII romped around these pastures — a slower journey on horseback, but one uninhibited by the South Circular traffic endured by today's journeymen. Look again, and you'll see houses built in 1915, to accommodate the ever-increasing staff numbers at Woolwich Arsenal. Intermingled with these lie properties built in the intervening periods.
Severndroog looks as fondly on the local history as the local residents look upon it.
Severndroog Castle is open to the public on certain weekends and school holidays — check website for current details and prices. The castle is on the Green Chain Walk, a walking route around south east London.