Photo: Maureen Mannion
When you drive down the hill from the entrance to Alton Towers, into the steep valley of the River Churnet, you see on the opposite cliff the gaunt outline of Alton Castle, built by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin for Charles, 16th Earl of Shrewsbury.
Quite why Lord Shrewsbury wanted a Bavarian-style mock castle on top of the twelfth- and fifteenth-century remains of the original Alton Castle is unclear.
He might have wanted a more compact retreat from the extravagant splendours of Alton Towers. He could have intended it as a dower house for his mother.
He was a major patron of the Catholic Church, a great deal more pious than his predecessor, and the unfinished castle includes a spectacularly tall, narrow, unexpectedly tiny private chapel.
Lord Shrewsbury also had Pugin design a chapel, schoolroom and almshouses for “decayed priests”, which became known as Alton Hospital (in the original sense of a home, rather than a medical facility).
The Earl rarely constrained the great architect’s genius with a budget, and the result – though not fully complete – is an exquisite complex of Victorian Gothic buildings by the greatest architect of the day, working for one of the most generous patrons.
Alton Castle was used by the Sisters of Mercy for a prep school from 1919 to 1989. It stood empty until 1996 when the Archdiocese of Birmingham put it to good use as a retreat centre run for, and largely by, young people: http://www.altoncastle.co.uk.
The Pugin and the Gothic Revival (September 18th-22nd 2019) tour provides a rare opportunity to take a close look at Alton Castle. For details please click here.
For details of Mike Higginbottom’s lecture Survivals & Revivals: past views of English architecture, please click here.