Sundorne House in Shropshire was the seat of the Corbet family and the estate included the picturesque ruin of Haughmond Abbey. In 1774 John Corbet added a dramatic eye-catcher to the ensemble – a sham castle on the summit of Haughmond Hill.
John Corbet (1751-1817) spent 1773 on the Grand Tour, where he was painted by Pompeo Batoni. He had inherited the Sundorne estate from his father in 1759, when still a minor and on his return from Europe he began to remodel the mansion using the architect Robert Mylne, and his improvements to the park included a vast new lake.
Although his portrait by Batoni shows him with a plan of the Pantheon in Rome, he chose to ornament the park with a building in the Gothick style. High on Haughmond Hill he built a mock fortification called Haughmond Castle.
The architect Robert Mylne sent Corbet a ‘design of a castle to be erected on the top of a hill’ in November 1774. Mylne had experience in the field having already built Blaise Castle in Bristol: Haughmond Castle had a similar triangular floor-plan of a central core surrounded by three circular turrets, as shown on Ordnance Survey maps. It was complete by 1777 when a lucky visitor stayed in the ‘pea green’ room at Sunborne and his view took in the building on Haughmond Hill.
As well as being an eye-catcher from Sundorne, the Castle would have served as both a landmark and a refreshment pavilion during the chase, for Corbet was a passionate huntsman. Locally it is told that a flag was flown when hunting was to take place the following day, although an alternative version has it that the flag was hoisted to warn the servants at Sunborne House that the hunt was over and the participants were heading back for dinner.
It was also a belvedere and from it there was a ‘magnificent panorama’ which included ‘the valley of the Severn, with the ancient town of Shrewsbury, backed on the horizon by the Welsh Mountains, while further south the wooded crest of the Wrekin towered above the valley’.
The prominent eye-catcher played a key role in the celebrations of the coming-of-age of Corbet’s eldest son Andrew William in 1822. Cannon were fired from Sundorne Castle (the house by now remodelled and renamed) and ‘these were answered by discharges from the Castle on the hill’. Tenants and their friends were invited to partake of a ‘cold collation’ at the Castle, and in the evening the building must have been a magical sight when it was illuminated.
For some years the eye-catcher doubled as a home for estate workers. Photographs and postcards from the early years of the 20th century show the Castle in good condition, but in the 1930s it collapsed. In 1938 a visitor noted the ‘ruins of Haughmond Castle’ and by 1973 only ‘traces’ remained.
Sundorne Castle too is gone – demolished in 1955, although a very attractive gatehouse and chapel were left standing.
All that remains of Haughmond Castle today are a few moss-covered bits of masonry and some curved ironwork. The view can still be appreciated, although the valley has been developed since Corbet’s day. There are walks to the site from the Forestry Commission’s Haughmond Hill car park https://www.forestryengland.uk/haughmond-hill/walking-trails-haughmond-hill
Haughmond Abbey is in the care of English Heritage and can be visited all year round https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/haughmond-abbey/
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