In 1755, a naval battle took place off India’s coast, resulting in a castle being built in South London.
It’s April 1755, and the East India Company ordered Commodore Sir William James to blockade the island fortress of Suvarnadurg off the coast of India. He destroyed it instead and was given a bonus of £100 for disobeying orders. After a decade in India he returned to England, became a director of the East India Company (it seems destroying fortresses is a career move after all), and then became an MP.
He died suddenly aged 62 while attending his daughter’s wedding, and his grieving wife promptly did what rich widows did in Georgian England… she built a castle.
She named the castle after her husband’s military victory, but being both rich and more importantly, English, she called it Severndroog, rather than Suvarnadurg, because there’s nothing quite so English as giving Indian places English names.
The grieving widow had about a decade of castle grieving before dying herself, having already outlived her son, and the castle now lacking a suitably ennobled owner was sold.
Although the castle is more accurately described as a folly, and consisting of just one, not especially tall tower, it’s on a very high spot of land, so Severndroog Castle was a useful spot for surveying the land, so it was used for the early Ordnance Survey of England, and later the Survey of London.
In 1922, the tower was purchased by London County Council and it became a local visitor attraction with a ground-floor tearoom serving drinks and cakes. In 1986, responsibility for Severndroog passed to Greenwich Council, who decided they’d rather not own a castle, quickly locked the doors and tried to sell it off.
The locals now facing the tower being permanently unavailable kicked up a fuss, embarrassed the council, and following a lot of campaigning, secured lottery funding to restore the castle and open it up again.
Today the castle is once again serving tea on the ground floor, and the upper floors are open to go up, and up and up to the roof to see the views that made it such a useful landmark.
If you live locally, it’s a local attraction, but if you don’t its not the most obvious place to get to. There are buses that go past it, and trains to nearby Welling, or as I did, take a glutes-enhancing hike up the very steep hill from Woolwich.
The brick tower surprisingly difficult to find, being in the middle of a wood, but all the more delightful to “stumble upon” when trying to find it as it suddenly looms out from the tree canopy.
Do go inside, but don’t try to pay for the admission fee on the ground floor. That’s the cafe, and tower climbers start their climb by paying on the first floor.
The inside has been restored, if not to the original, certainly to a design that is reasonably appropriate for the the time it was built. The painted ceiling has long since been lost, but a tiny fragment exists in the top of the door frame.
Depending on how busy the tower is, you might now be hanging around, as there’s space for 10 people on top, so a small army of walkie-talkie wielding volunteers marshal you up and down the stairs between floors until at last there’s space at the top for you.
More stairs, and at the roof, even more stairs to the space at the top of a turret for the very highest vantage point. Fortunately, the walls are solid, thick and high, so even the most height-phobic person shouldn’t have a problem here.
And here’s the prize – uninterrupted views across to the City of London and beyond, down to Crystal Palace, towards the Thames, but not towards Dartford, because trees block that view. Maybe for the better.
Binoculars are handed out if you want them, but it’s nicer to just soak up the vast expanse of the view offered rather than zooming in to distant buildings.
A countdown timer on the side offered 10 minutes of viewing on top, while the walkie-talkies barked about numbers in the rooms below. Considering its location, it’s nice to see that demand to go up top is so high that they need all these marshaling to control the numbers.
Thanks to its unusually elevated location, a visit is worth it for the views of London from an angle not often seen. Stay for a nibble on the ground floor if the outdoor seating is weather appropriate, or wander around the ancient woods, and to the other cafe further to the east for a more hearty breakfast.
The castle is open Thur, Fri and Sun (not Sat), with opening hours varying depending on time of year.
From late March to October, it’s open 10:30pm to 4:30pm, and during the winter months, from 10.30am to 3.30pm.
Entry is £3.50.