From the Archives: Step in time

Jenny Seeman
From the Archives: Step in time

How many times have you walked up and down the Neptune stairs in front of Hatley Castle? Like other areas here at Royal Royal Roads University, these steps have also seen changes to their form and function.

When the property was first developed, the architect Samuel Maclure made some significant landscaping decisions in the area adjacent to the house. Although it doesn’t appear on his early sketches, Maclure designed the lion fountain beneath the terrace. The roadway at the front of the house, flowing under the porte-cochere, allowed for some complementary trees and borders, along with some existing older trees. The original Japanese garden, designed by Isaburo Kishida, was laid out at the same time as the house was being built and Maclure included some pathways to connect the garden to the house.

After a couple of years of residence here at Hatley Park, James and Laura decided that the grounds needed further development. A number of features did not work well for them, such as the stables and garage being positioned far up the hill by the service entrance. The Boston landscape architects, Franklin Brett and George Hall, were hired to improve the grounds in a development project that was to last from 1913 to 1916.

One of Franklin Brett’s observations on surveying the property was that: “The ground on the entrance side of the house rose quite sharply to the woods, the spruce trees forming the edge of which were particularly ugly on account of having no lower branches.” The improvements made by the Boston architects were to include changes in grading to give the house a better setting since Brett had further grumbled that “the first view of the house gave it the appearance of having been built in a hollow”. The addition of a broad flight of grass balustrade steps to a fountain court in the woods is what we know of today as the Neptune stairs. From the court two paths would start, one through the woods to a grove of enormous hemlocks and the other to “the falls” at the head of a wildly picturesque ravine, visible today as part of Charlie’s Trail. Planting flanking the steps and around the woods consisted of broadleaf and coniferous evergreens with a mixture of deciduous trees, shrubs and herbs with a long flowering season.

While the picture included here is blurred, of note is that the lions used to live at the top of the steps, along with four cherubs and Neptune standing over the fountain. The Dunsmuirs decided to move the lions at some point, as we can tell from pictures in the 1930s that show the lions in their current location.

When the site was bought by the government in 1940, many changes were made to accommodate those training to become naval officers. The fountain court retained its original character until the construction of the Cadet (Grant) building in 1942. At this time the fountain was framed by the wall we see today.


Neptune was a popular figure with the cadets. Although the use of steps was reserved for the senior cadets and staff, Neptune was swept up in a wave of Skylarks, or pranks, orchestrated by rebellious cadets in the dead of night. Here he is dressed more casually than his campus cohort.

The stairs were also paved during the military era and were used ceremonially for graduations right through to the early years of Royal Roads University.


Time and weather have left their mark on Neptune, and like other statuary around the grounds, some specialised attention has been employed to keep the fountain operational. Restorative work was carried out on the fountain in 2013 and again in 2015. Along the borders of the steps today are stone tablets which have marked homecoming alumni celebrations since 2001.

For more information, or if you have any questions about our archives collections, contact Jenny Seeman in the archives, ext. 4122.