Thursday, November 15, 2012

Castle Drogo

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This is something of a departure for this blog but I’m going to get all National Trusty on your sorry arses this time. For which I make no apologies. What I will apologise for is the shoddy nature of some of the photographs that accompany this piece!

Castle Drogo is an exceptional property even within the NT’s vast portfolio. It is remarkable for any number of reasons but it is truly unique for just one: it was the last castle, if you accept that it is a castle at all, ever built in England.

So where is it? The short answer is Dartmoor. It is close to Moretonhampsted towards the north-eastern fringe of Dartmoor National Park.


Castle Drogo actually sits on one of the highest points in all of Devon and at more than 900 feet above sea level is on higher ground than the top of the notorious Haldon Hill ~ which would have made it a splendid location for a real castle. As you might expect it is very exposed to the weather and, being high up on Dartmoor, it gets much more weather than most places. Over the years the wind and rain has taken its toll and Castle Drogo currently sits at the centre of a major fundraising campaign because it needs extensive repair purely to keep it safe for visitors. I hope they are successful because this is one place that should never be lost.

So given its name and prominent location on the local landscape why did I question whether it was a castle? The answer, in my mind at least, is that a castle should be built for a millitary purpose; even if it never actually saw any action it should be, or once have been, ready to. Castle Drogo was not built for any such purpose. It was built simply because a fabulously wealthy man wanted to live in a castle! So he commissioned the building of a brand new one. Money no object. Just get it done.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 021Who would you commission for such a project? Obviously the only answer (at the time) to that is “the foremost architect in the entire British Empire!” And so Sir Edwin Landseer Lutyens OM, KCIE, PRA, FRIBA was appointed. At first Lutyens was reluctant to accept the project. “A castle? Are you stark raving bonkers, man!” he might reasonably have exclaimed and despite Lutyens advising that a mere mansion might suffice, be more practical and much cheaper to build a castle it was to be.

So who might want such a building? Who might be able to afford it? Why build it here?

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 027The answers lie with the vanity of a self-made man desperate to be accepted by society’s finest. His name was Julius Drew and he had made his pile as a grocer by opening a small shop in 1883 on London’s Edgware Road selling, amongst other things but most importantly, tea. A series of new shops and mergers, with companies like Liptons, saw Drew’s Home & Colonial Stores become a vast retail empire. Essentially he headed, in modern terms, ASDA, Tesco and Sainsbury’s all rolled into one. By any reckoning he was a vastly wealthy man. He had everything he could desire at his fingertips except one thing: acceptance by the aristocracy of the day. He was nouveau riche; not one of us.

So, after hearing of 450 acres of land near Drewsteignton that was about to be sold, he set about becoming, to all intents and purposes, one of them by fabricating the myth that the family name, Drew, belonged to an ancient Devon family, after whom the Dartmoor village  Drewsteignton had been named, and that the family seat was a castle. Enter Lutyens.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 043Lutyens was not, at first, keen to build a castle. It was just too big, it would take too long. It just wasn’t practical. Drew would not be swayed and eventually Lutyens became convinced and the grandest of grand plans imaginable was conceived and, at Drew’s insistence, the building of a brand new granite castle complete with motto and dragon, to help create a bit of faux heritage, began.

Castles have a few inherent drawbacks when it comes to them being a place in which to live. Not the least of which is that they tend to be cold and draughty. “Not to worry,” as Drew might have said, “just make it look like a castle! And fit all the mod cons you can: electric lighting, hot water, central heating, telephones… all that stuff” and so Lutyens did. A full-scale castle was planned with all the accoutrements of the age fitted as standard; all of it faced by purely ornamental granite. Hundreds and hundreds of tons of ornamental granite and all of it to be manually hewn by hardy stonemasons over of period of… well of quite a long time. I don’t think anybody ever really had any idea how long it would take to construct.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 040In the meantime Julius Drew lived the life of a wealthy Edwardian gentleman. He travelled, married, and five children were born. Naturally Adrian Drew, the eldest boy, headed to Eton and then on to Oxford University where he did all the right things along the way like rowing in the eight, getting into the 1st XI and so on.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 041Sadly the family fortune proved to be no insulation against the looming horror of the 1st World War and the building project began to slip behind schedule ~ in no small part because most of the workforce was conscripted and sent to the poppy fields of France. Cedric, having long been schooled to be a Leader Of Men, was soon to follow the same route as an officer where he survived action on the Somme before being lost at Ypres. His body was never found.


Castle Drogo Oct 2012 024Julius Drew, here seen in a portrait painted just before his death, was heartbroken and lost much of his interest in the building project which was then scaled back basically to enable its swift, relatively speaking, completion leaving us with the structure as it is today.

I find the story of the Drew family to be incredibly touching. For all their money and influence they were as much at the mercy of the whims of fate as any of us and there is a sense of melancholy that suffuses the place. On the other hand Castle Drogo is a monument to grand aspiration and design which it is hard to place on a scale with anywhere else built in the 20th century. Just what would it have looked like had it been completed to Lutyens’ original plans?

CCastle Drogo Oct 2012 045astle Drogo is, essentially, a vast folly (excepting that it does actually have a purpose). It is a vision of ostentation for the sake of ostentation with attention to detail that beggars belief. For example the drawing room has a couple of granite arches and each arch weighs around 30 tons. Each arch is not load-bearing; each one is there just for show; each arch serves no architectural purpose at all; each one is there just because it could be; each one is there because Lutyens and Drew just reckoned it’d look good.

This also appeals. Despite not being entirely finished what was finished was finished to the highest standards possible. Hundreds of stonemasons toiled for years building it and I don’t think that such a project could be built today simply because the skilled manpower to build it just doesn’t exist any more.

As an example of the craftsmanship look at this single block of stone. Castle Drogo Oct 2012 022It isn’t a main feature. It just sits above a door in a corridor and matches up to the other stones around it. Count the number of faces on it if you can! Just imagine how long it must have taken to carve, by hand, out of granite.

Following Cedric’s death the family kept a small room almost as a shrine to him. The walls are adorned with pictures of him both as an officer and as a schoolboy and student. For all the ostentation that the Drew family showed I find myself actually quite liking them. Who wouldn’t build a fabulous, granite castle if they could? “If you’ve got it then flaunt it!” ought to have been the family motto.

Castle Drogo Oct 2012 019Finally one last detail. Even as the castle was built it leaked. Apparently the mortar used between the granite blocks wasn’t as waterproof as it ought to have been so the Drew family used to place buckets around the house to catch the drips when it rained (and this is on one of Dartmoor’s highest points where it rains lots!). Lutyens, having by now become a firm family friend, was a regular visitor and would have been mortified to know and would certainly have seen a fix applied. The Drew family never once thought to tell him. As Frances Drew put it: “he was such a nice man… we didn’t want to upset him.”

So that’s pretty much the Castle Drogo story. It is a fabulous place. I absolutely recommend that you visit it because only then can you grasp the sheer bonkersness and sorrow of the place. Especially the bonkersness!

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