It’s not often I find myself in awe of scaffolding, but when it’s housing the deteriorating grandeur of a Lutyen designed castle, one cannot help but be taken aback by the scale of this gigantic project taken on by the National Trust.
Castle Drogo, Drewsteignton near Exeter in Devon is a modern day castle built with the hardest stone this country has to offer in the form of local Dartmoor granite and the castle’s enviable location along with its excessive grandeur is indicative of the ambition and determination held by 19th century business magnate, Julius Drewe, to create the allusion of a family steeped in history.
Kevin McCloud, Tony Robinson and his Time Team have enthused and televised their reaction to Castle Drogo, mainly due to its link with one of Britain’s greatest architects from the Arts and Crafts era, Edwin Lutyens. There is also plenty of information available online that discusses the construction techniques and design of this country pile that Drewe hoped would be the key to open the tightly closed doors of Edwardian society. (Julius also added the second ‘e’ to his surname in the misguided belief he was descended from Norman blood).
Which is why I am not going to regurgitate existing intelligence but look at it from a slightly different viewpoint.
My first impression on approaching the shrouded monument was one of resigned sadness, that for all the millions of pounds (in today’s terms) that had been spent on its construction and the attention to detail, it could not escape the lack of experience and knowledge that is gained only after several years of working with new technology.
And now, with the benefit of that exact science aka hindsight, the disintegrated asphalt surface covering the entire flat roof of Drogo, has left the building exposed to the ravages of the extreme Dartmoor weather.
It was Julius Drewe’s grandson Anthony who eventually relented in 1973 and asked the National Trust to step in before it was too late.
Now whether it is the scaffold and tarpaulin mantle or the building site appearance of dismantled granite blocks you have to walk past to reach the castle, I cannot be sure, but for me there is a lack of that distinct ‘old castle’ atmosphere; it felt like I was walking into a modern albeit enormous home that had been built to impress rather than enjoy.
At the same time I felt there was a melancholy atmosphere, as if a highly prized and valued dream had not been realised through no fault of the dreamer.
It was rather unfortunate for Julius Drewe that his ambitious plan coincided with a rather less congenial desire, that of the ring-leaders of World War I and whilst determined to achieve his aims, his patriotic spirit was equally supportive and much of the construction work came to a halt during the war.
There is a somewhat eerie but evocative sculpture in the wall approaching the kitchen representing workmen going off to fight. Julius’ sons Adrian, Basil and Cedric joined the army, the youngest son Adrian sadly never returned and is buried in Ypres.
Both Frances and Julius Drewe were also very considerate employers and insisted the kitchen should have the maximum amount of daylight for the staff to work in, resulting in an unusual domed roof design along with a white painted ceiling to reflect the daylight back into what would otherwise have been a very dingy room. They also had the latest in kitchen gadgets including a rather quirky looking Kent’s Knife Cleaner.
The small number of upstairs rooms that are open contain various personal belongings, all of them would have been the most up to date technology and alongside the more functional gadgets was a collection of fly fishing hooks; this was Julius’ favourite pastime and he would spend hours in the nearby River Tiegn.
There is also a collection of Edwardian toys, and beautiful time pieces. The decorative ginger jars would have undoubtedly held the freshest supplies ready to create all manner of interesting exotic menus for their guests.
Now I think it’s fair to say that if you were building a house from scratch today and you had a breath-taking view across a Dartmoor, you would most likely have some large landscape sized windows fitted to make the most of the spectacular scenery. However, for Julius only a castle with traditionally styled mullioned lead windows would do and whilst he certainly satisfied his historical desire, I can’t help but feel he missed out on the fantastic view that is virtually obscured by the solid walls and narrow windows.
Of course Drogo’s biggest feature, albeit a temporary one, is the colossal scaffold structure and you can climb a tower to the viewing platform that gives you a birds’ eye view of what is going on underneath the protective covering.
I personally think Health & Safety have gone a little bit OTT and whilst I can just about agree with the need of hard hats…high visibility jackets seems a bit pointless.
So after our scaffold visit, we walked back through the gardens; beautifully manicured lawns and tenderly cared for beds sit in formal patterns but there was also the children’s playhouse and a wooden chalet where the family often relaxed.
I would like to return to Drogo when the work has finished and see it in all its glory and perhaps it will exude a different spirit, but for me there was a definite feel of inner sadness; of an unfulfilled dream, of hopes and aspirations that had once been so great and undaunted but were stymied and frustrated by powers beyond his control.
If nothing else, the National Trust will be able to uphold the ambition, determination, courageous spirit and patriotism that is Drogo Castle.
Link to National Trust website https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-drogo/