Castle Drogo: Last castle to be built in England
- Credit: Archant
Chrissy Harris takes a look at the massive restoration project going on at the last castle to be built in England Photography by Steven Haywood
High up on a hill above the Teign Gorge, surrounded by scaffolding and wrapped in hundreds of meters of white plastic flapping in the howling wind, Castle Drogo is a spectacular sight.
To say this iconic building is undergoing a renovation is an understatement: this is one of the most ambitious restoration projects ever undertaken in this country.
Drogo was created as a family home by wealthy local businessman Julius Drewe at the beginning of the 20th century to the designs of the famous British architect Edwin Lutyens. But then the rain came in. By the bucket load.
Now, the last castle ever to be built in England is being saved from certain ruin by a highly skilled team of people working on a five-year, £11 million project to make the building watertight.
It’s a lot of work and a lot of cash to spend on what is, essentially, a big Edwardian-era house made to look like a castle. But there is something magical about this place that hits you on the approach and follows you deep inside its granite walls.
“Look, the stone even glitters in the light – it’s just so beautiful,” says Lucinda Heron from the National Trust. The organisation has owned the castle since 1974 and is leading the project to restore it.
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“We are so excited about how it’s all going and it’s so much nicer now some of the boards on the windows have been taken down,” says Lucinda. “We can finally see the light!”
She means this in every sense. The south wing of the castle has been completed and the third phase – making the north wing watertight – is in full swing.
Everyone here is hopeful that the project is on track to be completed in 2017.
But don’t just take their word for it – come and see for yourself. The best part about this restoration is that Castle Drogo is still very much open for business, with visitors being granted access inside and even above the castle on a 20-metre high viewing platform. There are also stunning artistic displays, unveiled last month to showcase the history of one of Devon’s most important landmarks.
“This is a unique opportunity for people,” says Tim Cambourne, the (surprisingly calm) man in charge of leading this extraordinary project for the National Trust.
“We have to work in a slightly different way with visitors coming round but we are sharing what we are doing and that’s important.”
As anyone who has renovated a house knows, trying to work with a group of people gawping and getting in the way is a tough call.
Add to that the fact this is a castle of national importance and you wonder why they don’t just close the doors get on with it.
“We want to show people what we’re doing – it’s absolutely the right decision,” says Lucinda Heron, who is the Castle’s house and collections manager. “You need that connection or else we all feel like we’re sitting here, shut off in a big, white tent.
“It’s more challenging for us to be open but this way people can see how we’re getting on - and they come back to check on our progress.”
It’s paying off and Castle Drogo has attracted quite a fan club, outside the realms of the usual National Trust members. One visitor pops down once a month from Torquay because she loves looking at the scaffolding”.
“Seeing people’s reactions to all this hard work will make it worthwhile,” says Lucinda. “We can only do this because of the public support we have. We couldn’t attempt to do it otherwise.
“I feel like we are showing people the value of their membership and visitor fees, the money they spend in the shop and cafe. It’s all helping to preserve this amazing space for the nation.”
Learn more at nationaltrust.org
Next Month: Devon Life goes behind the scenes with the experts involved in the restoration work.
The story so far:
One of the main problems at the Lutyens-designed castle is that the large flat roof areas were leaking.
The trust erected one of the biggest scaffolding expanses in the UK, consisting of 24,700 poles, weighing 544 tonnes.
In order to lay the new waterproof system, 2,355 granite blocks weighing 680 tonnes are being removed and then reinstated. This involves moving and reassembling entire battlements and large sections of the castle walls.
Roof gullies are being redesigned to accommodate the heavy Dartmoor rainfall.
The cracked cement pointing is being removed and replaced with an improved lime based mortar.
In addition some 913 windows containing over 13,000 panes are being cleaned and the lead replaced to stop them leaking.
The southern half of the building has now been made watertight and work has begun on the north wing.
In preparation for this crucial next phase, the entire contents of Castle Drogo had to be moved from one end of the house to the other.
The precious collection and furnishings built up over the years by the Drewe family had been in storage in the north end of the building, protected from the caustic and very fine dust flying about.
A team of experts, led by Lucinda Heron, have spent the past few weeks moving everything from north to south in what must have been the most hair-raising of removal jobs.
Among other tasks, a magnificent 18th Century grandfather clock was returned to its specially built alcove, paintings, tapestries, chandeliers and lanterns re-hung and antique vases put back on shelves. Even a table football dating back to 1910 was put back in its place.
And then there was the dusting.
Dust is the enemy of this castle and must be kept at bay at all costs. It’s a constant battle but unavoidable during such a mammoth restoration project where builders and stonemasons are having to work alongside conservationists and fine art experts.
“It is hard but we are able to deal with it in a positive way,” says Lucinda. “The contractors have got a job to do and we need to support that but it’s my job to make sure the house and collections are protected. There’s a lot of learning on both sides but we all have a really good working relationship.”
In March, new displays were unveiled to highlight stories from Drogo’s past.
Three ‘creative partners’ worked together on the installations which reveal different stories about the Drewe family and castle.