2011 is all set to be quite a year for Castle Drogo on Dartmoor, with the celebration of its 100th birthday and the launch of a major fundraising appeal to help save this unique national treasure.
The self-made millionaire Julius Drewe laid his castle’s foundation stone on his 55th birthday, 4 April 1911: the first of hundreds of thousands of blocks of Dartmoor granite that were to follow in the construction of an extraordinary building – the last castle to be built in England – which took 20 years to complete.
The enthralling story of the castle’s construction – at the core of which is the complex relationship of two fascinating men: Julius Drewe and his architect, the mercurial genius Edwin Lutyens – is brilliantly told in the Castle Drogo souvenir guide. You can pick up a copy at the visitor centre (open all year) or buy it online at www.nationaltrustbooks.co.uk
The castle remains the only 20th-century building in Devon to be listed Grade I, and it was the first 20th-century building to be accepted by the National Trust, with its doors thrown open to the public for the first time in 1975. Since then more than 4 million people have visited and become captivated by Castle Drogo, and its beautiful garden and estate, and last autumn it deservedly won Visit Devon’s Gold Award for the best visitor attraction in 2010, and Silver in South West Tourism’s Excellence Awards.
Perhaps one of the reasons why Drogo is such an evocative place, and loved by so many people, is that it vividly and poignantly encapsulates so much of the story of the 20th century, with its startling social changes. From the solid certainties of the Edwardian era when that first stone was laid – a time of confidence, of old ways and new wealth – to the devastating blow of the First World War that cut down an entire generation of young men; through the struggles and changed realities of the inter-war years, when the Drewe family were at last able to move into part of the building and make it their home, to the Second World War, when the now-completed castle sheltered children made homeless by the Blitz; and so on to the 1970s when the Drewes took the decision to give their home to the National Trust.
What lies ahead?
It’s been an amazing story so far, and now Drogo is embarking upon an exciting new phase in its life as the Trust aims to save it from ruin – an unimaginable fate for such an important building, but the shadow of which has hung over it from the very beginning. The castle looks mighty and strong, rising up out of the craggy landscape of the Teign Gorge like a tor hewn by men, but at its heart there is a tragic flaw. Julius Drewe’s dream was for Lutyens to build him a proper medieval fortress, not a pretend castle, and one of its most authentic features – its flat roof – became its inherent weakness. Lutyens tried to seal the roof using asphalt (relatively new and untested at the time), but contraction and expansion of the concrete beneath resulted in it cracking, and before the castle was even finished it had begun to leak. Add to this Drewe’s determination that there should be no windowsills or guttering to compromise the design, and so you have a building that has leaked through its roof, its walls and its windows for its entire existence.
After several unsuccessful attempts over the years to make the castle watertight, at last the Trust has found a permanent solution using modern materials, which has been tried and tested on the chapel roof since its application four years ago – with total success.
A public appeal to raise £1.5million – called A Design for Life? – has now been launched to help seal the leaks for good. Work will begin in 2012 and it will be conservation on a monumental scale: there are 2,355 granite blocks weighing 680 tonnes to be removed from the roof, and replaced once the new roof system has been installed; 900 windows with over 13,000 separate panes of glass to be refurbished; and over 60,000 metres of pointing to be replaced. Throughout it all, Castle Drogo will remain open and you will have some very exciting opportunities (of which more later…) to see the work going on, to discover different parts and aspects of the castle – including the roof itself – and to experience Drogo’s story in a totally new way.
To get involved, find out about the appeal or to make a donation, please go to www.nationaltrust.org.uk/savedrogo or come along to Castle Drogo itself and ask any member of staff or volunteer to tell you more. You can also keep in touch with the save Castle Drogo appeal by following them on twitter www.twitter.com/savecastledrogo