I first visited Castle Drogo thirty years ago on a family holiday. It’s a 20th century castle, built as an Englishman’s home on Dartmoor in Devon, situated in a sometimes wild and always picturesque setting, with views all around across the hilltops and down into grassy valleys.
It was built because a man named Julius Drew hankered after an ancestral country home. As a young man in late Victorian times he had amassed a fortune by establishing Home & Colonial Stores. At the age of 33 he sold up and never had to work again. He acquired an extra ‘e’ for his surname to become Drewe, and then commissioned Sir Edwyn Lutyens, the leading architect of the Edwardian age, to design a modern castle on a Devon hilltop.
Architecturally Castle Drogo is an interesting example of Lutyens’ work, but it had a design flaw. Lutyens used asphalt to seal the roof. Over the years, by expanding and contracting according to the temperature, the roof cracked and started to leak. Water penetration threatened the castle’s survival until the National Trust and the Lottery provided £11 million for repair work.
I visited Castle Drogo again this week. It’s now a fascinating building site. Because there is now less of the building to see, the curators have had to concentrate more on the stories associated with the castle. There is, of course, the construction story, then and now, and the stories of the people who played their roles in the building.
In this centenary year of the First World War, I was particularly intrigued by what happened during that period. The story is told mainly through large reproductions of letters between the owner, the architect and the clerk of works, JC Walker. The letters were written in that formal business language of the time – exchanges between the client, the creative agency and the project director. It’s fascinating to read the tensions and emotions between the lines of formality.
When war broke out, with the building under way but largely uncompleted, Julius Drewe halted the work and encouraged all the building workers to join the army and go off to fight for king and country. Most of them did.
Adrian Drewe, the eldest son, joined up too and was killed in action near Ypres in July 1917. That’s uncannily near the time and place that my own grandfather was killed.
Very few of the original workers survived the war. On my visit last week there were two visual symbols that I found particularly poignant. The first is a sculpture showing two workers marching off, disappearing into a wall of the castle.
The second is a collection of poppy windmills ‘planted’ in woodland outside the castle – each poppy represents a workman from the original building team who lost his life in the war.
I was left marvelling at the emotional power of symbols. And wondering what this current building site might symbolise about our lives today. Whatever your conclusions, I’d recommend a visit to Castle Drogo as a place filled with stories. www.nationaltrust.org.uk/castle-drogo