The Baronial Country House; Castle Drogo and Sir Edwin Lutyens

          I read about Castle Drogo, Devon a few times as a student of art history, but that was a long time ago. So when it came to visiting a couple of weeks ago, I had no idea what to expect. We arrived at what we considered to be a fairly early time in the day, but being the half-term holidays, the ticket office was already busy. I then made the mistake of not getting a guidebook and hoped I could stumble through without having to ask too many questions. However, first impressions were fantastic, even awe-inspiring as you walk towards the castle building and see it against the drama of Dartmoor.

Castle Drogo from afar (Copyright The National Trust)

          Considered to be the last castle in England, Castle Drogo, was built for one of the twentieth-century’s wealthiest entrepreneurs, Julius Drew (1856-1931) who had made his fortune with the establishment of the Home and Colonial Stores. By enlisting the most sought-after architect of the period, Edwin Lutyens, Julius Drew was able to determine his vision of an historical dynasty through name as well as stone. The National Trust are guardians of this property and have made use of snappy sub-headings in their literature on the building such as ‘Inspired by History’, ‘Driven by Technology’, ‘The Aspiring Aristocrat’, and ‘Designed for Life’; all of which place Drew’s eagerness to exploit his family’s identity in the modern world. Castle Drogo was intended to reflect these notions of long-established nobility in a baronial style reminiscent of an ‘impregnable medieval fortress’ of the Norman Conquest. Its position near the River Teign in Devon is not a coincidence and Drew saw potential in reviving his ancestry and their possible connections with the area as seen through place names like Drewsteignton and a Norman baron called Drogo de Teign also known as Drewe de Teignton. Julius was to add an extra ‘e’ to the end of Drew in 1910, and so the founding of a ‘new’ ancestral home could begin.[1] Yet, for Julius Drewe to invite Lutyens to be his architect for Castle Drogo at this date was somewhat intriguing.

          Edwin Lutyens (1869-1944) was a gifted architect who had acquired a great reputation for creating luxurious country houses in the vernacular style with hints of the Arts and Craft Movement and later, the Classical style. This meant using local materials to create houses that merged aesthetically and almost morally with the immediate landscape. His clients were the nouveau riches; those who had acquired money through industries such as manufacturing, and the exporting and importing of goods. The owners of this wealth wanted to assert themselves amongst the older families of the landed elite and aristocracy, and one way of doing this was to have the traditional symbol of that ancient breed – the country pile. This was also the era of a growing glamour and desire for domestic comfort. The nouveau riches like Drewe did not want to forsake luxury for status, but demanded all the modern conveniences and had their houses equipped with central heating, modern plumbing, electricity, telephones and efficient kitchens. Lutyens provided these, and did so with great flourish. His previous projects had included Munstead Wood, Surrey (1896), Goddards, Surrey (1900), Deanery Garden House, Berkshire (1901), and Marshcourt, Hampshire (completed in 1904). The latter is the focus of Dan Cruickshank’s The Country House Revealed, 14th June, 9pm BBC2. All of these evoked a quiet romance and warmth with their old bricks, heavy timber beams, dark panelled walls and deep porches.

          At Castle Drogo, the modern innovations were set to be a major part of the plan, but it was the use of heavy granite and baronial style which would contradict all that Lutyens had previously envisioned. Lutyens was said to be dazzled by the size and scope of the scheme, and Drewe’s instruction for a ‘real’ castle. The site chosen for the building was a rocky outcrop overlooking the River Teign with the only route for materials and supplies coming from the east. To reach the castle today, you have to negotiate narrow country lanes and steep curves. Lutyen decided to draw from his experience at Lindisfarne and Lambay Castle, both of which had been transformed into comfortable homes under his direction. Yet, the designs for Drogo went through three phases and grew more and more medieval under the influence of Julius Drewe’s vision. Eventually, Lutyens was to write to his own wife Emily declaring, ‘I do wish he didn’t want a castle, but just a delicious loveable house with plenty of large rooms in it’ (3rd August 1910).

          The exterior is built entirely of granite, with some walls reaching six feet in thickness. Its asymmetry exists as a tool to suggest its development over time, as if the building had evolved throughout the centuries with every generation making their mark on the plans and arrangement. Indeed, Drewe had wanted a barbican or gateway into the courtyard entrance, which was built as a mock-up in timber, but never realised in stone.

Castle Drogo

The timber mock-up for the barbican that was never realised (copyright The National Trust)

His medieval stronghold was soon to become a financial drain, and many of his own plans had to be abandoned. Against the wishes and architectural expertise of Lutyens, Drewe did however manage to incorporate specifics to the design which included a flat roof and no modern guttering or windowsills. The architect created a magnificent roofscape, but attempted to seal the roof with a comparatively new and untried material – asphalt. By 1913, rainwater was already coming through the cracked surfaces created by the contraction and expansion of the concrete underneath. The Dartmoor weather was making its presence felt. Today, there are damp patches throughout the building. This is most clear on the north side of the Green Corridor on the upper mezzanine level. That we visited on a day of torrential rain probably helped make this more obvious!

          Perhaps what makes Castle Drogo seem more needy than other country houses (and castles for that matter) is its swift experience as that of a home. With the Great War in 1914, progress slowed, and skilled workers quickly enlisted, but so large was the slaughter of men that almost none of them returned. The Drewe family lost their eldest son, Adrian in 1917, and with him went much of the dynastic plans and architectural ambition. The final building was a third of the size originally planned by Lutyens, and by the time it was completed it had cost three times its original estimate. It is still lived in today, but only on a temporary basis. Its leaky roof has proved more than a perennial problem and its more cosy apartments seem static and eerie. There is a small closet dedicated to the memory of Adrian Drewe created by his mother which at first sight feels out of place, but once you have left Castle Drogo, the room has the opposite effect. The house has missed the chance to mature and realise its place as that of establishing a dynasty. It stands as a snapshot of a way of life which was a mix of aspiration and independence, beaten by the changing social order, high estate valuations and wartime necessities.

[1] Julius Drew and his brother William sought a genealogist to help further their claims and discovered that there was indeed a link to an Edward Drewe, Recorder orLondon who had owned land in the area certainly as far back as the sixteenth century.

References:

Castle Drogo. The National Trust, Guidebook (2009)

Olive Cook, The English Country House: An Art and a Way of Life (London, 1974)

Christopher Culpin, Learning from Country Houses. The National Trust (London, 1995)

Christopher Hussey, ‘Sir Edwin Lutyens, O.M, K.C.I.E., P.R.A.,’ Country Life, 14 January 1944.

Links:

The National Trust website for Castle Drogo http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/main/w-castledrogo

A BBC local report on Castle Drogo restoration, 2004 http://www.bbc.co.uk/insideout/southwest/series6/castle_drogo.shtml

Castle Drogo on Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Castle_Drogo

The Heritage Trail entry on Castle Drogo http://www.theheritagetrail.co.uk/notable%20houses/castle%20drogo.htm

BBC Devon report February 2011, with links to other information http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-devon-12414690

Short article on Castle Drogo from The Guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/feb/17/in-praise-of-castle-drogo

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