West Hill resident Alan Cook, who volunteers at Castle Drogo updates us on the rebuilding works.
Castle Drogo was built for Julius Drewe. He was an entrepreneur who started Home & Colonial, a chain of grocery stores and tea importers, in 1883. He sold half his share in the business in 1891 for approximately £30m and retired to hunt and fish which were his hobbies. His uncle was the vicar at Drewsteignton and, when the land nearby came up for sale around 1910, he bought 500 acres including the clifftop overlooking the Teign valley and Dartmoor.
He wanted a grand house to reflect his status and his dream was a castle. He appointed Sir Edwin Lutyens as his architect and instructed him that castles have solid walls and flat roofs. Lutyens wanted to design the building with cavity walls and a low, lead covered pitched roof but he was overruled by his client. The castle is designed to feel as though it has been on its promontory since the middle ages rather than being built between 1911 and 1930. The outer wall is an illusion of a fortified building and the introduction of Scots Pines surrounding the hilltop gives the impression of Scotland.
The flat roof, or more accurately 26 different flat roofs, are an extension of the building’s spaces for the family and staff to enjoy. Unfortunately, there were no suitable materials available in the 1910s to properly waterproof the building. In consequence the asphalt used hardened over time and hairline cracks occurred letting water penetrate into the concrete roof slab. This happened after only a few years and has been a problem ever since. Various attempts have been made to rectify the leaks to no avail.
In 2007 the National Trust and their architects devised a solution which was tried on the chapel (a smaller ancillary structure) and proved to be successful in curing the leaks. After fund raising and further preparation the present scheme started in 2013 to make the building finally watertight. It has required removing the asphalt, cleaning the surface of the concrete roof slabs and taking down all the parapet walls and some of the outer skin of masonry – more than 2500 large granite blocks in total. Each block has to be loosened and lifted by crane, dropped gently onto a trolley and wheeled away to store whilst the new membranes are put in place. The process is then reversed and the blocks are set in lime mortar. It takes about 45 minutes to remove each block and a similar time to replace them. Whilst this work has been underway, the building has been enveloped in a scaffold covered in plastic and costing £1.2m, just part of the total £13.1m cost of the refurbishment.
The work is now nearing completion (end of 2018) and this will be your last chance to climb the scaffold tower to see the work in progress. You get a close up bird’s eye view of the work. The tower is open every day until 3rd November, from 11am until 4.30pm.
The February meeting of the National Trust Sidmouth Centre will feature a talk about Castle Drogo. See your next Newsletter for details.