Castle Drogo – a marmite experience

Today, after a beautiful but unexpectedly tiring walk in one of my favourite spots, Fernworthy, a trip to Castle Drogo. More of that in a mo’.

The walk… Our two terriers never seem to tire, at least one of them doesn’t. He just runs and runs, athletically bouncing from one tussock to another or leaping from rock to rock in the fastest moving streams. The other, a more sedate creature, reads the papers on a walk. By that I mean he savours every sniff, concentrating like he’s reading the contact ads or doing the cryptic version of the crossword. Then he realises we are so far ahead and canters at speed to catch up.

If you’ve never visited Fernworthy Down near Lydford, you are missing a small treat. We call it Watership having found it, many years ago, heaving with rabbits. It was more thickly covered with gorse then and much of it has been cut away. Great for us and the dogs, less so for Bugs and Dandelion. The steeper inclines are short but testing and I found it more effort than usual. Good days, bad days; this was in between.

On to Drogo. Built by Julius Drewe with architect Edwin Lutyens, it is either a magnificent addition to the built environment of Dartmoor or the folly of a family with more money than wisdom. Julius wanted an ancestral home to pass on down the family line, being ‘new money’ with no lineage of historical wealth. Founder of the Home and Colonial Stores, he made a vast fortune as a young man. Think what he could have done, all those choices. What he chose to do was convince himself that his Sussex locale was not where his roots lay and his ancestral leanings then led him to an area overlooking the Teign Gorge in the middle of Dartmoor. In 1911, work started on the grand project to build a ‘castle’ that would serve as a family home rather than a defensive bulwark against the terrors from the moor.

Like many of us when we get the builders in, he knew exactly what he wanted even when the builder is telling us it won’t work. So, the flat roof (on Dartmoor, I ask you!) and bitumen-filled cavity walls were duly put in place and within a year the leaks started. The castle was never completely dry since it was built and suffered extensive damage from the onslaught of Dartmoor weather. The upshot is that it is currently undergoing a huge restoration process costing over £11million.

In spite of that, it houses some of the most poignant artefacts, especially those belonging to Julius’s sons, who joined the army and which are on display. One son was killed in the First World War. That, together with the shortage of labour resulting from so many men going away to fight, resulted in a major re-think and the project was scaled back from the original. Still impressive in scale, the intention was for a building almost twice its size.

When the restoration is finished, it is expected to see the castle right for the next 70 years or so. If you like Drogo, that will be quite a comforting thought. For me, the best thing about it is the views across the gorge into the wonderful farmland and moorland landscape. I can take or leave the granite, it loses its appeal when cut, treated and mortared. I like it piled high, as tors and clitter, where I can sit, quietly contemplating nature’s handiwork rather than Mr Lutyens’, however skilled he was.


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