Wednesday, 1 April 2015

Very high visibility at Castle Drogo

I haven't finished recounting my recent holiday experiences, and must rush to attend to this!

A couple of days after visiting Padstow, I went down to the northern edge of Dartmoor. It was a dry but overcast day. My first objective was Castle Drogo. Here it is, on a sunny afternoon in 1994. (I hadn't been there from then to now)

This is a modern castle, built in the early years of the twentieth century, from 1911 to 1930, though occupied from 1925. The owner wanted a country house in a scenic setting that looked like a battlemented castle, and had the 'feel' of a serious fortification, and yet all the amenities of a comfortable country house. The architect was the famous Edwin Lutyens.  The owner insisted on two things that led to rainwater ingress, so that the castle leaked. First, he wanted flat roofs. He wanted to walk about the roofs and admire the wonderful views on the Teign Gorge and the tors of nearby Dartmoor. He also wanted the outer walls to be without an air-space between the outer and inner surfaces, as you would have if building a brick house: it seemed to him more 'authentic' to have one very thick granite outer wall.

Well, as with all flat roofs, it was difficult to make them permanently leak-proof. Asphalt imported from Trinidad was tried first, but its behaviour away from the tropics was not well understood a century ago, and it soon cracked irredeemably after expanding and contracting in the bitter Dartmoor winters. Various anti-leak remedies were then tried through the ensuing years, none with entire success.

As for the walls, genuine medieval castles had immensely thick walls, and rain-saturation could never penetrate far enough to cause problems. Castle Drogo's walls, though thick by modern standards (around one metre) were by no means thick enough, and once the mortar deteriorated, water seeped in and ran down the inner wall surface everywhere. The family lived with it, and even made something of a joke about it. But in the long term it would have to be fixed, otherwise the castle was doomed to become a damp, unhealthy shell in which both occupants and furnishings would suffer.

The Castle and its grounds came into National Trust ownership in 1974. The leak problem rumbled on. It was OK in the summer, and when I last previously visited the place (with M---, on my birthday in July 1994) I hadn't noticed anything amiss. In the winter it was a different matter. The problem became acute. Finally, the National Trust, after a successful appeal for funds, embarked on a massive programme of roof and wall restoration that involved a huge amount of stone block dismantling, removal of all previous remedial work, and the careful substitution of state-of-the-art modern waterproofing materials, in many impenetrable layers on the roof, to waterproof the place for seventy or eighty years to come. When I visited it three weeks ago, I caught this work in mid-flight. In conversation with various people there, I learned that key moments in the work were being followed by everyone in Devon - it was regularly being covered in the newspapers and on TV.

They'd had to tackle it in two stages. The first dealt with the main part of the Castle, the larger two-thirds of it. The next would deal with the remaining third. Each part had to be covered with a staggering amount of scaffolding, over which, to protect the shifts of engineers and other workpeople from the elements, special plastic sheeting was draped. The scaffolding was free-standing, the largest free-standing scaffolding structure in Europe at the present time. The sheeting was designed to shred in a gale, so that it wouldn't act as a 'sail' or 'wing' and lift off with the scaffolding attached. In addition, the scaffolding was tethered to the ground. They did in fact face a particularly destructive storm in the 2014/15 winter, that had punched big holes in the sheeting. This, as planned, let the wind whistle through without blowing anything else away. The scaffolding didn't budge more than an inch or so. Considering its vast extent, this seemed very impressive to me.

Anyway, I'd arrived at Castle Drogo car park. My goodness, things had changed since 1994! There was considerable landscaping, and a swish modern reception centre complete with shop and café. The eatery back in 1994 was in the Castle itself, a poky affair I'd thought, although they'd been able to provide a delicious strawberry-and-clotted-cream afternoon tea, consumed al fresco, which M--- had treated me to, it being my birthday.

I made my way from the reception centre towards the Castle itself. On my left, next to the approach drive, was a compound containing a lot of granite blocks - these were from the parapets and battlements and walls, and would be replaced once the waterproofing measures had been put in place. They all had identifying numbers.

The Castle, swathed in white sheeting, came into clear view.

How different from the 1994 scene! But of course it will one day look like this again:

There were men in hi-vis jackets and hard hats about. One or two of them were talking to visitors. One asked me whether I would like to climb up the scaffolding to a viewing platform, and get a little talk on what was going on, with the work close to hand and in full view. Oh, yes please! I donned a jacket and hard hat. I looked a sight, but hey ho! It felt like fun. I think it shows on my face.

These are obviously not selfies. One of the National Trust guys, a nice man called Peter Southcott, took them. Here he is, trying to persuade two sets of retired husbands and wives to climb the scaffolding with me.

His job was to get a small party together, and escort them up a scary flight of steps to the viewing platform, and then explain what was going on. Judging by how he spoke, I guessed he had an engineering background, which is why he knew his stuff so well, and could explain so clearly what was being done. The men of the husband-wife combo looked as if they might be game for the climb, but their wives demurred. So in the end, as I was clearly keen as mustard to risk the climb, Peter took me up alone, one to one.

It was indeed, in fairness to the wives who chickened out, a tall set of open steps, with - yes - a rail to hold onto, but only see-through green plastic netting to give the illusion of climbing up within a solid structure. Here's the previous party coming down:

Peter warned me that plenty of people had got up half-way, then froze, the height getting to them. I admitted to him, as we commenced the ascent, that I didn't like heights - but it seemed to me much more likely that I'd run out of puff before we got to the top! But I didn't quite: at a steady pace, we were up there in next to no time. Here's the proof. Ah, so nonchalant, so unconcerned about the dizzy height and the awful drop!

The viewing platform was actually in two halves, one half outside the plastic sheeting, the other half inside. Here's Peter posing for me in mid-lecture, so to speak, next to the new roofing-membrane samples:

From here, the true extent of the scaffolding - free-standing, remember - could be appreciated. We had a very good view of the men at work, and Peter explained it all very well. I did my very best to ask Intelligent Questions. He was very patient.

It was well worth going up there. I promised to come again later in the year and see how things were getting on.

With feet on terra firma, I next had a look at the Castle interior. Much had been stripped out while the waterproofing work was going on, and stored in dry parts elsewhere. So I hardly recognised the place. But you could see plenty of the architecture. Lutyens had created an interior that strongly suggested the medieval castle, but with clean, modern lines:

Only the bathrooms seemed distinctly old-fashioned.

I didn't neglect to see the stables, gardens, sundry gardeners' huts and other features, even though it was getting a bit bleak outside. You could see that in summer it would be splendid. And I discovered something I'd forgotten about - a children's house, in a child-sized garden.

Time for the shop and café! More chat with staff at each. The purchase of little mouse Squeak and a green foral scarf; then tea and cake.

This wasn't the end of my day, even though it was by now very late-afternoon and a mist - might one say a proper Dartmoor fog? - was brewing. I had another two objectives yet. More on those next time.


  1. Wow, what a roofing job. It’s hard enough trying to replace a shingle that’s gone missing, but I can’t imagine trying to reconstruct a decades old building using heavy stones. Looks like they’re doing a good job – and I imagine once they put the roof back on it will last for quite a few decades to come!

  2. I just love stories about historical structures. They are fascinating and fun. Imagining the people that lived there while looking at all of the historical features that are built into old homes always amazes me. It's like walking back through time. Castles and architecture like that are extra fun as well. Thanks so for the share. I really enjoyed it.

    Pleasance Faast @ Shelton Roof


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