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  Inside Out - South West: Monday October 11, 2004


Castle Drogo
Castle Drogo is one of Dartmoor's finest buildings

Taking over at Castle Drogo was a dream come true for Mark Agnew. Perched up high on the northern slopes of Dartmoor, Drogo is one of the region's most popular National Trust properties. Trouble is, it's got a bit of a damp problem - which will cost £4 million to fix!

Despite its popularity Drogo needs all the money it earns to keep going, with little left over for such extensive repairs.

But Mark Agnew could be just the man to tackle the problem.

Mark came to Drogo, having left behind a high powered career in bookselling.

"I really didn't want to be making money for other people, I wanted to be doing something that had some value and a valuable end product.

"I made a list of the organisations I wanted to work for and the Trust was at the top."

Peter Inskip
Architect Peter Inskip investigates

Castle Drogo was an unusual acquisition for the National Trust, to whom it was gifted in 1974 - it was the first 20th Century property they took on.

Drogo broke the mould because the Edwardian building was designed by Edwin Lutyens, Britain's greatest 20th century architect, according to fellow practitioner Peter Inskip.

"English architects aren't that hot - there are probably six great English architects, and I put Lutyens in that group."

That explains why the Trust wanted to get their hands on Drogo - but not why the former owners, the Drewe family, wanted to part with it.

A distinguished history

Castle Drogo was originally built between 1910 and 1930 for Julius Drewe, a self-made millionaire whose chain of Home and Colonial Stores enabled him go into semi-retirement in 1899 at the age of 33.

Painting of Julius Drewe
A family painting of Julius Drewe

Dramatically situated above the Teign Gorge, the castle is a granite fortress and has been called 'the last castle to be built in England' by historians.

It is believed that Drewe chose the site after discovering that the land was owned by a Norman baron named Drogo de Teign, from whom he claimed to be descended.

The foundation stone was laid on Drewe's 55th birthday in 1911 and construction took 20 years.

Sadly, Drewe died only one year after the castle was completed in 1930.

Later in history, the remaining Drewes mistakenly feared the introduction of a wealth tax by a newly elected Labour government, as Charlie Johnstone, Drewe's great-great grandson recalls.

Charlie Johnstone
Charlie Johnstone's family gave the house to the National Trust

"If you go back to the 1970s there was a very difficult political environment, changes of government had put some fear into people who owned assets.

"My grandparents were living here on their own and it's a big house, there is a lot of maintenance, as the National Trust is finding, so the decision was made that it would be better to look for another home.

"They decided to hand it over with the land and buildings."

Wet-weather problems

Castle Drogo may be a splendid building, but its location means that it has always been susceptible to the weather.

The inevitable rain seems to always find its way through the flat roof, the huge leaded windows, and dodgy mortar joints in its granite walls.

Castle Drogo in the rain
Castle Drogo is susceptible to the typical English weather

When the Trust first took it on they spent a million pounds trying to keep it dry inside, but the problem refused to go away.

A long term solution is needed and Peter has conducted sophisticated computer-aided investigations.

"A lot of architects have worked here over the last 20 years carrying out attempts at solving the damp problem and it was blatantly obvious that no-one had actually investigated what was the real cause."

"The true scale of it only hits you when you are working here and it starts to rain and it's coming in with the wind."
Mark Agnew

It will mean repairing a damp-proof membrane that previous Trust architects cut by mistake, sealing all the windows and using a mortar more suited to local conditions.

"Suddenly you really recognise where the problems are," Mark says despairingly.

And with a building this size that kind of work doesn't come cheap.

Money money money

Mark's only hope now is that money can be raised via the Trust's HQ in London.

"We're looking at probably four to five million as a total figure.

Mark Agnew
Mark points out the castle's damp problems

"You have to remember that in Devon and Cornwall not only have we got a large number of fantastic properties but we also manage a huge amount of coastline and countryside.

"It's one of the most difficult things for the Trust to decide - what is the priority, where are we going to spend the money."

It could take years before all the funding is in place and by then the costs could have risen well above the £4m mark.

Given the scale of the problems here, were the Trust right to take the building on?

As a fan of the architect Lutyen's work, Peter Inskip thinks so.

But he is the first to suggest that with hindsight, perhaps it wasn't the best decision,

"The Trust's direction has changed tremendously in the last few years, away from country houses to landscape and scenery.

"I think we have all got to be more careful in the future and analyse things before jumping in."

Mark and Peter
Mark and Peter examine the exterior

But Mark has no regrets about taking the job.

"We can have a couple of thousand people here and it can be full of life, then at six o'clock it's complete silence.

"You can hear all the birds, the deer come down and start grazing outside, and you're on your own, you're standing here and you've got it to yourself."

With some luck Mark will eventually raise the £4m he needs to put a stop to the leaks.

For his and the National Trust's sake, let's hope they get it right this time - and don't end up pouring more money down the drain.

Visitor Information

Castle Drogo is open from 11am - 5pm Monday to Friday between March 20 and October 31, and then from 11am - 4pm from November 1 - 7. Admission prices are £6.20 for adults, £3 for children, and a family ticket is available for £15. Admission to garden and grounds costs £3.15 for adults and £1.60 for children.

For further information visitors are asked to contact Castle Drogo, Drewsteignton, Nr Exeter, Devon, EX6 6PB. Tel: 01647 433306. E-mail

See also ...


On the rest of the web
National Trust - Places to Visit - Castle Drogo

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