Wanderer at Large: Devon & Cornwall – Castle Drogo

A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.

Sponsored by Your London Tours.

This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.

Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.

In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.

This week, the area of England that includes the counties of Devon & Cornwall.


Castle Drogo by dumbledad. CC license BY 2.0

Castle Drogo
Devon

Castle Drogo was the last castle built in England. But it is not medieval. In fact, it was built in the early 20th century. Indeed, it is the is the only grade 1 listed 20th century building in Devon.

Sitting on the edge of the Dartmoor National Park, it was commissioned by Julius Drew, a successful Victorian China tea merchant. In 1878, Drew established one of the world’s earliest supermarkets when he set up the Home & Colonial. He later sold his shares for a cool £1 million and retired at the age of 33.

He was convinced his ancestors were the Drewe family from Drewesteignton in Devon, so he added ‘E’ to his name and spent his new-found wealth on building a mock baronial castle nearby.

In 1910, Drewe hired the foremost architect of his day, Edwin Lutyens, for £50,000 to build his dream castle. 100 stonemasons were employed to fashion grey granite stones for the walls by hand. The famous gardener Gertrude Jeckyll was commissioned for a further £10,000 to do the grounds.

The entire 100-room interior design was by Lutyens. Much of the furniture was acquired from Drewe’s previously residence at Wadhurst Manor in Kent, and this dictated the design of the house.  Lutyens employed some clever devices to give the impression that the castle was truly medieval. For example, in the library, the bookcases were built to look as if they were forced into a medieval arch, when in fact, they were made at same time.

Drewe and his wife Frances finally moved into Castle Drogo in 1925. It had taken 14 years to build a place which was now a third of the original planned size, and finished at three times the original cost. Drewe died in 1931 as the final touches were still being added, so he never really got to enjoy it in its complete form.

Bizarrely, less than 10 years later, it was earmarked by the Nazis as a potential base for Hermann Goering had the Germans successfully invaded. As things turned out, it became a refuge for homeless children during World War Two. In 1974, Drewe’s youngest son Basil died and it was passed to the National Trust.

To be honest, the building of Castle Drogo was a bit of a disaster. Constructed as the world was changing fast, it was designed in medieval style, with Edwardian period fashion shoehorned in just as it was going out of date. There was also an underestimation of the amount of heating and electricity that would be required. A poor cement was used and the window seals leaked. And then there was the damp. Lots of damp. Drewe insisted on authentic castle flat roof, even though Lutyens warned against it, which led to a number of problems in the wet Dartmoor climate.

However, in 2012, the castle underwent a £12 million restoration project to cure its ills, and so now the time is ripe for your visit! Take one of the guided tours for the best experience. In the first room is an antique Spanish writing desk (ask the guide if they can bring the lid down to see it in its glory). Also look out a 19th century German table football game. The drawing room was for female guests. There is no panelling behind the tapestries in here. They were made to fit the alcove. Meanwhile, the library walls were made to measure for the 17th century Flemish tapestries that hang on them. The dining room is below the drawing doom. It is long and low as they changed plans for the size of castle halfway through. Below stairs is much more interesting. The kitchens are in pristine condition as they were hardly used. Upstairs is mainly done out in the Arts & Crafts style with early telephones by Eriksson.

For refreshment, why not take advantage of the unusual Drewe Arms pub in the nearby village of Drewesteignton.


Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. Another recommendation will appear tomorrow.

For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com


*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:

  1. London
  2. Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
  3. Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
  4. Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
  5. Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
  6. South coast (Hants/Dorset)
  7. Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
  8. South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
  9. Wales (north & south)
  10. Welsh Borders (Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
  11. Western Midlands (Brum/Worcs/Warks/Staffs)
  12. Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
  13. Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
  14. East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
  15. Yorks (all ridings)
  16. North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
  17. North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
  18. Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
  19. Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
  20. Ireland (Northern/Southern)

Published by Soul City Wanderer

Soul City Wanderer is the alias of London journalist and author Frank Molloy, a writer on the city’s history and culture. Born south of the river, he has an MA in London history (Birkbeck) and lectures at various institutions including the Museum of London and the National Portrait Gallery. He is also a fully-qualified Blue Badge Guide (MITG), Westminster Guide and City of London Guide.

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