At what point does the present, as it slips away to the past, become worthy of the title History? A month, a year, a decade? Is the Financial crisis history yet, or is it just a recent event? The George W. Bush presidency? Chicago has recently put up a plaque commemorating the first kiss between Barack Obama and his wife Michelle – does that qualify as history worth remembering? (Please, don’t say ‘Yes’!)
The reason I ask this is that we recently made a visit to Castle Drogo, otherwise known as the Last Castle in England. It was built in the early 20th century for retail millionaire Julius Drew, who desperately tried to find a link to Drogo (Drewe) de Teigne, a Norman Knight linked to nearby Drewsteignton, which is mentioned in the Domesday Book. As an imposing granite edifice, in a superb rural location in Dartmoor, it’s certainly worth a look. The views from the top are exquisite, the quality of the finishings are top drawer and the style of the architecture manages to look modern and medieval. Edwin Lutyens (the architect) managed to do an excellent job of bringing the traditional elements of a castle into a modern manor house. But is it worth preserving? The flat roof of the castle is leaking badly, and they’ve just embarked on a five-year project costing about £11m to get it fixed up.
In a country where there are hundreds of castles, manor houses, and mansions being looked after (between them, the National Trust and English Heritage cover over 800 properties), at a huge cost, does it make sense to spend a fortune on a relatively recently built folly? Wouldn’t it be better to spend that sort of money on something truly worth keeping, such as Tyntesfield or Knightshayes (both of which we visited this past week)? I wasn’t sure when I arrived. But by the end, I’d almost been converted. I’m still not sure about the building as a whole, but there are certainly aspects of it which are worth keeping for posterity. The bathroom fixtures, the wood panelling in the nursery, and the round table below the dome in the kitchen. Even just the sheer quality of the workmanship on the dressing of the granite stones.
But I think that the clincher is the uniqueness of the place – it is the only medieval-style castle-type building built in the last 200 years or so. True, that is because it’s a stupid thing to do with a million pounds (in today’s money, around £32m), and most rich Englishmen of that period had a little more sense. But there are plenty of other occasions through the ages where someone being stupid has resulted in something memorable, so I don’t think that that alone should disqualify this one.