Some corners of Castle Drogo

26 November 2016 by Roy Preece

           Anyone old enough to remember the cult movements of rebellious Westerners seeking wisdom in Eastern religions may recall a book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.  Its author was a fanatic about doing things well, especially caring for his powerful American motorbike.  His story has a strange ending, but it wouldn't be right to give that away here. However, the author of Zen expected other people to do things well too.  Many Americans build their own houses of wood.  An American airman described to me how they knock up a frame, cover it with weatherproof plywood and finish off with a cladding of clapboard, shingles or tiles to taste. 

            Doorways and windows, inside and out, are finished with wooden surrounds, like picture frames, diagonally joined or “mitred at the corners.  Whenever he visited someone’s house, Zen's author reckoned he could always tell the character of the owner by how carefully he had cut the detail of his mitres.  I wonder.

            I thought about this comment when looking around Castle Drogo in Devon.  Castle Drogo?  The name sounds forbidding somehow.  But in fact, it's a delightful country house built in the 1920s overlooking the hanging woods of the Teign Valley.  Dartmoor is visible a few miles away. 

            You can walk along the river edge courtesy of the National Trust and those zealous people who keep our footpaths open, to the little town of Chagford on the edge of the moor.  This has three teashops all quite different and one open on Sunday.  Or a shorter walk in the opposite direction will take you to isolated Fingle Bridge and yet more cream teas.

            All this forms a setting for some fine British craftsmanship in wood and stone.  Castle Drogo was designed by the architect Edward Lutyens, perhaps the last architect to work in the English tradition.  He also designed the Cenotaph, the national war memorial in London, among other things, and a few moments looking at how subtly he modelled a basic rectangular block into a form of dignity and beauty suggests that he had an eye for detail.  See for example the splendid stone pillar supporting the roof of the service passage at Drogo.  He even designed the kitchen table, dressers and kitchen sinks.

            I can never quite go along with people who think that a Chinese stool or French chair (sorry - fauteuil) is somehow more interesting than home-grown craftsmanship.  Nor that it is better to spend millions of pounds to save part of our 'national' heritage in the form of a foreign painting rather than a stretch of British countryside or coastline.

            Seeing me examine the panelled door to the drawing room rather closely, one of the lady attendants whose unobtrusive role is to prevent twenty thousand fingers cumulatively poking holes in valuable tapestries kindly volunteered the information that all the woodwork had been crafted by a local firm.  This firm of architectural joiners continues in business today in a small local town and I for one would be interested to know whether their records show what roles architect and craftsmen might each have played in the detailed designs.

            For there are plenty of mitres to be seen at Castle Drogo, and mostly these do not now fit exactly.  One characteristic of the usual picture frame or carpenter's mitre is that as the timber shrinks across its width the angle of the cut changes geometrically, and especially if the joint is wide and not well-glued it opens up.  But that doesn't mean it wasn't cut correctly in the first place.

            Most of the mitres here, however, are of a different design known as the “mason's mitre” where each corner bit is cut entirely in one piece of the frame instead of being shared so to speak between two pieces.  This is the way stone-masons have turned corners from time immemorial.  A stone mullion window is a good example. In the Middle Ages woodworkers copied the masons and this feature gives a deliberate Mediaeval feel to the work.  It can first be seen in the massive front door, a complex affair designed to resemble stone tracery.

            Across the hall, the library door is of the same design and this can be examined without giving a chill to the lady inside the front door who collects the tickets (there is a notice asking visitors to keep the door closed!).  Inside the library, stretch your neck and see the massive ceiling mouldings cut out of whole oak trees, again using the mason's mitre.

            A real gem can be found halfway along the corridor from the hall.  At this point the guide draws attention to a perfectly ugly long-case clock (Paris Exhibition 1900 - I'm sure it's well made).  But opposite the clock is a massive oak-framed door rather like a portcullis with panels instead of holes.  Its attraction lies in the way the massive frame is relieved by wide shallow channels and above all by a small beading scarcely an eighth of an inch across.  The combination of this tiny bead on such a massive door is a delight.

            Mason's mitre is again used for this small bead and shows up the problem with this design. With the carpenter's mitre the decorative mouldings are planed straight and easily with the moulding planes which were developed during the eighteenth century and made refined furniture possible:  corners are made with the simple saw cut mitre.  But the corner of each mason's mitre has to be laboriously hand-carved.  On this door you can see the craftsman's struggle with the fine detail and coarse grain where one slip of the chisel would have sliced off the whole corner.

            There is still one more way to form a mitre.  This can be seen on the mahogany door of the dining room.  Mahogany is an eighteenth century timber where Mediaeval detail would look wrong.  Mouldings are run off with planes - fine.  At the corners, though, instead of being cut to meet at an angle, one moulding overlaps the other (it’s called “scribed”).  This way the joint isn't so obvious if the timber shrinks - again fine.  The only snag is that it's difficult to cut well and is unforgiving - there's no second chance.  The end of each overlap tapers to the thickness of a shaving, and there are dozens of these joints on the many-panelled door.  Take a good look at it and wonder whether the craftsman lost any sleep over it.

            Normal mitres can be seen on Lutyens’ kitchen table.  It's made of four very wide planks mitred into a square frame and then cut into a round shape.  Inside are four more planks and then more again.  There are joints everywhere and they have all shrunk and had to be filled with slips of wood.  But probably when the table was in use and washed and scrubbed every day the joints would have been perfect.  (The wooden sinks are left filled with water so they don't shrink.)

            That pretty well concludes this alternative guide to Castle Drogo, except to say do visit the chapel to see the very fine oak carvings of the coats of arms there.  And if you don't fancy all that walking they do a very good cream tea in the castle restaurant anyway.