Drogo, Britain's youngest castle, faces a battle for survival

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The Independent Online

Julius Drewe was just 33 when he decided to cash in and spend the rest of his life playing the country squire. The year was 1889 and Drewe's astonishing success from relatively humble origins marked him out as the prototype for generations of self-made retail tycoons to follow, from Jack Cohen to Philip Green.

But the young magnate's enduring legacy was not to be the chain of Home and Colonial Stores which he founded. Instead, it was the granite fortress completed 40 years later which he built for himself and his family from the vast wealth accrued servicing Britain's love affair with the cup of tea.

Drogo Castle, the last castle to be built in Britain and an epic fantasia blending Norman and Tudor styles, was conceived and executed on the edge of Dartmoor near Exeter by the most celebrated architect of the age, Sir Edwin Lutyens.

But today, the future of what is considered one of the most important and grandest private dwellings built in the 20th century is under threat. The owner, the National Trust, is trying to raise £1.5m through a national public appeal to reverse the ravages of the years. Drogo, named after a Norman nobleman Drewe believed to be his forebear, has suffered severe deterioration.

Water has penetrated the exterior fabric of the building and deep into its 12ft-thick walls and the leaks have wrought havoc to parts of the interior. Conservationists need the money urgently to replace Lutyens' huge flat-roof structure with new materials to make it permanently watertight. That means builders must remove 2,355 granite blocks weighing 680 tonnes, and 900 windows containing 13,000 panes will require refurbishment. To prevent further water damage, a total of 60km of crumbling exterior pointing must be replaced.

Adrian Colston, Dartmoor general manager for the National Trust, said the rescue effort would involve local people and provide opportunities for learning new skills such as masonry, joinery and furniture-making. Volunteers would also be recruited for the £11m project which will include new educational and exhibition spaces.

It is hoped the balance of the cost will be met by other funding bodies, including a £2.5m application to the Heritage Lottery Fund. Mr Colston said: "The castle is regarded as a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture. This is our last chance for Castle Drogo and we urge our supporters across the country to help us raise the money we need to ensure its survival."

Building had begun in 1911 but was not completed until 1930. Unfortunately, its creator died in 1931, only briefly enjoying its magisterial views and the ministrations of its 23 staff. Drogo was designed to look as if it had stood in the ancient landscape for centuries. Construction was interrupted by the First World War which robbed Drewe not just of two-thirds of his workforce but also his eldest son and intended successor Adrian. Second-born Basil lived at the 600-acre property until 1974 when he died and the family seat became the first 20th-century property to be turned over to the Trust.

The cost of building was £60,000, equivalent to about £30m today. Drewe had built his fortune by spotting a unique business opportunity. The son of a clergyman, he was apprenticed to his uncle in the tea trade and spent time in the Far East as a buyer. This experience persuaded him, aged 22, to import his supplies direct not from the traditional middlemen in China but from plantations in India.

He established his first shop in Liverpool in 1878 and then London's Edgware Road five years later. By 1903, when Drewe and his partner John Musker had sold most of their stake, the chain had 500 shops. The Home and Colonial brand was a fixture of the high street until 1961 when the loss of empire rendered the name out of date. Relaunched as Allied Suppliers it was bought by Sir James Goldsmith but was later acquired by Argyll Foods which in turn became Safeway.