Once a folly, now a Jurassic jewel
Hester Viney reveals the effort behind Durlston Castle’s stunning makeover
Published in April ’11
Durlston Castle is covered in scaffolding, but not for long. It has been stripped back, strapped up, dug out and underpinned. The place is crawling with workmen in hard hats and high-vis’ vests. There are diggers, rollers, forklifts, cement mixers, piles of Purbeck stone and rows of terracotta tiles and bricks, all waiting for their moment in the reconstruction of one Victorian entrepreneur’s elaborate folly. For Durlston Castle is reborn; it is not just a re-awakening, but a full-scale renaissance. When the new building is unveiled this summer, it will be bigger and better than ever before.
Swanage is lucky; it sits on one of Britain’s finest coastlines, so fine in fact that UNESCO awarded the Jurassic Coast status as a World Heritage site. Not only that, it is home to some of the best quality stone in the country, providing the town with an industry whose influence stretches far and wide. These things were not lost on the famous George Burt, a Swanage local, born in 1816, who went to London and made good selling Purbeck stone and installing it in iconic buildings like Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. He made his fortune and retired to the town, making it his business to improve and to modernise the place.
It is thanks to Burt that Swanage has the railway. It was Burt, quarryman-turned-entrepreneur and nephew of John Mowlem, whose vision for his hometown included the castle. In fact the castle was a key part of his plan for a grand residential estate at Durlston. Wishing to attract high society to the town, Burt offered 88 plots of freehold building land for sale in 1891. Between 1887 and 1891 the castle and a 40-ton limestone globe were built as the centrepieces of the estate.
Burt died in 1894, with the building land still unsold. Fortunately for the country park, and its wealth of wildlife and natural beauty, it remained uninhabited. In 1973 Dorset County Council established the country park and in 2008 the 280-acre site was designated a National Nature Reserve. Burt’s original plans for the castle are unclear; mostly, it appears to have been for show. He apparently intended the top storey to be a signal station, but Lloyds of London didn’t want it. The castle changed hands countless times – it was a restaurant, a pub, a café – people used it because of its unique position in the country park, but much of the time the experience was underwhelming.
Finally it fell into the hands of Dorset County Council, who successfully secured £3.1 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund for an extensive renovation project. The total soared to £5.5 million with contributions from the Friends of Durlston, Dorset Wildlife Trust, Lush, BP, Viridor Tax Credits, the Fine Foundation, the Arts Council, Garfield Weston Foundation and the Jurassic Coast Trust.
The project, headed by the Council’s Countryside Ranger Service, aims to ensure that the site retains its integral beauty, tranquillity and wildlife, while completely restoring the Victorian castle. Designed by award-winning architects Long and Kentish, the castle will become a visitor centre with a café, bistro, shop, exhibition centre, artists’ workshops, learning centre and public toilets. Its spectacular perch, overlooking Swanage Bay past Old Harry Rocks to Bournemouth, will at last be available for all to enjoy.
It was Greendale Construction who won the project contract and, as Rob Hooker, company director and site manager explains ‘The building itself was in a very poor state and had degraded badly; water was getting in, so there was consequential wet and dry rot.’ A tour around the building site shows the extent of the damage. Almost all of the timber work has been replaced, along with a large quantity of the stone on the weather-facing south side of the building. Rot has permeated right into the brickwork, the lintels above the windows, even the supporting steelwork. ‘I would say, another five or ten years and it could have gone over the tipping point and not been saved, so it’s a timely project,’ Rob adds. The site is a labyrinth, much larger than the facade lets on. Built on a slope that rolls down to the sea, the castle appears to be two storeys from the front, but is actually four storeys in height. From the entrance level, the visitor will enter a reception area, leading to the cafe. In there, work is underway to restore the original wall panels, with a modern twist. The panels will be backlit and home to an extensive display of all the flora and fauna found in the park, designed by David McCabe Associates. Up a level, at the top of the building, is the belvedere. It is here and on the surrounding deck that you can really appreciate the staggering view. Public access is only possible now that the building has been stabilised. There was a considerable amount of tying-in work that had to be done to support the heavy cornices, which were falling away from the building,” Rob points out. ‘The geotechnical surveys show that Durlston Castle was built on a fault line, so there had been a lot of movement in the castle. We’ve had to strap it back to stabilise it.’
The top level of the castle also boasts an impressive terracotta balustrade. The original had all but crumbled away, just one panel could be salvaged so that moulds could be made to manufacture new panels replace it. It will set off the Purbeck stone beautifully, just as Burt intended. He would have been pleased too, that local stonemasons, Haysom and Shaffer Ltd, are doing the work to recreate it. Due to the fault line, one of the 1930s extensions was demolished early on in the new build. The foundations beneath the add-on were insecure, meaning the whole structure teetered dangerously close to the coastal path. Once they had flattened the old extension, the workmen constructed a new wall using gabions (boulders enclosed in metal cages), using Purbeck stone reclaimed from other parts of the castle. This strengthened the bank over the path, behind which the new shop will be built and allowed to cover in ivy, to tie in with the rest of the castle.
Beneath the cafe and shop is the service level and some smart new public loos. From this floor the public will have access to the East and West Keeps, leading outside and down to the bottom level, where there will be an exhibition centre and amphitheatre. The Keeps were probably included in original architect Crickmay’s design just for their visual impact, but they are now being put to use. ‘The East Keep was actually filled up with soil right to the top,” Rob remembers. ‘We dropped a mini-digger into the top of the keep and then excavated down to the exhibition level slab. That keep will now be home to a set of stairs and a lift in the middle.’
In Burt’s original concept, art, sculpture and poetry were integrated into his plans. Near the globe, and littered around the paths that wend along the coast, philosophical sayings and quotations from poetry are carved into handsome stone tablets. The new building will encompass art in a similar way, using local materials and artists to embellish the structural revamp. ‘The Arts have been at the heart of the project since the early stages, as they can be a great way of engaging with new audiences and getting important messages across in an accessible and thought-provoking way,’ says Countryside Ranger Ali Tuckey. The exhibition centre will encompass a fossil room, housing ‘The Rock’; a one-ton, fossil-packed slab of Purbeck stone illustrating the diversity of life in a Purbeck lake 120 million years ago. Photographers, painters, poets and sculptors will get a chance to use the space with projects that relate to its surroundings. Lulu Quinn is creating a glass and light installation for the cafe. Theatre company, Forkbeard Fantasy, are working on a variety of interactive activities for children and artist, Gary Breeze, is producing a ‘Timeline’ along a new zig-zag path to the castle following geological time dating back 4.5 billion years to the ‘birth’ of Earth. Visitors will pass a series of plaques, way-markers and carvings that progress through the ages until they emerge in the present day, at the threshold of the castle.
The team have made fantastic progress, but the project has not been without its challenges. Getting the funding in the first place took many years of hard work from the Dorset Countryside team. Once on the ground, Greendale have been exposed to some serious weather, including one day where the old visitor centre recorded 60mph winds. Mostly though, this has been a project that has steamed full speed ahead since work began at Easter 2010. It is driven by a hugely collaborative team, all of whom share a passion to see the end product completed this summer.
Durlston Castle was built because George Burt wanted the town to grow and flourish. Over 120 years later, scores of people on the Durlston project are working towards the same aim. They are breathing life back into old bricks; turning Victorian folly into modern Durlston’s centrepiece.