Mad but mostly mag­nifico

Kevin McCloud is re­duced to green-eyed awe by the heroic restora­tion of a Tus­can cas­tle. Anna Tyzack re­ports

The Daily Telegraph - Property - - HOME&AWAY -

For all his slick leather jack­ets and hard-nosed com­men­tary, Grand De­signs TV pre­sen­ter Kevin McCloud is a ro­man­tic at heart. The ru­ined Castello di Bran­cialino, in Tus­cany, brings out his softer side. “I re­ally do envy you for hav­ing this,” he tells own­ers Janne Hoff and Howard Smyth at the end of a Grand De­signs Abroad episode, which charts their painstak­ing restora­tion of the 1,000-yearold cas­tle.

Orig­i­nally a watchtower for the road be­tween Ar­rezzo and Ri­mini, Bran­cialino was es­sen­tially a pile of stones when Janne and Howard bought it in 1998. It had been bombed dur­ing the Sec­ond World War and dam­aged in an earth­quake. “I was hor­ri­fied when I first saw it,” says Janne. “But Howard liked the idea of a cas­tle and we de­cided to go for it — a mad mo­ment.”

McCloud agreed that it had been a crazy pur­chase. “I would not touch this place. I think they’re mad,” he says at the beginning of the pro­gramme. But by the end, he has changed his tune, and is bowled over by the Romeo and Juliet-style log­gia link­ing the cas­tle to a sep­a­rate tower, de­signed by Howard and built out of sal­vaged stone: “I wish I’d had his vi­sion — his unswerv­ing op­ti­mism,” he says.

Sadly, Howard died in April and Janne is sell­ing up to re­turn to Bri­tain. But their ef­forts at Bran­cialino were not in vain: “It will last for hun­dreds of years — it’s some­thing for the com­mu­nity,” says Janne. “The lo­cals point out that no Ital­ian would have taken on a project like this.”

In or­der to keep to their bud­get of £350,000, Janne and Howard did a lot of the work them­selves. The pro­gramme shows Howard shift­ing rub­ble in a wheel­bar­row (he moved 1,500 tons in all), and Janne saw­ing the cor­ners off 30ft beams. “I wouldn’t do some­thing like this again — once is enough. But it was very re­ward­ing,” she says. And it paid off: the cas­tle is on the mar­ket for £1.9mil­lion.

There was “no logic” to their move to Italy. “We were think­ing of get­ting out of Lon­don – it was meant to be a cas­tle in Ire­land — but we liked the idea of Tus­cany,” Janne says. Hav­ing sold their house in Rich­mond, Sur­rey, they lived in rented ac­com­mo­da­tion in a vil­lage near Bran­cialino while work started on the cas­tle.

It had not been touched for 60 years; the piles of rub­ble reached more than 8ft in places, and the two tow­ers were ru­ins. “It sits on top of a steep cas­tle mound and there are lots of court­yards,” says Janne. “I be­lieve it has one of the most spec­tac­u­lar views in Italy, over a lake and moun­tains.”

It was this that kept them be­liev­ing in the project when progress ground to a halt for two years while they grap­pled with Ital­ian plan­ning law. “We had to go through the most strin­gent plan­ning pro­ce­dure. We were hugely con­strained as we had to re­build along the orig­i­nal wall lines.”

The pause was frus­trat­ing but Howard con­tin­ued to clear the site, un­cov­er­ing ce­ram­ics, iron­work and, most im­por­tantly, clues to the orig­i­nal de­sign of the cas­tle. “Thank­fully, we found traces of old arches so the plan­ners al­lowed us to put five large win­dows into the liv­ing room,” says Janne. One day a neigh­bour ar­rived car­ry­ing, rather sheep­ishly, a col­umn he had plun­dered from Bran­cialino. It proved to be the miss­ing jig­saw piece in the log­gia that once con­nected the cas­tle to its tower.

The Grand De­signs team ar­rived just as work was recom­menc­ing in Fe­bru­ary 2002. “This is how Han­ni­bal must have felt watch­ing his ele­phants come over the Alps,” Howard says, as the first crane ar­rives at the cas­tle.

Their next ob­sta­cle was the lo­cal Ital­ian ar­chi­tects, who seemed de­ter­mined to cre­ate an over-re­stored Tus­can-style build­ing, with beams stained to give an aged ap­pear­ance. “It could end up be­ing a ter­ri­ble ex­er­cise in pas­tiche,” warns McCloud.

Thank­fully, Howard and Janne stood firm. The re­sult is a his­toric re­con­struc­tion, with beams brushed with lin­seed, open fire­places and burnt um­ber-coloured walls. The large sit­ting room with arched win­dows is on the first floor, along with two bed­rooms, and there are a din­ing room, kitchen and fur­ther bed­rooms down­stairs.

In the tower are a li­brary and guest bed­room and there is a guest apart­ment in a fur­ther tower. There are five ter­races and an in­fin­ity pool on one of the bas­tions, with views over the lake.

At the end of the pro­gramme, McCloud can’t con­tain his ex­cite­ment: “It’s stag­ger­ing,” he says. “Howard and Janne have won ev­ery bat­tle they fought. And it is their in­tegrity which gives this build­ing its in­tegrity.”

Janne is more mat­ter-of-fact: “There were times we thought we’d taken on too much. But by that stage we were so deep in, and we’d spent so much money on it that we couldn’t af­ford to stop.” McCloud de­scribes Bran­cialino as Howard’s “glo­ri­ous life-crown­ing achieve­ment”.

“If I could af­ford it, I’d live there,” he says.

Castello di Bran­cialino is on the mar­ket for £1.9 mil­lion with Knight Frank: 020 762 98171. www.castel­lodi­bran­cialino.com

‘Stag­ger­ing’: McCloud, be­low, was stunned by the restora­tion of Castello di Bran­cialino by Howard Smyth and Janne Hoff, far right

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