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