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Asia travel

The couple who rebuilt a Scotsman’s castle on a Chinese mountain and made it centrepiece of eco-tourism resort

First they built a road, then came the cranes, concrete and 40,000 tonnes of granite to recreate hilltop retreat in Moganshan, near Hangzhou. Grant Horsfield and Delphine Yip explain how they did it – and why

PUBLISHED : Monday, 04 September, 2017, 12:47pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 05 September, 2017, 9:29pm

Sometimes inspiration comes from the most unexpected of places. For Grant Horsfield, a South Africa-born entrepreneur who moved to China in 2005, it was the serendipitous discovery of a remote, abandoned mountain village in the bamboo forests of Moganshan, about an hour’s drive west of Hangzhou. The discovery was the spark for his development of innovative, eco-friendly tourist resorts in the area, including a hilltop castle.

A keen sportsman, Horsfield says he was looking for somewhere to hike and mountain bike, and was drawn by the area’s unspoilt landscape and cooler mountain air. The area had long been a popular retreat, initially for European missionaries during the late 1800s escaping the summer heat in the cities, and then China’s wealthy, including a few notorious Chinese gangsters during the 1920s.

With villa renting for US$29,000 a weekend, no wonder Moganshan is talked of as the Hamptons of China

Some of the early Western visitors built European-style villas with swimming pools and lawns that have now been turned into guest houses as the area became a popular weekend escape. The Moganshan region has about 15,500 residents, who are employed in agriculture, industry and tourism.

Convinced that a nature-inspired getaway would prove attractive, Horsfield founded a company, naked Group, in 2007 (with a focus on eco-friendly, luxury projects) and, together with his architect wife, Delphine Yip, set about creating a boutique hotel in Moganshan that the couple called “naked Home”.

Naked Stables, consisting of 121 villas and rammed earth huts in a secluded valley with horse stables, tea plantations and a bamboo forest, followed in 2011, and was the first resort in China to earn a LEED Platinum rating for green construction.

“Ten years ago, no one was travelling for weekend getaways, mountain biking, rock climbing, or fishing, but today people are starting to want to escape outdoors and so we’ve already seen an astronomical growth in experiential travel, especially eco-tourism,” Horsfield says.

The area is very steep and there were no roads there so we had to build all the infrastructure from scratch
Grant Horsfield

Over the years, his hiking around Moganshan led to a further unexpected discovery: the ruins of the area’s most prestigious home: No. 1 Moganshan, a castle that had been built in 1910 by a Scottish doctor, Duncan Main, as a summer retreat, and which also provided medical assistance to people in the area.

In 1932, the castle was taken over by Zhang Jingjiang, a financier and adviser to Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek. By 1960, after decades of neglect, it had collapsed. When Horsfield uncovered the foundations, they were overgrown by vegetation and had largely been forgotten by the local community.

“It was a dream of ours to recreate the castle,” Horsfield says, “so we started visiting castles across Scotland and Europe to learn about the key elements of traditional castles.”

Building and restoring such a structure in a remote location in China comes with its own set of challenges. “Just to get permission for a project like this was extremely difficult,” Horsfield says, “particularly because the site falls within two different districts, one of which, Moganshan, is unique as it protects land for retired government officials.”

With the necessary permissions secured, the couple, who met, and now live, in Shanghai with their two young children, started by building a private 2.2km driveway to what would become the resort’s entrance lower down the mountain.

“The area is very steep and there were no roads there so we had to build all the infrastructure from scratch,” Horsfield says.

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Even after the narrow road had been built, transporting building materials and large cranes up the hill to the castle atop a steep ridge line was a serious challenge. For instance, 40,000 tonnes of local granite was required to build the castle’s façade and retaining walls.

Five years on, the 3,530 square metre, four-storey building bears all the hallmarks of a medieval castle, including a drawbridge, turrets, and dungeon suite.

As head of design of naked Group, Yip, who earned a master’s degree in architecture from Harvard University, was responsible for the project’s master planning, architecture and interiors. She first moved to Shanghai from the United States in 2000 to work on the Xintiandi redevelopment project in the city and was a partner at the Ben Wood Studio Shanghai from 2006 to 2013.

“The master plan for naked Castle is very much like a traditional village, with royalty living in the castle and nobility in the surrounding buildings,” Yip says.

“For us, it was about capturing the spirit and the soul of the place and people in Moganshan, rather than simply building a replica of the original castle,” Horsfield says.

The castle sits in its original hilltop location, while below, integrated into the landscape of the near-52 hectare resort is a series of terraces that accommodate activities, a restaurant, and an infinity swimming pool.

The castle’s interior is elegant but understated, with grand balconies, generously sized, high-ceilinged rooms and a central staircase clad in a light beige marble.

“We wanted to emphasise the beauty of natural light, materials like metals, wood and marble, and the volume of the space,” Yip says.

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Yip also custom designed most of the furnishings and fittings, including the castle’s cast-iron lights and the tall wooden chairs in the Grand Hall carved with the brand’s distinctive coat of arms.

“It tells the story about naked ... including symbols for our three dogs, which we found abandoned during our first project in Moganshan; the Glenturret bottle; the South African and China flag; and our key years including 1910, 2007 and 2016,” Yip says.

There are five themes for the 10 suites in the castle; a King and Queen suite has the lavish interiors one would expect in a castle, while the Dungeon has a dressing room inspired by an iron cage and a bed with a stone base decorated with iron chains.

The remaining themes are inspired by the history and legends of Moganshan.

The Gangster suite, with fur throws, ostrich leather furniture and a bath in the timber panelled master bedroom, pays tribute to gangsters such as Du Yuesheng, who used to visit Moganshan at the turn of the 20th century; the Diva suite pays homage to actresses of the 1920s and ’30s, the golden age of Chinese cinema. The Den’s four-poster bed is decorated with plush curtains and flanked by traditional opium beds.

We wanted to emphasise the beauty of natural light, materials like metals, wood and marble, and the volume of the space
Delphine Yip

On the slopes below the castle, the accommodation comprises bungalows and village suites decorated with a rustic, earthy palette.

One of the biggest design challenges, says Yip, was to balance environmental sustainability and the couple’s desire to recreate the style of a castle.

Energy and water were key considerations, so the couple introduced an advanced, energy-efficient system of geothermal bore holes and solar energy panels to power air conditioning and provide hot water throughout the resort. This involved drilling 360 bore holes to a depth of 100 metres. The result is a low-maintenance, high-carbon-credit solution.

Other eco-friendly measures include a containerised waste water treatment system, DC cooling fans to conserve power, energy-efficient, pre-insulated pipes, and electric carts equipped with quick- charging, high-performance ultra-capacitors instead of traditional lead-acid batteries, to transport guests, materials and staff around the site. Potable water is obtained from a nearby lake, while taps and showers are designed for low water usage. The walls of the castle and villa are built of lightweight concrete blocks.

Horsfield says now the project is complete, his favourite part of the castle is the wood-panelled whiskey bar. He explains why.

“Just after we started excavating the castle itself, to put in foundations, we uncovered the ‘mother earth rock’ that had the words Glenturret carved on it,” Horsfield says.

Glenturret is a small, relatively little known Scotch whisky distillery. “No one has ever heard of it, but I happened to know about it because I fell in love with it 20 years ago when visiting Scotland, where I toured the distillery,” Horsfield says with a laugh.

At first he thought the carving was a joke one of his friends had left for him to discover.

“In truth it was the greatest surprise of all and I like to think that perhaps it is the reason why this project was meant to be,” he says.

Getting there

High-speed trains run frequently from Hangzhou East Station to Deqing, the nearest station to Moganshan. There are two daily high-speed trains direct from Shanghai Hongqiao to Deqing.