Hazy childhood memories fade in and out, but there are some that are always stored in the back of your mind. As a child in the early 1980’s, I remember being whisked around North Wales by my parents at weekends. Day trips to Butlins in Pwllheli stand out. Visits to the Ocean Beach Funfair and amusement arcades of Rhyl stick in my mind too, from back in the seaside resorts’ heyday. Heading home to Conwy along the coast road from Rhyl (in the days before the A55 expressway existed), we would travel through the town of Abergele and pass a number of small castle style buildings that formed part of the Gwrych Castle estate.
I was always fascinated by these buildings being so close to the main road, but at the time I was unaware that they formed the gateway to a sprawling and majestic country house – Gwrych Castle itself, which lay beyond. I do remember visiting on at least one occasion – back in the 80’s, the property was open as a medieval entertainment centre, with markets in the grounds, jousting events and such. It was during this period that the main buildings saw a decline until they were closed to the public, before becoming derelict in the 1990s.
Heading along the A55 expressway over the past few years / decades, I’d always capture a glimpse of the castle nestled into the hillside woodland. What a waste of an absolutely magnificent structure, I’d think, driving past. Thankfully, the castle is now in the hands of someone with a passion to restore it to its former glory, and those of you who watch ITV (in the UK) may be seeing a lot more if it.
The history of Gwrych Castle
Let’s step back in time for a brief bit of history of the castle. Gwrych Castle was built between 1812 and 1822, by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh, as a memorial to his mother’s ancestors, the Lloyd’s of Grwych. The property was extended in the 1840’s with a new bedroom wing, staircase and porch. When Lloyd died, Gwrych Castle passed onto Robert Bamford-Hesketh and his wife Ellen Jones-Bateman. It was during their ownership that the gardens we see today were designed. The castle then passed to the Earls of Dundonald through marriage to the Bamford-Hesketh heiress, Winifred.
During World War II the castle was requisitioned as part of Operation Kindertransport. It was then sold in 1946, and purchased in 1948 by Leslie Salt who opened up the castle as a Showplace of Wales for 20 years. From 1968 to 1987 Gwrych Castle was operated as the Medieval Entertainment Centre I remember as a child, before being shut to the public. The property was purchased in 1990 by an American property developer who had plans to renovate the castle into a hotel. The plans never came to fruition and the building was left to enter into disrepair. During the following years, Gwrych Castle was purchased by another hotel group with plans to develop – plans which yet again led to nothing. The buildings became more derelict, with assets such as the beautiful lead windows being stripped, with little hope of a bright future.
Gwrych Castle today
There’s always hope though, isn’t there. This time, in the name of a young chap called Dr. Mark Baker – a child of the nineties who passed by the castle daily. Horrified by the destruction of the castle, he formed the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust at the age of 12. Yes, 12 years of age! The purpose of the charity was to preserve the historical and architectural heritage in and around Gwrych Castle. In 2018, the castle was purchased by the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, and that’s where the future plans begin. The hope and ambition is to restore the buildings and grounds back to their former glory, through support, fundraising and charitable donations. Some buildings on the estate, such as the Beach Cottage, have already been restored.
A tour of the castle
Gwrych Castle has more recently been opened to the public for tours – something I’ve been wanting to do for a long time. We seized the opportunity, late summer, to make the trip across to visit the ruins. Actually, the trip had been planned for the following weekend to our actual visit, but a last minute announcement about the castle’s impending closure for the season meant that we scrambled to change our plans. Heading from the main road, a tree lined driveway leads up towards the castle, and as you get closer, the sprawling ruins appear on your left, nestled into the woodland. I say nestled – the structures of Gwrych Castle and the woodland have become one, with the trees growing through and into the castle’s towers and turrets.
The self guided tour of Gwrych Castle provides the opportunity to take a stroll through the grounds of the castle, where you can get up close to the amazing structures. Unfortunately, due to the deterioration of the building, there is no access inside the main buildings. Regardless of this, there’s still plenty to see. From the car park, crossing the field, you enter via the old Gardener’s Tower and into the Formal Gardens. This terrace, lying east to west was designed in the 1830’s with central raised beds and a central pool. The area provides great views of the east side of the main house beyond the East Lawn.
From the Formal Garden, Lady’s Walk meanders above towards the Gazebo area and the location of many monkey puzzle trees planted in the 1840’s, as part of the original garden scheme. A set of steps leads upwards from Lady’s Walk to Nant-y-Bella Tower, which forms a gateway and the family entrance to the rear of the main house, with the Maiden’s Tower standing at the rear into the woodland. This area provides great views of the detail of the main house and the views that would have been present from it.
From the rear of the main house, the pathway heads downhill past the Dairy, Coach House Court and Stables. The setting is magical, surrounded by stone archway and turrets, built into the rockface of the hillside, now reclaimed by nature.
The loop around the castle ruins provided a fascinating insight into how life may have been in this old building and as you head out onto the West Terrace, again you are treated to a view of the sprawling structures of Gwrych Castle and another viewpoint of the Main House. Exiting through the Main Gate and wandering through the woodland back to the meadows below, there’s an opportunity to take a close up view of the front of the Main House, again to admire this amazing building.
I’m so glad I had the opportunity, as an adult, to finally get amongst these ruins. To capture all the little details and let my imagination run wild as to how this building would have looked in it’s glory days.
The future of Gwrych Castle
So, what’s in store for the future? Well, as previously mentioned, it is the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust’s intention to restore this building and landscape back to it’s former glory. One day, I would love to walk within it’s walls with fully recreated interiors. That would be a dream, and hopefully something that becomes a potential for the trust.
As we were visiting, some additional restoration work had begun on the castle buildings, and rumours were afloat of something significant happening on site. These rumours were confounded by the announcement that Gwrych Castle would be closing to the public for the remainder of the 2020 season from the end of August. The reason why? Well, it would seem like the site has been selected as the location for the new series of ITV’s popular TV show ‘I’m a Celebrity … Get Me Out of Here’ in the autumn. The show, normally filmed in the rainforests of Australia, has had to relocate due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and luckily for us, Gwrych Castle has been chosen as the basecamp. A huge boost to an area reliant on tourism that has been hit hard by the pandemic. Yet another great reason to put North Wales on the international map. There’s also a rumour that the German version of the show, Ich bin ein Star will also be filmed at the castle in the new year.
Most importantly though, is that hopefully it will provide significant funding for the trust to be able to carry out future restoration that will be a benefit to all of us.
Gwrych Castle will be reopening to the public in 2021. At the time of writing, it is expected that the castle will be open between 10.00am am and 5.00pm daily, with last admission at 4.00pm.
In 2020, admission prices were £5.00 per adult, £2.50 per child and £15.00 for a family ticket (2 adults, 3 children). Guided tours were also available, and presumably will be in 2021. Annual passed are available and range from £15.00 – £60.00
It’s also possible to donate to the trust, to help secure the future of the castle. For more information, please visit the Gwrych Castle website.
Note: Due to Covid-19 pandemic, please check for any local area restrictions on travel.
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