Game of Thrones and Disney have come calling in the past, scouting the fantasy potential of this turreted sleeping giant overlooking the North Wales coast. But it’s ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity – Get Me Out of Here’, in need of an Aussie jungle replacement closer to home, that has made Gwrych Castle a household name – if not necessarily one that many can pronounce (it’s ‘Goo-rreech’, by the way).
Viewers are lapping up the derelict castle’s made-for-TV viper pits and ghastly banquets. But this Grade I listed behemoth on the coast near Abergele – the biggest of Wales’s 600 or so castles, and one of the biggest in Europe – has a film-worthy story of its own, with its medieval links to Welsh royalty, its early 20th century role in the British royal family, and the part it played in housing 200 Jewish refugee children during the Second World War.
The castle is on our radars largely thanks to one man, local historian and author Dr Mark Baker, who became fascinated with the ruin as a child, as he passed it every day on his way to school. After the castle closed to the public in 1985 and saw its last joust two years later, Dr Baker started his life’s mission to restore it at the age of 11.
“It was such an amazing building, but overnight it went from being habitable and in use to being destroyed and squatted by travellers. Plans by its absentee Californian owner to turn it into a luxury hotel fell through and the caretaker left in 1995 because his wages weren’t being paid,” recalls Dr Baker, who set up the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, secured a meeting with Prince Charles and the then-Prime Minister Tony Blair, and – spurred on by Charles – wrote his first book about the castle’s history. All by the time he was 13.
Further developers came and went, thwarted by the credit crunch. Then in 2018, the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust – with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Richard Broyd Charitable Trust – bought the castle for just under £1m, on behalf of the nation.
The £300,000 (not millions, as have been reported) paid by ITV to film in the castle will kickstart a new bout of Gwrych’s renovation. “It’s not a vast amount, but it’s enough to replace some of the roofs – and it has made the profile of the castle far greater for its funders. It’s not just an obscure castle in North Wales any more,” says Dr Baker, who aims to restore the castle and open it to the public, so they can see its trajectory “from medieval to Georgian to Arts & Crafts, including its cascade of 52 marble steps by the architect Detmar Blow”.
He is also on a mission to track down lost treasures, from portraits to fireplaces, all pilfered when the castle was asset-stripped a decade or so ago. And – hopefully providing greater luxury than the current celebrity residents are experiencing – there will be self-catering apartments in the main house, “so people can have the great experience of staying in this castle,” says Baker, who is never far from its walls himself.
He lives on the seafront in the castle’s beach house Ty Crwn, which he discovered as a “burnt out wreck” and has faithfully renovated in 19th century style, making it available to rent through AirBnB when he’s elsewhere.
Record viewing figures of around 12m for this latest series of “I’m A Celebrity” will doubtless set some people thinking about acquiring a Welsh castle of their own – and there are plenty on offer (see castleist.com, a specialist portal for castles for sale around the world).
The Old Castle in the Vale of Glamorgan, priced £895,000 through Herbert R Thomas includes 500-year-old ruins belonging to the original castle. Or for a modern take on medieval castle living, Castell Gyrn in Ruthin, on sale for £1.75m, was built over 20 years from 1977 and includes a fire-breathing dragon that greets you as you enter the wrought iron gates to the sweeping driveway.
Sparing its future owner the pain of renovation is Glandyfi Castle, set in 31 acres overlooking the peaks of Snowdonia, priced £2.85m through Strutt & Parker. The 19th century Regency castle is now a 10-bed house whose octagonal towers lend themselves to some characterful eight-sided rooms, including the library with a Nash-style coved ceiling and pink marble fireplace, and the master suite’s bathroom complete with circular tub in the centre.
“Castles remain a romanticised idea in the minds of UK and international buyers as there's nothing that could be closer to living a real life fairytale than having your own turrets and towers,” says Belinda Hutchinson-Smith, director at Strutt & Parker Shrewsbury.
Unlike the TV celebrities, who will be suffering from draughty discomfort, restoration projects such as Glandyfi “mean that the regency gothic walls now provide comfort and warmth from the harsh elements of rural Wales,” she adds. “Castles don't have to be draughty, old fashioned, medieval buildings. They can provide real modern homes that are that extra bit special.”
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