Gwrych Castle, a 19th-century country house near Abergele in North Wales, might be about to become one of the most famous historical sites of 2020, thanks to its new role as the home of ITV’s I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here. But in the 1990s, the castle was fading fast, stripped of its wealth, crumbling and forgotten.
It was in this state that the site first caught the attention of Mark Baker, when he was 11 years old. His curiosity would lead him to establish the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust – a charity dedicated to protecting the castle’s heritage and history – all the more remarkable considering Baker was still just 12 years old.
“I used to pass it every day to and from school, and I would look up at the castle from my parents’ car,” explains Baker. “I witnessed it slowly disappearing into the hillside, into a mass of overgrowth. I began to notice there was light coming through parts of the building that hadn’t done so before; the roof had been stolen, windows smashed and anything of value taken away.” When Baker ventured up to the site, he found “a scene of devastation”. The place had been ransacked by asset strippers, who took everything from its artwork to its fireplaces.
“I could see remnants of what had been there in terms of its former glory,” Baker says. “There were still vestiges of the past, and it caught my imagination to try and rescue it.”
Undaunted and helped by what Baker calls “the naivete of youth”, he started to research the castle at the libraries at school and in the town of Abergele. “I came across so many discrepancies in the castle’s narrative that no one really knew who owned it, or how old it was.”
Curiosity in full gear, Baker wrote to Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prince Charles about the castle, ultimately meeting them to discuss what actions could be taken. “The Prince of Wales was most supportive and made an off-the-cuff comment that I should write a book about the castle and its history. So that’s what I ended up doing, and I set up a charitable trust at the same time. That is how it all started.”
Since his work setting up the trust, Baker completed his doctoral thesis on The Development of the Welsh Country House in 2015, and has worked with the National Trust and Welsh government agency Cadw on the preservation of historical sites.
The history of Gwrych Castle
The 19th-century castle embodies what has happened to many country houses in the 20th and early part of the 21st century, says Baker. “It was a private house that was requisitioned in the Second World War and then sold, as the family could not afford to repair it. Fortunately, the next owner was an entrepreneur who it opened as a tourist attraction. Sadly, like many of these vast properties, maintenance slipped and then it fell into disrepair.”
There have been forts on the site since the Iron Age, when the hills around the castle were mined for lead and silver, also used by the Romans. During the 11th and 12th centuries, at a time when Wales was still a collection of different kingdoms, according to legend, Gwrych played its part in the defence against invading Norman and English forces. Owain ap Gruffydd(c1100–70), the king of Gwynedd and the first ruler known to have experimented with the title ‘Prince of Wales’, fortified Gwrych against the forces of King Henry II of England in the mid-12th century.
Later, during the 14th-century power struggle between ruling monarch Richard II and Henry Bolingbroke (whose father was John of Gaunt, fourth son of Edward III), the site would play a part in the royal history of the British Isles. Richard had refused to grant Bolingbroke the lands left to him by his father, and when the king returned to England following a campaign in Ireland in 1399, he was captured by Bolingbroke in the area near Gwrych Castle. Richard was forced to abdicate, and Bolingbroke assumed the throne, styling himself Henry IV.
The castle itself, completed in the 1820s by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh, has since been through many iterations. In the 1939, the castle housed 200 Jewish refugees from (then) Czechoslovakia during WW2. “They were on one of the last trains out of Nazi Germany before trains were diverted to go to the concentration camps,” says Baker. “Gwrych really was a lifeline for all of those children. Most of them never saw their families again; you can’t really underestimate how pivotal a role Gwrych Castle played in safeguarding their lives.”
In the 1970s, the castle became a medieval entertainment centre with attractions including jousting and banquets. “And then,” says Baker, “it became a cause célèbre on how not to look after a historic building, when it became a ruin. It has hit these different points in the national consciousness. It’s got an amazing story to tell, and amazing people attached to that story.”
One of these figures in Gwrych’s past is the Countess of Dundonald (1859–1924), a key player in a personal dispute that had a significant impact on the castle’s history. Winifred, Countess of Dundonald, inherited Gwrych, the seat of the Bamford-Hesketh family on the death of her father in 1894. “Her family had lived there nearly a thousand years, in the earlier house,” explains Baker. “And then Winifred’s grandfather built the castle as a monument to their ancestors, the Lloyds of Gwrych.”
The countess was, says Baker, “very ahead of her time”. She was involved in the suffrage movement and a prominent patron of Welsh art, music and literature during the early 20th century, as well as an owner and manager of her own land at a time when this was rare for women.
“Unfortunately, she had quite an unhappy marriage,” says Baker. This became significant when she tried to leave the castle to the nation in her will; when the countess died in 1924, Gwrych was left to King George V and the Prince of Wales.
“She was very publicly-minded and thought about what could be done to help the preservation of the castle in the long term. It was a great tragedy that her plans fell apart; her husband came out of the woodwork, not very pleased with how his wife had disinherited him, and he ultimately bought the castle back, which ruined her vision.”
Is Gwrych Castle haunted?
As the celebrities signed on for this year’s series of I’m A Celebrity might be encouraged to discover, there are plenty of legends connected to the castle.
“In Wales, tales of myth and legend go back to the Mabinogion and Iron Age Wales,” Baker explains, referring to the tales of Celtic mythology that were written in the 12th–13th centuries and based on older oral stories. “Gwrych Castle has all of these references in its history, as well as its own storytelling and myths,” says Baker. “It’s set of caves,” he explains, “were often referred to as being ‘the home of the fairy folk’, and a way to access ‘the Celtic other world’.”
Ghosts and spirits are said to haunt the forests surrounding Gwrych. One ‘Lady in Red’, seen by champion boxer Randolph Turpin in the early 1950s whilst he was out training in the park, is said to be the ghost of the Countess of Dundonald. “The castle is a palimpsest – the ghosts add another layer to its rich history,” says Baker. “There are people who are interested in life after death and whether there is another world beyond ours. This is part of mystique of Gwrych where the past merges with the present.”
I’m A Celebrity, and the future of Gwrych Castle
The castle’s new role as the UK home of ITV’s I’m A Celebrity, says Baker, is “the next chapter in the thousand years of the castle’s story.
“It is all about engaging people in new and innovative ways with their heritage. The filming demonstrates that historic places do not necessarily need to remain static as the narrative is constantly evolving with time. I really hope that I’m A Celebrity is an enabler for this process, so we can get more people coming to visit, to enjoy the place and also to learn to respect our historic assets.
In a world affected by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is a particularly welcome spotlight as many heritage properties in the UK struggle to adjust and survive. “We’re in the middle of putting together a phase 1 application to the Heritage Lottery for a £10,000,000,” says Baker, “The plan is that the castle will be reroofed and brought back into use, because what’s really important to us as a grass roots charity is to provide opportunities for local people.” The castle has a part to play, says Baker, in stemming the so-called “Brain Drain” from North Wales. “It would be amazing if we can play a role in preventing this. The estate has provided employment and fostered local talent for hundreds of years; we want to continue that trend and take it to the next chapter of history.” Baker is even optimistic that the enhanced publicity and extra income for the site could lead to some of the assets that were stripped in the 1990s being identified and returned.
The celebrities will be the first guests in a while to stay in the castle, and Baker is excited to see how they interact with the place (and also whether they get to see ghosts as well, adding that he hopes they will have a “nice time”). When its suggested that ‘nice’ isn’t always what the producers of the show might have in mind, he laughs and says, “Okay, hopefully they will survive, and have fond memories”.
Whatever the celebrities make of their stay at Gwrych, the opportunity presented by the show is a huge one. “A casual visit to historic sites such as the castle can often be an opportunity for people to become more engaged by igniting an interest,” says Baker. “To know that’s going to happen, through the prism of I’m A Celebrity, showing that we’ve got such a rich history every night on the TV for two or three weeks in November and December. It’s incredibly exciting.”
The new series of I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here, is airing on ITV from Sunday 15 November 2020
Find out more about the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust