Saving a Treasure in North Wales: Gwrych Castle

STUDY TRIP ABROAD SPRING 2019 IN REVIEW

Nestled in the lush Seaside of Abergele on the northern Welsh coast lies Gwrych Castle, a once glorious Gothic Revival structure that was conjured by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford in 1810. As the heir to the ancient estate of Gwyrch, he endeavored to commission a replacement for the Elizabethan house he inherited. Inspired by travels on the grand tour, his inclination toward the picturesque movement motivated him to favor a Gothic-inspired plan. At the time of its completion, the castle was regarded as one of the 19th century’s largest newly built structures and one of Wales’ most important edifices.

Following an illustrious beginning, the house suffered in the 20th century. Gwrych remained in the Dundonald family until the 1924 death of Winifred Cochrane, Countess of Dundonald (Bamford’s granddaughter). The Countess had willed the castle to King George V but the gift was refused.

The castle passed through various hands over the next few decades and was used for many purposes. In 1945, Medieval reenactments and performances were held at Gwrych, a tradition that lasted until the castle was officially closed to the public in 1985. The property was then purchased in 1990 by American businessman Nick Tavaglione, who intended to create a performing arts center and hotel. However, nothing materialized in the ensuing years, and the castle underwent an era of incomprehensible vandalism during which it was stripped of nearly all of its contents.

Dr. Mark Baker introduced this site to Decorative Arts Trust members. At the age of 11, he fell in love with the castle as he passed by daily on his way to school. Awestruck by the imposing structure and determined to halt the devastating destruction he witnessed, he founded the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust in 1997 at age 12. One of the Trust’s first actions was to force the American absentee owner to sell the castle, which was subsequently acquired by Clayton Hotels in 2006. After another 12 years of inactivity, the castle was offered for sale at auction. The organization used this opportunity to take back the cherished Gwrych. Through the assistance of the National Heritage Memorial Fund and the Richard Broyd Charitable Trust, Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust purchased the castle on behalf of the nation on June 13, 2018.

Upon acquiring Gwrych, the Trust began to carry out emergency work to protect against immediate threats. The entire structure was in disrepair, and urgent action was required to restore the roofs of the bakehouse and the chapel. They also worked tirelessly to recreate the original gardens, which served as the jousting grounds during the castle’s years as a medieval reenactment venue. Archeological surveys successfully located the original plan of the gardens, which were brought back to their former glory in the past year.

Another pressing project is to restore the marble staircase that led to the center gallery of the castle. In the house’s heyday, this feature was referred to as one of the “7 Wonders of Wales.” Designed by Detmar Blow, a British architect who oversaw an early-20th-century renovation of Gwrych, the 52 marble steps were the castle’s centerpiece. The entire staircase was heartbreakingly stripped by vandals in the 1990s. In the coming year, they also plan to tackle structural work needed to stabilize the coach house. They aim to repatriate the resplendent furniture, paintings, and textiles that were meticulously recorded during the family’s 100-year occupancy and are actively seeking objects used at Gwrych that periodically come up at auction or are in private hands.

Looking ahead, the Gwrych Trust is eager to carry on the restoration work. Dr. Baker has conducted extensive research on the castle and continues to make this project his life’s work. Having already spent over half of his years invested in this truly incredible historic landmark, he is keen to see the endeavor through to completion. A long road lies ahead, but the inspiring story of Mark’s love for Gwrych has struck a chord both near and far from North Wales. The response from the local community in the past year has been overwhelming, and the important work that they have accomplished is a feat to be celebrated.

The Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust serves the following purposes: ‘The objects of the charity are to preserve for the benefit of the people of north Wales and of the nation, the historical, architectural and constructional heritage that may exist in and around Gwrych Castle, Abergele, North Wales in buildings of particular beauty or historical, architectural or constructional interest.’ To follow the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust’s journey, please visit www.gwrychcastle.co.uk/about-us/. If visiting northern Wales, tours are offered daily 10:00am–5:00pm.

All photos courtesy Dr. Mark Baker.

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