by Matthew Pike, 30th November 2020
As a schoolboy, Mark Baker found a North Wales castle lying in tatters. He decided to rescue it, and now the building's starring in a prime-time TV show
Top image: © Gwrych Castle
For any 11-year-old, the sight of a ruined castle looming imposingly on a hillside is enough to set the imagination rolling: perhaps Rapunzel is locked up in one of the towers, or maybe an evil spirit lives within, bringing bad luck to all who enter.
But the mind of a young Mark Baker worked a little differently. He would gaze at the dilapidated Gwrych Castle in Abergele, Conwy, when travelling to and from school each day, wondering if he might actually be able to save it.
Now, after almost a quarter of a century of toil and grind, he’s orchestrated the survival of one of North Wales’ finest pieces of history and architecture, and opened the grounds to the public. Plus, in a bizarre twist that could only happen in the year 2020, the venue’s currently hosting the prime-time reality TV show I’m A Celebrity.
© Gwrych Castle
Thanks largely to Mark’s efforts, Gwrych Castle is now well and truly on the way to recovery and the show is set to make it a well-known name across the UK and beyond.
It’s all a far cry from the mid-90s when Mark and his family headed up to the castle to see why light seemed to be pouring through the roof.
“I went up to have a look around and remember seeing what looked like an area of complete apocalypse,” says Mark, who’s now 35. “There’d been groups of people going through the place and ransacking it.”
The precocious schoolboy was already a huge fan of historic buildings and this sight shocked him into sending letters to the new Prime Minister Tony Blair and Prince Charles.
“To my amazement, I had a letter back from the Prince of Wales who was very supportive and keen to see something happening at the castle. I met him not long afterwards and he said I should write a book about the castle, which I ended up doing when I was 14.”
By the time Rise and Fall of Gwrych Castle, Abergele, North Wales was published, Mark had already set up the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust in 1997, at the age of 12.
“It’s bizarre looking back, but it all happened so naturally,” recalls Mark, who believes being very young was a great help. “It was a very unusual story that a child wanted to save a local historic building. There was a lot of press interest, and people seemed to listen, as they do to Greta Thunberg who’s so young.”
When he set up the trust, he wanted to highlight the building’s history and potential, and inspire someone to restore it.
The castle’s story dates back to the early 19th century, though the Lloyds of Gwrych had owned the estate for more than 800 years prior to that. The wonderfully-named Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh built Gwrych Castle in the style of European medieval architecture, incorporating an Elizabethan house that already stood on-site.
Lloyd’s son Robert and his wife Ellen were responsible for the huge monkey puzzles and yew trees we can see in the gardens today. At this time the enormous estate stretched as far as Lancashire and Derbyshire.
Gwrych Castle in the 1920s. © Gwrych Castle
During the Second World War the castle was used to house 200 Jewish refugees, and after the war finished the estate was sold by the family after almost 1,000 years of continual ownership.
Between the 1960s and 1980s Gwrych Castle became a medieval entertainment centre, but was subject to vandalism with chandeliers being destroyed and, on one occasion, a motorised scooter riding straight through a stained glass window.
It was closed to the public in 1985 and, by the time Mark realised what a state the building was in more than a decade later, it was in the hands of an American owner who’d originally wanted to turn it into an opera centre and hotel, but had lost interest in the venture and, living so far away, had neglected the castle, allowing it to become derelict.
HOPE AND HEARTACHE
The Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust persuaded the local council to consider compulsory purchase, where the owner would have to sell it or it would be taken from him. After almost a decade after the trust was set up, Clayton Hotels bought Gwrych Castle in 2006.
By now Mark was a young man, studying for a PhD in architectural history, though never losing sight of his ambitions for Gwrych. And for him, the new owners were an ideal partner – the business would set up a hotel while the trust would run the public access side of things.
Sadly, the recession a few years later put Clayton Hotels into receivership. And over the next few years, another buyer came and went, and in 2018 Mark decided it was time for the trust to bite the bullet and purchase the building itself.
“It had been going on for more than 20 years and it was time to step up to the mark and take action,” he explains. “The purchase price was not far off £1 million and we needed to raise that in six weeks or it would go to auction.” With the help of fundraising, a private donor and the National Heritage Memorial Fund, the trust was able to raise the money in that time and at last could begin the long process of returning Gwrych to its former glory.
© Raintheone, Creative Commons
“There was great celebration,” recalls Mark. “It was a landmark in the castle’s history and the end of a very stressful period of raising the money for purchase.
“But we were also daunted by the big task ahead and how to approach it. The building was in a very sorry state. All the interiors had been gutted, there were no roofs, no floors, no doors or windows – it was literally a ruin.”
The project’s only two years in, and already there are roofs on parts of the castle, and consolidation work has been carried out on the main house, making it structurally safe. The gardens opened to visitors and an events programme was planned for 2020, though sadly the wrath of Covid 19 scuppered this.
“Lockdown was a big blow because every penny raised by visitors goes back into the castle. But a benefit was we could carry out works we wouldn’t have been able to do easily with people around.”
The most unlikely benefit, however, was yet to come. In May the trust received an email from the makers of I’m a Celebrity, which they’d initially ignored as spam. But after some persistence, they agreed to meet up. In the summer, Australia (where the show’s normally filmed) closed its borders due to the pandemic and within 24 hours the decision was made to use Gwrych Castle instead.
“It’s been very exciting,” says Mark. “I think it will be great for raising the profile of the area. It offers a ray of hope in difficult times. It’s been really welcomed by the community and we hope they have a good time making the show.”
© Raintheone, Creative Commons
Mark hopes I’m a Celebrity will give the project the boost it needs to get to the next level. “A massive aim is to get a roof on the whole building. That’ll be a major benchmark in the journey of the trust. It’ll transform the place once it’s weather tight, so it won’t only be a dry-day visit.
“The long term plan is to make it open to the public, but it also needs to be financially sustainable. We’ll need to have something like self-catering holiday lets to bring in income.
“I’d like it to be something people come from all over the world to visit, to be a major landmark of North Wales for history tourism.”
It’s been a long, action-packed and often frustrating time for Mark Baker since his association with the castle began in 1996. And while he’s incredibly proud of the achievements so far, he knows only too well that there’s much, much more to do. “It’s nice to look back and see where you’ve come from. It’s been such a long journey – almost a quarter of a century – and I’m looking forward to seeing what the next quarter of a century brings. I hope it’s going to be a bit easier!”