Gwrych Castle – a Talk on its History
Dr Mark Baker – founder of Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, prolific author, and architectural historian – delivered a very informative and entertaining talk to a packed audience on April 20th 2017.
Dr Baker, who is currently a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Cardiff, explained that Gwrych Castle dates from the early 19th century, though the history of the area goes back much further. There are Iron Age hillforts on either side, a Roman shrine to Mercury, ancient drovers’ roads, and a much older house – Hen Wrych – which still survives in the grounds today. This house was occupied by the heiress Frances Lloyd after her marriage to Mr Hesketh, a lawyer from Chester. Their eldest son, Lloyd Bamford-Hesketh, was 11 when his mother died, and he vowed to build a ‘castle in the air’ in her memory. He grew up to become a Romantic and an admirer of Lord Byron, and on his return from a Grand Tour of Europe, he set about fulfilling his dream. He initially employed the architect Charles Augustus Busby, but then designed much of Gwrych himself, influenced by the castles he had seen on his travels.
By the mid-1820s, Gwrych Castle had 18 towers, 120 rooms and a 1,500ft frontage. It was one of the largest newly-built structures in Europe, replicating medieval architecture, with Gothic and Romantic ruin-esque features, including cast-iron windows designed by Thomas Rickman. Lloyd’s eldest son, Robert Bamford-Hesketh, inherited the Castle when his father died in the 1860s. His wife, Ellen Jones-Bateman from Pentre Mawr in Abergele, was one of the last descendants of Isaac Newton; she contributed much to the great collection of memorabilia which was accruing in the Castle.
After their death, Gwrych passed to the only surviving child, Winifred, who styled herself as ‘the last of the Lloyds’.
Her husband, the Earl of Dundonald, distinguished himself during the Boer War, leading the charge at Ladysmith; on his return to Gwrych in November 1900, he was warmly welcomed by the people of Abergele, and presented with a sword of honour. However, although they had 5 children, the marriage was not a success, and the Earl spent much time in his native Scotland, whilst Lady Dundonald settled at Gwrych.
Lady Dundonald, a Welsh speaker, was a patron of the arts and a pioneer in many ways: she was involved in the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, and an early advocate of motorcars. She was also involved in Eisteddfodau – receiving a bardic degree and taking the name Rhiannon – and set up a local school. Her circle included the archaeologist Willoughby Gardner, who lived in Deganwy, the eccentric architect C.E. Elcock, who was based in Colwyn Bay, and she was a great friend of Lady Augusta Mostyn.
Another of her associates was Detmar Blow, pupil of William Morris and prominent member of the Arts and Crafts movement, who she invited to Gwrych to give it a ‘makeover’. Blow extended the exterior of the Castle, using the same limestone as Lady Dundonald’s grandfather had used, and radically altered the interior. A fireplace styled on that from Plas Mawr in Conwy (minus the naked caryatids!) was added, as were other neoclassical features such as the panelling in the Great Hall. Windows were imported from Italy, with painted stained glass telling the story of Wales from medieval times up to Edward VIII, then Prince of Wales.
The grand staircase with 52 Carrera marble steps was decorated with Moorish iron work, reminiscent of the Alhambra Palace in Granada.
When WWI broke out, building work was halted and Lady Dundonald set up a hospital in London. She died suddenly in 1924, and her children were shocked to find that she had disinherited them, leaving the Castle to the nation, intending it as a home for the Royal Family. This bequest was turned down, and taken on instead by the newly disestablished Church in Wales. However at this point, in true Hollywood style, Lady Dundonald’s estranged husband reappeared and declared that she had been insane and not in a fit state of mind when she made her will. The Church in Wales sold the estate back to the Earl, but he refused to allow his children to live there, and Gwrych Castle, complete with its contents, was uninhabited for 20 years.
During WW2, about 200 Jewish children lived at Gwrych, after coming to Wales as refugees from Czechoslovakia through the Kindertransport rescue operation. After the war, the estate was broken up, and passed through a variety of owners and incarnations, including as a ‘Showpiece for Wales’ – with Randolph Turpin as a major attraction – and then as a venue for opera, medieval banquets and jousting. This era of entertainment ended in the mid 1980s with the sale of Gwrych Castle to an American investor, who allowed it to fall into a dire state of neglect. ‘New Age’ travellers moved in, and the Castle was vandalised and asset-stripped, with the removal and destruction of fittings including floorboards, panelling, fireplaces, the marble from the staircase and the lead from the roof.
Dr Baker witnessed this shocking decline as he passed Gwrych each day on his way to school, and was inspired to start a campaign to save the Castle. The charity he set up succeeded in breaking the stalemate of ownership, resulting in the eventual purchase of Gwrych by a developer, from whom Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust are able to lease part of the site. They have made great progress in restoring the gardens, guided by archaeological excavation, early photographs, paintings and the original estate plans. The Lady’s Walk, which was previously impassable, has been cleared of debris and the Formal Garden, with raised beds and rockeries, is currently being reconstructed.
In 2015, the grounds opened to the public again for the first time in 30 years, with events held by the Preservation Trust. Lady Dundonald’s writing room has been restored in the Gardener’s Tower, and peacocks now roam the grounds. The next major project is to resurrect the huge lean-to conservatory, with fish-scale glass and cast iron Gothic tracery.
On the evening of Thursday 18th May 2017 Dr Baker will take the History of Deganwy Group around Gwrych Castle, including a tour of the restored gardens and associated buildings such as the Melon House, coach house and brewery, followed by refreshments. Further details are available on our website – and keep an eye out for future events being held by the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust!
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