Once a splendid 19th-century Gothic castle, Gwrych has been reduced to a shell by squatters, vandals and arson. An 18-year-old history student is spearheading a campaign to restore it.
Establishing why Gwrych Castle, a Victorian folly in north Wales, has been allowed to decay into a shell of its former self, elicits a number of tired sighs from those with any involvement with the building. The campaign to save the castle has been running for several years now with little to show for its efforts except a steady trickle of depressing eye-witness accounts reporting further structural collapse of the building.
Gwrych Castle merits its long-standing place on the SAVE Britain?s Heritage Buildings at Risk register. Conceived as a ?vast picturesque monument ? a 19th century Camelot?, it was built by Lloyd Bamford Hesketh in 1816 on the site of his ancestral home. The four-storey building, with its numerous towers and embattled walls, stands on the edge of a limestone escarpment with spectacular views out over the Irish Sea.
The castle was last used as a stately home in 1928 and during the Second World War it was requisitioned by the Government to house Jewish refugees. After passing out of the family?s hands, the castle was opened to the public for a period of twenty years when it earned the adage, the ?showpiece of Wales?. From the late 60s to 1989, Gwrych was reinvented under a number of different guises until it was finally sold to the current owner, a Californian property developer.
For the past fifteen years the castle has been abandoned to the elements and has been a victim of continued acts of vandalism, arson and theft.
Spearheading the campaign to salvage what remains of the castle and restore it to its former self is an 18-year-old history undergraduate, Mark Baker. Devastated by the continued collapse of the building, Mr Baker, then a local student, established the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust in 2001. Since that time he has championed the cause of the castle at many levels including audiences with the Prince of Wales and the Prime Minister.
says Mr Baker, who is president of the Young Georgian Group of Wales. ?The central wing of the building has now completely collapsed through, the marble staircase has vanished along with the doors and all the insides have been virtually stripped out.?
Full restoration of the building has been estimated to cost in the region of £7 – 8 million. This figure has increased from an earlier estimation made in 1994 that valued the work necessary to safely secure the building at £100,000.
The trust has so far been frustrated at attempts to intervene on the castle?s behalf and secure funding for restoration work to begin. Several organisations, including the Architectural Heritage Fund, the Heritage Lottery Fund and CADW have expressed interest in awarding grants providing certain conditions are met. To date these conditions, which require co-operation from the local council and the owner of Gwrych Castle, have proved elusive.
Conwy County Borough Council has said that they are not considering a compulsory purchase order. While they stepped in to secure the building from people entering it in 1998, that protection is now redundant and no further steps have been taken. A spokesperson for the council explained: ?Planning & Regeneration Officers continue to work to secure a viable future for Gwrych. However, a CPO wouldn?t be appropriate whilst there is commercial interest in the castle and we understand the owner has been approached by developers.?
CADW, the official guardian of the built Welsh heritage, said that the position regarding Gwrych hinged on the initiative of the owner coming forward and applying for a grant aid to secure funds to begin restoration work. Rhodri Owen said on behalf of Cadw: ?Our hands are tied. This is an important listed structure and wherever possible we would like to work with the owner to find a viable future for the building.?
The campaign to restore Gwrych Castle for the benefit of the people of North Wales will persist, underlines Mr Baker. ?If the Council continues to remain lethargic, we will take the cause to the Secretary of State for Wales.?
For more information about the charitable trust or to donate money to the campaign, visit www.gwrychtrust.co.uk. Mark Baker has published three books relating to Gwrych Castle, to find out more or purchase the books, visit www.gwrych.co.uk