In the 19th Century, gothic revival architecture was the height of fashion. The new Houses of Parliament were built in the gothic style between 1836 and 1865. Anglican churches were decorated using gothic designs and wealthy Victorians wanted gothic houses. Turrets, steeply pitched roofs, pointed arches, gargoyles and stained glass windows were a must and the exuberant ostentation, intended to suggest a romantic past, came to be described as High Victorian Gothic.
When, in 1819, Lord Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh wanted a new country house it was natural that it would be built in the gothic style. The old Elizabethan house he was replacing was soon demolished and work started on the new one. Leading architects were commissioned to oversee the project. No expense was to be spared; Lord Hesketh wanted to demonstrate his wealth. Gwrych estates included more than 6000 acres, extended across north Wales, Cheshire, Lancashire and Derbyshire. It took more than ten years to complete the house. By 1825, when Lord Hesketh married Lady Emily Ester Ann Lygon, the main house was complete.
Although Castell Gwrych was already a substantial property, building continued after the marriage. During the 1840s a new wing containing bedrooms was built. New staircases and porches were added. The cabinet maker George Bullock crafted bespoke furniture and Graces, interior furnishers to the nobility, provided the fittings.
When Lord Hesketh died in 1861, Castell Gwrych passed to his son, Robert Bamford-Hesketh. Robert, like his father, had the building bug but the cost of building such an enormous house had consumed a lot of money. Nearly half the estate had been sold to fund construction. Only 3400 acres remained. Fortunately for Robert, shafts sunk on the estates land revealed rich seams of coal and a number of mines were soon producing good returns. Robert used the money to extend Castell Gwrych including adding a private chapel. The residents of Abergele watched in wonder as castellated walls punctuated with turrets and towers spread across the side of the hill. Gwrych now resembled a vast, romantic, Camelot style fairy tale castle.
Robert’s development of Gwrych ended with his death in 1894 when his daughter Winifred inherited the estate and castle. Winifred Bamford-Hesketh took up residence at Gwrych with her husband Douglas Hamilton Cochrane, 12th Earl of Dundonald. The new family soon made themselves at home, were quickly accepted as prominent members of the community and went on to have five children. The earl was a military man and spent time in South Africa during the Boer War where he commanded a mounted brigade which took part in the relief of Ladysmith. During the First World War, he was the Chairman of the Admiralty Committee on Smoke Screens. Despite outward appearances, the union between Winifred and her husband was not always a happy one. Some accounts suggest the marriage had been arranged and the earl conducted a series of liaisons with other women. Winifred thrust herself into Welsh affairs and was a founding member of the Church of Wales. When Winifred was herself implicated in a relationship with the Archbishop of Wales the marriage broke up.
In 1924, Winifred died and in doing so took her revenge on her estranged husband. She bequeathed Gwrych Castle to George, Prince of Wales, ostensibly to give the royal family a permanent residence in Wales. The prince, who would later become King George V, refused the legacy; possibly not wanting to get involved in a family dispute. Instead, ownership of the castle and what was left of the estate, passed to The Venerable Order of St. John. The order did not keep Gwrych for long. In 1928, the Earl of Dundonald repurchased the castle for £78,000 and then, in a vengeful act of vandalism, stripped its fittings and sold them to cover the cost.
Douglas Hamilton Cochrane, 12th Earl of Dundonald died in 1935 and his son Thomas assumed the title 13th Earl of Dundonald. Gwrych, with its rambling mock castle walls and empty chambers, was no longer a family home and in 1946 Thomas sold the castle for £12,000. During World War II, the authorities requisitioned Gwrych and used it to shelter 200 Jewish refugees.
In 1948, businessman Leslie Salts bought the castle and opened it as a tourist attraction. He branded Gwrych as ‘The Showplace of Wales’ and was soon doing good business. Salts ran Gwrych for twenty years and is said to have received more than ten million visitors. The Castle changed hands again in 1968 and the new owners continued to operate it as a tourist attraction. Medieval jousting matches were held. The library was converted into a bar and the dining room was used for mock banquets. Boxers including Randolph Turpin and Bruce Woodcock used Gwrych for their training camps and motorcycle rallies were held in the grounds. Despite such events, the castle went into decline and, after changing hands a number of times, closed to the public in 1985.
Since then vandalism, weather and the effects of absentee owners have left Gwrych Castle a crumbling ruin. Most of the internal floors and the roofs have rotted away and the once grand castle is at risk of becoming structurally unsound. Attempts have been made to save the Grade I listed building. American businessman, Nick Travaglione paid £750,000 for the castle in 1989 and announced he was going to turn it into a five star hotel and opera house. His plans came to nothing and the castle continued to rot. In 2006 it was sold again to Clayton Hotels who had similar ideas. The new owners then spent a further £500,000 cleaning up the castle before going into receivership.
In 2010, the administrators sold the castle to Edwards Property Management (UK) Ltd. of Colwyn Bay for £300,000. In the same year, the Sun newspaper carried a lead story about a photograph that had been taken at the castle. When the picture was developed the faint image of a woman peering out from the banqueting hall window was revealed but, with no floor inside the building to support someone, she could not have been there. ‘Screamy Window’ ran the headline and described Gwrych as the most haunted building in Britain. Other ghosts, odd occurrences and strange deaths have also been recorded at Gwrych. Was the apparition Winifred’s ghost, wandering through the rooms of her now derelict castle? Today, the plans to develop Gwrych as a leisure complex are still with the planning authorities and the castle may yet return to its former magnificent glory.