A CASTLE that had fallen into desperate ruin is on its way to being restored after being saved by a modern day knight.
This month marks 20 years since Mark Baker started his ‘lone’ campaign to safeguard Gwyrch Castle, which overlooks Abergele.
A series of newspaper articles and photos have been released, demonstrating Mark’s plight and work over the years. The castle is now 80 per cent restored; work on the gardens have nearly finished and plans are in place to rebuild the site’s conservatory.
As a 12-year-old, Mark - now an Abergele councillor and chairman of Gwyrch Castle Preservation Trust - used to pass the empty and derelict shell on his way to school.
He started to research the folly’s chequered past and made it his mission to save the grade one listed building after seeing New Age Travellers vandalise and strip the site bare.
In 1997, Mark, who was living in Prestatyn, won the backing of then Prime Minister Tony Blair after writing a letter to him detailing the neglect.
Mr Blair responded to Mark, stating that his views had been carefully noted and that he would refer the matter of Gwyrch Castle to the Department of National Heritage.
Mark’s campaign also brought him into contact with the Prince of Wales; Chris Smith, then the Secretary of State for Culture, media and sport; Cadw and the National Trust.
Mark - now aged 32 - said: “We are 80 per cent there. We have nearly finished the gardens. We want to rebuild the conservatory next and it will be then complete. There is still a lifetime of work ahead, particularly the main building
“Looking back to when I was 12, I guess it does seem quite odd but to me, it wasn’t odd. It [the restoration of the build] was something I could see becoming a reality. I am quite a passionate person, I look to achieve. I was quite determined.
“I was fascinated by the castle. Nobody knew its true history and that was always in the back of my mind.
“I was a very curious 12 year old. It was such a divisive subject at the time - people would said ‘restore it’ whilst other wanted to pull it down. That controversial element attracted me to it.
“It was my own idea to write to Tony Blair. People thought it was quite amazing that he responded and it started gaining attention, however, for me it was like writing to Father Christmas - why wouldn’t he respond?
“As things moved on, it started to become a reality that the castle could be restored, rather than a dream. Today, the biggest aim for me is to enable safe public access to this private site.”
Gwrych Castle was built in 1815. It was bought by property developer Nick Tavaglione in 1990 but ambitious plans to convert the historic site into a five-star hotel and opera house - dedicated in memory of Richard Burton – never materialised.
The last of the New Age travellers - who first arrived in 1995 and claimed they were ‘guardians of the site’ – were forced to leave in 1997 after Conwy County successfully won a bid to remove them on planning grounds.
In 2001, Mark – who now lives in Abergele – registered the GwrychCastle Preservation Trust as a charity. The trust was founded to raise awareness of Gwrych’s plight and also to establish a solution for the conservation and preservation of the castle.
“I had to wait until I was 16,” he said. “I couldn’t do anything before that because I was classed under-age. It was a hard slog to get the charity status. We had to raise a certain amount it order to become a charity.
“Now 20 years on and what I can show is that some dreams can become a reality. It takes a lot of hard work and perseverance.
”I went to the site as a really young child. I don’t really remember it but I do remember when the travellers were there and they had stolen the gate.
”That was the first big victory, getting the travellers off the site. John Pitt [then Abergele town councillor] helped me found the Trust, he was instrumental in pushing forward the dream.
“We now have 400 members, 100 volunteers and last year we had 20,000 visitors.
“It used to be nothing. It was almost like a puzzle to me and I had to find the missing pieces."
Gwyrch Castle is hosting a medieval festival this weekend.
The event, running on Saturday and Sunday from 10am until 5pm, will feature medieval stalls, bird of prey displays, children’s sword fighting school, re-enactors and guided tours.
Tickets are £6 for adults, £3 children and £15 for a family ticket.