I’m A Celebrity… Get Me Out Of Here’s new filming location Gwrych Castle was left to rot for three decades before the show brought it back to life.
The ruined castle has saved this year’s milestone series of the beloved ITV reality show, which was forced to change location due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Luckily, the 20th series was able to go ahead and fans are loving the new set-up, but it wouldn’t have been the same if producers didn’t step in to save the day, according to Wales Online.
I’m a Celebrity producers decided to take a long-shot and relocate the nerve-jangling and stomach-churning action of the notorious Bushtucker Trials from the jungles of Down Under to the craggy terrain of north Wales.
In doing so, they shone a spotlight on a Grade I-listed fairytale castle which, for three decades, had been left to rot on a hillside in Conwy before a team led by a man with a lifelong fascination for it had began to transform its fortunes.
Until presenters Ant and Dec, along with their motley crew of contestants, recently set up camp there, Gwrych Castle’s most recent inhabitants had been hordes of squatters who’d trashed the place.
Now though, despite being a historical relic which few had ever heard of, let alone cared about, Gwrych Castle near Abergele has suddenly become the name on everyone’s lips – even if many of those watching at home still don’t have a clue exactly how to pronounce it.
But, centuries before any cameras could start rolling, someone had already called, “Action!” on its incredible story.
Built by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh, the High Sheriff of Denbighshire, between 1810 and 1822 and incorporating his ancestral home, the enormous castle was the largest newly built structure of the 19th century.
Designed by several prominent architects including CA Busby, George Edmund Street and Thomas Rickman – major figures in the Gothic Revival movement – Gwrych’s frontage would stretch for more than 1,500 feet and contain 18 battlement towers, all boasting expansive views over the parkland towards the Irish Sea.
The main house is believed to have had 120 rooms, centring on the spectacular, marble staircase, designed by famed early 20th century architect Detmar Blow in 1914.
The castle and its setting – 250 acres of park and woodland – is considered one of the finest examples of picturesque architecture in Britain.
It then passed to Bamford-Hesketh’s granddaughter, Winifred, Countess of Dundonald in 1894, and, when she died in 1924, she left the castle in her will to King George V and the then Prince of Wales (who later became King Edward VIII).
It was the intention that Gwrych would become the family’s royal residence in Wales, however the gift was refused as a result of the economic downturn of the 1920s.
So the castle fell into the hands of the newly disestablished Church in Wales before being purchased in 1928 by the countess’ estranged husband, Douglas, 12th Earl of Dundonald.
During the Second World War, the castle housed 200 Jewish refugee children as part of Operation Kindertransport.
It became a model kibbutz where youngsters fleeing conflict could learn all about agriculture, forestry along with other skills.
After the war it opened to the public as one of the first country houses in Britain to do so. It was also used as a training venue for the English World Middleweight boxing champion Randolph Turpin in the early 1950s.
During the 1970s, the castle was used as a medieval entertainment centre and was the first themed attraction of its kind in the UK.
But, when the castle’s doors closed to the public in 1985, its sad decline, which was already underway, began to accelerate.
Even when it was bought by an American businessman in 1989 plans to renovate the building, which can be seen from north Wales’ main thoroughfare the A55, didn’t progress.
The castle was extensively looted and vandalised, reduced to a derelict shell – although, even in its dishevelled state, its qualities weren’t entirely lost on the location scouts who chose it as the backdrop to the 1996 Arthurian epic Prince Valiant, starring Edward Fox, Joanna Lumley and Katherine Heigl.
But, in 2018, after UK Government-funded National Heritage Memorial Fund stepped in with financial help, it was bought by a preservation trust, headed up by a historian who fell in love with the building when he was a child.
“My first trip would have been in the late eighties,” said Dr Mark Baker.
“I then remember going back a few years later after and it was like a nuclear fallout. There was used needles, abandoned vehicles and fire damage. It was an apocalyptic scene. I just thought that someone has got to do something here.”
So, aged just 14, he researched and wrote a book called The Rise and Fall of Gwrych Castle and started the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust to help save it.
That restoration drive saw the castle featured on the likes of The Big Breakfast and even led to Mark rubbing shoulders with Tony Blair and Prince Charles.
It means that the Countess’ Writing Room in the Gardener’s Tower was, pre-pandemic, being used regularly for writing groups, the formal gardens were regularly opened and were included in the Gardens North Wales Festival. The public were able to explore via guided and self-guided tours daily.
And these attempts to eventually reopen the whole building to the public – sections still remain closed due to its derelict state – have now been helped enormously by the reported £300,000 ITV have forked out to take over the grounds whilst filming – even if Mark initially thought their request was little more than a hoax.
“I had an email come through about a month-and-a-half or two months ago but I ignored it at first,” said the 35-year-old.
“After double-checking, I got in touch with the location guy at ITV and he said it was a reality TV show they wanted to make in the UK but he couldn’t reveal what it was,” Mark said, who admitted to never actually watching a single episode.
He added that he almost dismissed the offer because he “thought it was spam”.
“When I found out what the show was I thought ‘that’s pretty immense’ and it would be great to host it here in north Wales. We hope it will open up north Wales to the whole of Britain and, hopefully, further afield,” he said.