mark baker

Gwrych Castle is being brought back to its past glory. A dream Mark Baker has had since childhood

Over the past two decades, however, it has fallen into rack and ruin as one property developer after another failed to get to grips with the enormity of the challenge that confronted them.

But Baker, 33, is not a billionaire with a taste for fairytale castles.

He is in fact an architectural historian at Cardiff University who began a campaign to save the castle aged only 11.

In the ensuing two decades he courted Prince Charles and Tony Blair (at the age of 12), wrote a 50,000-word book about Gwrych (aged 14) and set up a registered charity called the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust (aged 16).

Each day from the age of five I saw the castle

Mark Baker

It is this trust – with the help of the National Heritage Memorial Fund – that finally succeeded in buying Gwrych Castle last week for £600,000 and is now embarked on a campaign to raise £ 8million to restore it to its former glory, with the help of Cadw, the Welsh version of English Heritage.

The story of how Baker and an enthusiastic group of volunteers managed to pull off such a coup dates back to 1990.

“I was living a couple of miles east of the castle in a small town called Prestatyn and went to school west of the castle in a town called Colwyn Bay,” recalls Baker to the Daily Express.

“Each day from the age of five I saw the castle.”

gwrych castle

Mark Baker, 33, was just 11 when he resolved to save a ruined stately home

At the time Gwrych was owned by a Californian businessman called Nick Tavaglione who had bought it with a view to turning it into an opera centre.

But this grand plan failed to materialise.

“It was against that backdrop that the 11-year-old version of me saw the tragedy that had taken place there,” says Baker.

“It was like an apocalyptic scene, the castle had been broken into and parts of it burnt out.

“A mixture of New Age travellers, gypsies and vandals had taken most of the slate off the roof, together with the lead. They worked their way through the building asset-stripping everything from fireplaces to panelling and selling what they could. It was terrible.”

Appalled by what he had seen Baker wrote to the two most influential people he could think of: the Prince of Wales, well known for his interest in architecture, and the prime minister.

“I said, ‘Something has to be done – it’s an incredibly historic building and it’s in the process of being destroyed’,” he says.

“To my amazement both of them replied and the Prince of Wales – who’s been extremely supportive and kind over the years – saw me the following year to discuss the castle’s future.

“We met in Ruthin, which is a market town not far from the castle, at the county records office where I had set out all the historic documents I’d been gathering in a room. He gave me 30 minutes of his time. We connected over our shared passion for architecture and he really wanted to see it restored.”

He adds: “Prince Charles gave me a lot of good advice and put me in touch with people from his various charities, such as the Prince’s Regeneration Trust and the Phoenix Trust, which was hugely involved 15 or 16 years ago, and his encouragement personally drove me to keep going.”

gwrych castle

Mark set up a trust to save the castle and over 20 years later has finally been able to buy it

Blair’s contribution involved an invitation to see the Trooping the Colour and a 10-minute meeting at Downing Street but not much followthrough.

Baker set up a body called A Society For The Friends Of Gwrych and began raising cash.

In time this funded a structural engineer to produce a renovation plan, a quantity surveyor to cost the work and a feasibility study that showed the castle had economic potential.

As Baker says: “The castle is on this great tourist route, the A55, which is the main artery along the north coast that heads into Snowdonia and so it sits at the gateway to this wonderful landscape.”

By the early 2000s the local authority was persuaded to consider a compulsory purchase of the castle and it was news of this plan that brought Tavaglione – who had not been seen in the local area for years – out of the woodwork.

In order to short-circuit the local authority’s plan he put Gwrych up for auction.

Fortunately it was acquired in 2006 by a forward-thinking buyer called Clayton Hotels, which was sensitive to the castle’s heritage.

But when Clayton went bust in the wake of the credit crunch of 2008 Baker was back to square one.

The castle was subsequently bought by a local property developer but after years of inactivity it offered the castle to Baker’s trust in May last year.

And, as we have seen, the deal went through last week.

So, Dr Baker, you must be delighted: “It has not sunk in yet really,” he says.

“Getting the keys on Wednesday will be quite momentous.”

Visits to the castle gardens – open daily – cost £5.

For more information or to donate to the castle appeal go to gwrychtrust.co.uk

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