Guardians of Gwrych Castle aim to start replacing its roof next year and they hope its interior will be restored by 2026. But for the property to be familiar to the family that once owned it, lost and stolen treasures must be recovered and a global search has been launched to find them.

At the same time, the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust has begun assembling artworks that may eventually form a National Portrait Gallery for Wales. As well as paying homage to Gwrych’s long-dispersed collection, which stretched back to the early medieval period, the gallery would aim to tell the story of North Wales notables and the great houses they built.

It comes as the I’m A Celebrity castle revealed the discovery of the “skeleton” of a medieval house within its keep-like mansion. Long suspected, all traces of the building disappeared when incorporated into the Grade 1-listed mansion as it was built near Abergele, Conwy, between 1810-1825. Dendrochronology dating is now underway to determine its age.

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Renovations of the fantasy castle are expected to pick up pace now it’s been awarded £2.2 million from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF). The money will save the castle from “imminent collapse” having been without a roof for 30 years.

Chester architect firm Chambers Conservation has drawn up provisional plans for a new roof based on period designs. However this is expected to evolve as climate mitigations are incorporated. A public viewing gallery is also being proposed.

A formal planning bid is expected next spring with work starting in the summer, if approved. Floors will also be reinstated during a works programme due to take 18 months. The castle will remain open to the public throughout, with some special behind-the-scenes tours organised.

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Dr Mark Baker, the Trust's chair, said: “One of the challenges we face is knowing how climate change may impact the castle. The original construction grew organically and 20-plus staff members were employed to clear the gutters.

“So, for example, we may have to increase the number of downpipes to cope with the increasing volumes of rainfall predicted over the coming years. It’s a balance between being historically correct and leaving the building fit for purpose - we want to ensure leaks aren’t a headache for future generations.

“We’d like to add a public viewing gallery to the central keep tower. During the I’m A Celebrity filming, a crane lifted me in a basket to the highest points of the castle and the views were pretty spectacular – you could see why the castle was built in this location. In three or four years time, the public may be able to enjoy the same views.”

A south east view of the Great Hall taken in March 2023
A south east view of the Great Hall taken in March 2023
Transition image of the Great Hall looking south east. Originally 53ft by 17ft, it had an oak floor, vaulted ceiling in plasterwork, recessed radiators and stained glass windows
Transition image of the Great Hall looking south east. Originally 53ft by 17ft, it had an oak floor, vaulted ceiling in plasterwork, recessed radiators and stained glass windows
The Great Hall, c 1949
The Great Hall, c 1949

After the castle closed to the public in 1987, decline set in. Planned renovations by an American businessman didn’t materialise and, in the 1990s, the castle was pillaged and vandalised. Looters stripped the grand old place of its fittings, including ornate fireplaces and even roof slates and lead.

Perhaps the greatest loss was the disappearance of 10 stained glass windows flanking the castle’s vast Marble Staircase, whose 52 Italian marble steps linked the state apartments with the family’s private wing. Ornamental ironwork and antique Flemish electric candelabras also vanished, but it was the loss of the windows that was felt most keenly.

Telling the “story of Wales” from around 400AD up to 1914, the glass designs owed much to the family’s own artistic influences. “In the 1990s the whole place was asset-stripped by New Age Travellers and others,” said Dr Baker.

“Over a couple of nights in 1995, about the time the windows went, neighbours recalled a van going up the back drive and loading up. It’s rumoured an art dealer shipped the glass to Texas in the US, where it was sold at auction. We’ve been trying to track it down and find out if it still exists.”

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Today, the Marble Staircase stands forlornly open to the elements and the main building itself remains a ruin. Roofing it will mark a watershed moment in the castle’s rehabilitation. Already some progress has been made in attempts to recover fixtures and fittings. Doors, fireplaces and window frames were all looted. Some have since been bought back, others donated. Among items recovered so far are Cuban mahogany doors from Gwrych's Little Dining Room.

Detective work is being deployed to locate the rest. Where successful, Gwrych Preservation Trust hopes to find amenable solutions. “But we can’t rule out going down the legal route,” said Dr Baker.

More archive digging is being done by volunteers aiming to reassemble Gwrych’s art collection. Ultimately, the goal is to establish a National Portrait Gallery of Wales. Old stately homes, said Dr Baker, were partly designed for this purpose: at Gwrych, the Marble Staircase led to a picture gallery at the heart of the castle.

The dispersal of Gwrych’s artistic riches began with an auction in 1928, the year the castle was bought by the 12th Earl of Dundonald. To meet the £78,000 price tag (equivalent to £4.05m today), many of the artworks were sold. It was a process repeated by successive owners right up to 1976, diluting a collection that extended back to the early medieval period.

“The family still has bits and pieces and our volunteers are trying to track down other survivors,” said Dr Baker. “Some will be unlabelled, so it’s not easy.”

Not included in sale catalogues were two portraits of Gwrych’s last true owner, Winifred Lloyd, the Countess Dundonald. Another was of her husband Douglas, the Earl. They’ve not been seen since 1924, the year Winifred died of a heart attack.

Their whereabouts is a mystery. In her will, Winifred left the castle and its contents to the Royal Family, the Order of St John (St John Ambulance) and the Church in Wales, then in its infancy. The portraits could be with the beneficiaries, or still with the families of the executors. Dr Baker would dearly love them back at Gwyrch.

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From 1988 until 2017, when funding was withdrawn, Bodelwyddan Castle hosted a collection of 155 paintings from London’s National Portrait Gallery. Nearby is

semi-derelict Kinmel Hall

, another of the region’s great country houses, with its own moribund art collection. Dr Baker hopes Gwrych’s gallery will enable such collections to be brought out from storage.

“There’s a story to be told here, about Welsh county houses and the portraits they displayed,” he said. “It’s not one been told before. For many people it would enable them to put a face to names they’ve all heard about.”

Some local collections have been acquired already, oithers loaned. At the castle’s Tan-yr-Ogo holiday let, in a gate lodge at Gwrych’s ceremonial entrance, artworks from Bodnant, Kinmel Hall and Caer Rhun adorn its walls.

Gwrych has always been renowned for its striking 1,500ft frontage and 18 castellated towers. Over the next few years, as restoration continues, the castle’s guardians hope it will once again be just as celebrated for its luxurious interiors and exquisite artworks.

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