Just a few days ago the dogs and I paid a visit to Hornby Castle Gardens during the snowdrop open weekend. I’d originally been undecided about going as (according to the website) with it being early in the season some of the snowdrops were only just getting going but this was the only weekend the gardens could open, however we hadn’t had a decent day out so far this year and the weather was promising so off we went.
If I thought that getting there soon after the 11am opening time would avoid what would later be a lot of visitors I was wrong, there was quite a queue to pay at the table set up just inside the main gates. With a history talk scheduled for 12 noon at the main house most people seemed to be heading up that way so I went in the opposite direction to where it might be a bit quieter, starting with the woodland walk.
Past the pond the path led me to the walled garden but with bare flower beds and nothing much growing anywhere there was very little to see so I went down to the riverside, walking along by the water then following a steep path up to the corner of the castle lawns. Across the front of the castle steep steps took me back down onto the main driveway and with nothing else to see I headed back to the main road and the car park.
Still only lunch time and with the rest of the afternoon ahead it was too early to think about going back home once I left Hornby Castle so I headed for Morecambe and an excellent filling lunch of home made steak pie, mash, veg and gravy in Rita’s Cafe on the promenade, followed by a mooch round the indoor Festival Market then a walk down to West End and back along the promenade as far as the Eric Morecambe statue before returning to the van and finally heading for home.
The daylight hours increasing slowly each day meant that I was back home before it started to go dark, with the dogs having slept all the way back. As far as days out go there had been nothing special about this one but it had been good to have a few hours away from my local area, and if dogs could talk I’m sure Snowy and Poppie would agree.
Following on from my tour of the Winter Gardens theatre in October and lunch in a nearby cafe I drove the couple of miles north to Hest Bank for another walk along the Lancaster Canal, this time heading south. Unfortunately the weather gods had decided they no longer wanted to play ball – although it had been beautifully sunny with blue sky while I was in the theatre it was now cloudy and dull, not the sort of weather to show the canal at its best and I did consider coming back home, but with the afternoon stretching before me I decided to do the walk anyway.
Parking on the foreshore at Hest Bank, directly in front of me across the grass was a rather cute looking metal shelduck sculpture with an attractive information board at its base. Created by Ulverston-based blacksmith Chris Bramall on behalf of the Morecambe Bay Partnership it’s one of seven unique bird sculptures situated in different locations around the bay, with each one being associated with that particular location.
Across the nearby level crossing and the main coast road Station Road took me up to Bridge 118 on the canal where I walked north for a hundred yards or so to check out the weird canalside people and their pets which I’d seen on my walk along there a month previously. With a large banner now fastened to the hedge they were definitely ready for Halloween and even their weird pets were dressed for the occasion.
Retracing my steps I went back to the bridge and headed south with my goal being the Milestone Bridge which carries the relatively new (opened in 2016) dual carriageway over the canal, linking Junction 34 of the M6 with Heysham and its port.
As far as canal walks go there was nothing remarkable about this one though maybe if the earlier sunshine and blue sky had still been around the surroundings would have looked a lot nicer. Reaching my goal of the Milestone Bridge and with no desire to go any farther on such a dull afternoon I turned and headed the almost two miles back to Bridge 118. Having seen no-one at all during the first part of the walk, at one point it was nice to see an approaching narrowboat and as it passed me the guy at the back of it shouted a cheery greeting. Having messed about on boats myself in previous years I’ve always thought boat people are a friendly lot.
Almost back to civilisation I saw just three more people, a couple walking a small dog and a guy sitting on a bench, then no-one else until I got back onto Station Road. Back at the level crossing I found the barriers were down so I crossed the line via the overhead bridge where I took my final shot of the day looking north along the shore to the hills across the bay.
With hindsight, if I’d known that the afternoon would turn out to be so cloudy I would have booked a later theatre tour and done the walk first while it was sunny but as the saying goes, hindsight’s a wonderful thing. Would I do that walk again? It would be nice to see that section of the canal in better weather so I might be tempted sometime next year.
Following my tour of the Winter Gardens Theatre in October I had a walk along the promenade to the artists wall. I’d noticed one or two new artworks as I’d driven along to the theatre and though several from last year were still there others had been replaced and I was quite surprised to see just how many new ones had been added since I photographed last year’s batch.
It was good to see that the artists wall is continuing to brighten up what is otherwise a redundant and derelict section of the promenade. Morecambe isn’t a place I would purposely visit in the winter months so it will be a while before I return but I’m looking forward to hopefully seeing some more new artwork on the wall next season.
The middle Sunday in October saw me heading to Morecambe for a ‘behind the scenes’ tour of the Winter Gardens theatre situated on the Central Promenade. The late Victorian building became Grade ll listed in 1987 and since the formation of the Morecambe Winter Gardens Preservation Trust in 2006 the theatre has been undergoing the long slow process of major repair and restoration, and in September 2020, after being intrigued by some photos of the ornate interior, I booked myself onto one of the guided tours. I wasn’t disappointed, the theatre’s history was fascinating, and though I intended to go back in 2021 I decided to wait until this year to see what progress had been made with the various renovations.
The tour guide this time was a very friendly and knowledgeable volunteer named Lesley and with only three other people in the group I had plenty of opportunities to ask questions and discuss things. Although I’d already seen many areas of the theatre on the previous tour other areas were now accessible and it was interesting to see photos and things I hadn’t seen before and to learn some more fascinating and quirky facts about the place.
Unfortunately there is no knowledge of the various entertainers advertised in the photo above – I would love to know what the ‘monkey music hall’ was and if it featured actual monkeys – although I have managed to find out about Cullen & Carthy. Johnnie Cullen (1868–1929) was born in Liverpool while Arthur Carthy (1869-1943) was born in Birkenhead and they met while working together in the machinery room of the newspaper printers producing the Liverpool Echo. They were eventually fired for entertaining their co-workers with singing and dancing and soon afterwards went on to form a comedy double act, achieving popularity on the British and Irish music hall, circus and variety stages and with the Winter Gardens theatre being a venue where they regularly appeared. With a career spanning almost four decades their partnership lasted from 1890 until Cullen’s death in 1929.
Just as previously the tour went from the ground floor of the auditorium, along different rear corridors and up and down various staircases, with stops along the way to see different interesting features. In an as yet unrestored area behind the Grand Circle it was nice to see a few more of the original seats uncovered for the tour and intriguing to see that they are of two different designs, with the red seats and arm rests being deeper than the blue ones, although no-one knows why.
The upper level of the central staircase featured typical late Victorian flocked wallpaper, ornate marble columns and balustrades, and though it’s not really noticeable in the photos all the carved cherubs have slightly different features and a different shade of hair colour.
Above the Grand Circle stairs led up to the underside of The Gods, now undergoing restoration, and halfway up a door led to the void underneath the seating, something which I hadn’t previously seen. Apparently in the past some of the theatre cleaners, rather than removing any rubbish properly, would just throw it into the void where it lay undisturbed for many years and it was only discovered when volunteers cleared out the void prior to renovation – a few of the items found are on display in one of the foyer’s ticket booths.
Another new feature of the tour was the opportunity to go out onto the wide balcony overlooking the promenade to get a closer view of the carved medallions on the wall above a central door – the interlinked letters MWG (Morecambe Winter Gardens) on the left and the date on the right. Access to the balcony was temporarily through the old and very basic Victorian gents’ toilets (no, I didn’t take a photo) and there were good clear views over the promenade and across the bay to the South Lakeland hills.
On the way back down to stage level there was the opportunity to look inside one of the upper boxes, which I’d seen on my previous visit, then the basic general dressing room and the star’s dressing room which now had the added ‘luxury’ of a tv, kettle, and a couple of pictures on the walls, before ending on the stage itself.
One anecdote tells of the theatre having a door big enough for an elephant to go through; sometime in the past an elephant did feature in one of the shows and behind the rear backdrop there is indeed a huge sliding door in the outer wall. The theatre has played host to many famous faces over the years and the final scenes for the 1960 Laurence Olivier film The Entertainer were shot on the Winter Gardens stage.
Although I’d seen many parts of the theatre on my previous visit two years ago it was good to see other parts which have now been made available for the tour and standing on the stage had once again brought back memories of my own days in local theatre. It’s great to see that hard work and dedication are slowly returning the Winter Gardens to its former glory and I’m looking forward to doing another tour in the not-too-distant future.
A sunny but breezy Sunday at the start of this month saw me heading out to Southport for a look round the botanical gardens in the suburban village of Churchtown on the outskirts of the town. In spite of the numerous times I’ve been to Southport over the years I’d only found out about this place recently so I was looking forward to seeing what was there.
The Botanic Gardens were originally founded in 1874 by a group of local working men who formed the Southport and Churchtown Botanic Gardens Company and acquired a parcel of land from the Hesketh Estate. The company raised £18,000 to landscape the gardens, build a lake, a conservatory, tea rooms and a museum, and the gardens were officially opened in 1875 by Rev. Charles Hesketh from whom the land had been acquired, with the opening ceremony including laying a foundation stone for the museum.
The building was designed by local architects Mellor & Sutton and built by George Duxfield of Duxfield Brothers, Southport, with the famous showman, politician and businessman Phineas T Barnum being an advisor in the construction. The museum eventually opened in 1876 and Barnum donated his top hat which could later be seen on display. The running of the museum was funded by donations from the public and the local council while the gardens themselves were run as a commercial venture funded by entrance fees.
The gardens’ serpentine lake was formed from part of a stream, known as The Pool, which flowed through the grounds of the nearby Meols Hall historical manor house and out to the Ribble Estuary, and it’s said that monks who lived close by fished for eels in the stream. Attached to a magnificent glass conservatory was a fernery which proved very popular with visitors as it featured many tropical plants from around the world, and though the conservatory was eventually demolished the fernery still remains to this day.
In 1932 the gardens sadly closed as they were earmarked for an eventual private housing development but after a local uproar Southport Corporation intervened and bought the site with money raised by public subscription. The gardens reopened in August five years later as a public amenity renamed The Botanic Gardens and King George Playing Fields, though the name eventually reverted to the original Botanic Gardens.
All the museum’s collections were sold off when the gardens closed in 1932 but the museum was eventually reopened by John Scoles who started a new collection from scratch. A Victorian Room was constructed, many artefacts related to Southport’s heritage were donated by local residents and exhibits included the Cecily Bate Collection of Dolls, though one special exhibit, and probably the oldest item in the museum, was an ancient canoe which in recent years has been dated to 535 AD.
The canoe was found in April 1899 by a local farmer who was ploughing a field near what was once the northern shore of Martin Mere and a local historian at the time identified it as being of significant age and interest. It was first displayed in the Botanic Gardens conservatory then in 1907 it was loaned to Liverpool Museum until 1946 when it was returned to the Botanic Gardens and displayed in the museum there.
Fast forward through the years and in the 1980s the Friends of the Botanic Gardens Museum organization was formed. They successfully stopped the proposed closure of the museum at the time and later set up their own shop within the building; sadly it was closed permanently on April 24th 2011 as part of a cost-cutting exercise by Sefton Council and the collections were transferred to the Atkinson Museum on Lord Street where many are still on display, including the Martin Mere canoe, P T Barnum’s top hat and the Pennington taxidermy collection.
Along with the closure of the museum horticultural activities at the gardens were also significantly reduced. Sefton Council proposed further closures within the gardens which would see the loss of the fernery, aviary, garden nursery and toilets, along with the conservatory at nearby Hesketh Park. A group of local residents got together to save the remaining facilities at both sites, in particular at the Botanic Gardens, which along with the museum’s closure had also lost the boats on the lake, the boat house, the road train which provided a ride around the park, and the services of the park gardeners. The flower beds have since been maintained by the Botanic Gardens Community Association volunteers who spend Mondays and Fridays every week tending to as much of the park as they can.
A side entrance had taken me into the park near the bowling greens and a walk through the arboretum led me to a pleasant path around the lake but when I got to the flower beds near the fernery I felt rather disappointed. Having previously seen photos of them on the internet I’d been looking forward to a lot of bright colour but they were very pale and didn’t really live up to my expectations, although the planters and borders along the path from the main entrance were much more colourful. There was a cafe too and an aviary with budgies, parrots and various other winged creatures, but the density of the mesh panels prevented me from getting any decent photos of them.
With my walk around the park complete, and not wanting to cut short a really nice day, I drove into Southport itself, parked up by the Marine Lake and went for a leisurely walk round King’s Gardens. Over towards the Pleasureland amusement park was what later information told me is Southport’s newest attraction, the 35-metre tall Big Wheel with an Alpine Village around its base, although everything seemed to be closed up at the time.
Back at the car park my thoughts turned to finding a cafe for coffee and cake but I decided instead just to enjoy the drive home in the mid afternoon sunshine and have a proper meal when I got back. In spite of my disappointment over the lack of colour in the flower beds at the Botanic Gardens I had enjoyed exploring somewhere new – it was a lovely park which I’ll probably visit again next summer and hopefully when I do those flower beds will be a riot of colour.
On a visit to Morecambe in August 2021 I was very surprised to see that the long expanse of plain blue solid wooden fencing fronting the large area of derelict land once the promenade’s Frontierland amusement park, had undergone a makeover and most of the panels now sported a painting or a paste-up.
Frontierland wild west-style theme park started life at a different site in 1906 as the Figure Eight Park, named after the figure-of-eight miniature railway which operated there. The park operated successfully until the late 1920s when it suffered a downturn in fortunes due to various complaints from tourists and a mountain of bad press; in 1929 it was taken over by Blackpool-based Hitchens Ltd but in spite of much investment and a name change to Morecambe Pleasure Park the downturn in visitor numbers continued until the park was closed and the attractions dismantled in 1938.
Just months after being dismantled the amusement park was resurrected on the current site and was purchased in 1939 by Leonard Thompson, owner of Blackpool Pleasure Beach and Southport’s Pleasureland. An ice dome was built on the site and opened in 1949, the park underwent another name change to West End Amusement Park and new rides were added each year. Various shows appeared at the ice theatre until 1962 when the dome was made into a bingo hall and then an indoor amusement place called Fun City.
In spite of the regular addition of new rides over the years, by the 1980s visitor numbers were dwindling again so in an effort to save the park Leonard’s son, Geoffrey Thompson, set about giving the site a complete overhaul and Frontierland was born in 1986, though as a themed amusement park it didn’t have a good start. On November 14th that year a fire ripped through Fun City, burning it to the ground and creating £1m worth of damage, but the park recovered and rides like the Silver Mine, the Texas Tornado, and the Western Carousel saw visitors flocking back.
The Thompson family continued to introduce new rides and features to Frontierland throughout the late 1980s and into the 1990s, and in 1993 the Space Tower was installed. Sponsored by the company behind Polo Mints and commonly referred to as the Polo Tower the 150ft gyro tower was transferred from Blackpool Pleasure Beach, and although the ride resulted in a significant boost in visitor numbers it was to be the last major investment at the park. In July 1998 Frontierland hit the headlines when the old wooden Texas Tornado roller coaster set off while the safety bars were still up; several riders were put in danger and one man who was on the ride with his 6-year old daughter at the time later told the Daily Mirror ”we could have been killed”. Whether this incident was the final straw for the site or not that year signalled the beginning of the end for Frontierland and it began to downsize.
Three seasons of staged demolitions were planned across the site and while some rides were moved to Southport’s Pleasureland and rebranded other rides and attractions were sold on to various theme parks in the UK and other countries. The 62-year old Texas Tornado enjoyed its last outing in 1999 then remained dormant until being demolished in late 2000, leaving only the Polo Tower and Log Flume on site, along with a giant pile of rubble. The park’s entrance was sealed off using construction fences and the site remained in this state until Morrisons purchased the land in 2007. A supermarket was built on land adjacent to it and three retail outlets were built on the rear section of the park itself, opening in 2008, and though later plans were passed to develop the rest of the Frontierland site into an outlet village nothing came of them and planning permission eventually lapsed.
In 2009 the Log Flume, which had survived in situ for ten years after the park officially closed down, was finally removed, leaving the Polo Tower as the last element of the former theme park though its only purpose was to fulfil a 20-year contract, signed during its 1993 installation, for the positioning of a telephone mast at the top. The Polo Tower survived until 2017 when it was finally demolished in June that year.
With the former Frontierland site being left unused for so long the 600ft-long blue fence was branded an eyesore by residents and town politicians, with one local councillor calling on Morrisons to do something about it. The fence remained as it was though, that was until March 2021 when a local artist took it upon himself to paint a mural of Dame Thora Hird on one of the panels; this inspired other local artists to want to add their own creations to the fence and through an art-based outreach project around 40 of them have used their artwork to decorate the hoardings.
In August 2021 the Frontierland site was bought by Lancaster City Council with the hope that the land can once again be put to good use but until such time as it is then hopefully the blue fence now known as the Artists Wall will continue to brighten up that part of Morecambe’s promenade.
During a week’s leave from work in mid September and on a lovely warm sunny day I took myself off to Hest Bank just north of Morecambe for a canal and coast circular walk. Parking by the foreshore not far from the railway level crossing I made my way across the main road and up to bridge 118 on the canal; I hadn’t gone far along the path when I noticed I was being watched and at the end of a garden across the canal was a motley band of weird people with their equally weird pets, looking like escapees from a fairground ghost train. Maybe they were getting ready for Halloween but in mid September they were a bit early.
Being mid week the canal was very quiet and other than a couple of cyclists and a boat making its way up towards Carnforth I saw no-one. I’d walked this section of canal a year ago, going as far as bridge 122 before turning round and retracing my steps, but this time when I reached that same bridge I went up onto the lane which took me down onto the main A6 road.
Across the road the lane continued up a short incline and took me through a very pleasant estate, a mixture of detached houses, bungalows and semis with well kept gardens, and I couldn’t help being amused at the quirky sign on the back of a van belonging to a chippy down in Heysham. Down the hill was another level crossing with the lane at the far side going uphill again, this time between hedges with a caravan site on one side. Through a hamlet of a dozen or so houses and I was on Bolton-le-Sands foreshore where a vast expanse of saltmarsh stretched out to the sea; across the bay was Grange-over-Sands and in the far distance to my right I could see the cottages and old chimney at Jenny Brown’s Point near Silverdale.
Passing a few more houses and a large field I came to a roadside parking area and Red Bank Farm caravan and camping site, and that’s where things went a bit not-quite-right. I wanted to find the Praying Shell sculpture and though I knew it was in the vicinity of the farm I didn’t know exactly where. A low stone wall separated the lane from the rocky foreshore and a few yards away was a very small and rather insignificant sign fastened to the bottom of a wooden post; with just one word – ‘Sculpture’ – it pointed south along the foreshore so that’s the way I went.
To say that the terrain was rough was an understatement. With no proper path and many large ankle-twisting rocks I had to pick my way along carefully and I was more than relieved when the rocks eventually gave way to shingle which in turn changed to grass, but I still hadn’t found the sculpture. A stone wall separated the foreshore from a field and set back in a corner was a bench with a couple sitting there so I asked if they knew where the sculpture was – they did, and it seemed that somehow I’d missed it. Rather than send me back along the rocks they directed me over a stile and across two fields where I finally found it on a small corner of the headland and almost back at the caravan site.
The Praying Shell, unveiled in November 2013, was carved from limestone by artist Anthony Padgett. Although it overlooks the site where 23 illegal Chinese cockle pickers tragically lost their lives in 2004 and is generally thought to be a memorial to them it was (according to the artist) designed to inspire walkers venturing along the coastal path and was imagined before the tragedy occurred, though maybe its location isn’t exactly a coincidence.
That small piece of headland was surrounded by a wire fence with a locked farm gate but it was easy to climb over to get to the statue and just round the corner I found a rough steep slope leading from there down onto the rocky foreshore. I remembered passing the bottom of the slope as I walked along the rocks earlier but there had been nothing obvious to indicate that the sculpture was at the top – no wonder I hadn’t found it.
With just a few shots taken I climbed back over the fence and headed back through the fields and down to the foreshore which was now much easier to walk along than previously. Past the house which had featured in the 2021 series of The Bay and which I photographed last year and the next lane along the foreshore took me back to where I’d left the van. I did consider getting a snack from the nearby cafe but decided to wait until I got back into Morecambe where I could get a meal from the seafront cafe I usually go to when I visit the resort.
Aside from negotiating the hazards of the rocky section of foreshore the walk had been a good one, especially along the canal, but I’ve done that particular section twice now so the next time I’m up that way I’ll have a change of direction and head south instead.
Back in early July, which seems ages ago now, the warm sunny weather and long hours of daylight prompted me to take myself off on a bit of a weekend adventure, staying overnight completely off-grid at Glasson Dock on the Lune estuary. Now I’ve stayed at a few quite basic sites over the twenty five years I’ve been camping but this wasn’t even a site, it was a lay-by at the side of a lane, though I’d previously been assured by someone ‘in the know’ that it would be okay to stay there overnight.
The lay-by was apparently quite a popular spot for people to park up and go for a walk or just sit and chill out so several cars were already there when I arrived just after 2pm, however I found a place towards the bottom end and with a brew made on the camping stove I spent some time taking in the views in front of me. Across the estuary and over to my left was Sunderland Point with its rows of old cottages facing the water and in the distance the huge bulk of Heysham power station, while in front of me was Bazil Point, an area I’d walked round in May.
Back in the early years Glasson was just a very small farming and fishing community known as Old Glasson but because of the increasing difficulty for ships navigating up the Lune to Lancaster docks the Lancaster Port Commission decided to build a new dock on a sheltered bend in the river and closer to the sea. Land at Glasson was purchased in 1780 and construction was started, with the dock finally being completed and opened in 1787, and with the need to house the many workers building it an adjacent village began to grow. The dock was a well equipped place capable of holding up to 25 merchant ships, and following its completion a small lighthouse was built on the east side; currently used for storage there seems to be very little information about it but it became Grade ll listed in March 1985.
Before the growth of the village there were originally only two buildings in the dock area itself. One was Pier Hall, owned by a Mr Salisbury and which eventually became an inn, and the other was The Old Ship House, the beached hulk of an old West Indiaman merchant sailing ship with holes for doors cut into the bulwarks and rooms built inside. The Old Ship House was an inn from around 1783 until 1790 and was the predecessor to the Victoria Inn, built around 1800 and which still stands on roughly the same site. Fast forward to today’s modern times and the Victoria closed down in 2015 due to lack of business; various plans to revamp the once attractive historic building have so far come to nothing and sadly it remains empty and derelict.
With the construction of the Lancaster Canal between 1792 and 1800 thought was given to making a connection between it and the sea, although the original plans weren’t actioned. Those plans were revived in 1819 and after additional finance was raised construction of a canal branch, later known as the Glasson Arm, was started in 1823 and opened in 1826, with a large canal basin behind the dock. Over its two-and-a-half mile length from Galgate to Glasson the branch canal dropped through 52ft, and while the main canal had been built lock-free for the whole of its 42-mile length the Glasson branch was constructed with six locks between Galgate and the Glasson Basin, with a seventh lock between the basin and the dock itself.
In 1834 a shipyard and Customs House were built at the dock, followed by a watch house in 1836 and a dry dock in 1841. The quay was connected by a branch line to the railway network in 1883, operating passenger services until 1930 then continuing with goods services until its final closure in 1964. The shipyards, which had been mainly concerned with ship repair rather than ship building, eventually closed in 1968 with the dry dock being filled in a year later. A limited amount of commercial shipping still uses the dock to this day, with outgoing shipments including coal for the Isle of Man and Scotland’s Western Isles and incoming cargoes of fertiliser and animal feeds.
Since the shipyards closed in the late 1960s the canal basin has developed over the years into a large marina for pleasure craft, currently with a wide range of boating services and mooring facilities for 220 boats, and in more recent years the trackbed of the disused railway line has become a very pleasant pedestrian path and cycleway which is part of the Lune Estuary Footpath and also one end of the 81-mile Bay Cycleway established in 2015.
Down the hill from my parking place was a small industrial area behind the dock and set back in a corner was the Port of Lancaster Smokehouse factory shop. Originally established on the quay at Lancaster around 50 years ago the family run business moved to Glasson in 2008 and still uses many of the traditional methods of preparing and curing fish, meats and cheeses of all kinds.
Passing the back of the nearby Dalton Arms pub a narrow street of terraced stone cottages took me to the road through the village, with the marina at the far side. Across the swing bridge and on the corner was the Lock Keeper’s Rest, a large former static caravan turned into a snack bar/takeaway popular with bikers, walkers and cyclists, and on a small raised cobbled area was the Bi-Centenary Anchor, placed there in May 1987 to celebrate the bi-centenary of the dock’s opening. At one time that corner was nothing much to write home about but it seems to have undergone a fairly recent transformation with a greatly extended seating area and plenty of picnic tables – overlooking the marina and with lots of greenery and colourful plants in tubs it certainly looked a lot more attractive than it once did.
Across the road was the bowling green with the start of the cycleway at the far side, which was also the start of the circular walk I’d planned to do. The level path ran between the road and the estuary for quite a distance then veered off on a raised bank across the saltmarsh before a bridge took me over the little River Conder, a tributary of the Lune, to the small hamlet of Conder Green. There was nothing really there only a dozen houses, some farm buildings and The Stork pub; my intention had been to take a photo of The Stork but the late afternoon sun was in the wrong direction and the building was in shade so I headed off along the road back towards Glasson.
I’d walked for quite a distance when I saw something obviously very dead lying in the middle of the road. At first I thought it was a baby squirrel but on closer inspection it turned out to be a weasel, and going off its small size it was still quite a young one. Externally there wasn’t a mark on it so not wanting it to get squashed by the next car which came along I picked it up to leave it somewhere out of the way, but never having seen a weasel before other than in books or on the tv I took a quick photo before dropping it into the long grass over the other side of the roadside crash barrier, where hopefully it would be out of the way of anything which might see it and peck it to bits.
Continuing along the road I passed a static caravan park, a couple of houses and a group of farm buildings then turned left for a short distance to a slope which took me off the road and down onto the canal towpath. A short way along was Christ Church, designed by Lancaster architect Edmund Sharpe and built in 1839-40. The churchyard, which contains the war graves of two soldiers from WWl and one from WWll, was extended in 1905 when land was granted on provision that a burial plot was available in perpetuity for members of the Dalton family who owned most of the land in the area, though only two male members of the family have ever been buried there, with the female members laid to rest at Lancaster Cemetery.
Walking along the side of the marina I couldn’t miss the brightly painted canal boat moored at one of the pontoons. With my liking for multi-coloured abstract street art it was just my ‘thing’ and I couldn’t help wondering if the owners were also street art fans or if they had painted the boat like that just to be different. Back across the swing bridge I called in at the shop to get some cake for a treat later on then made my way back to the lay-by and my ‘pitch’ for the night, finding when I got there that anyone else previously parked there had gone and I now had the place to myself.
After a simple meal, a brew and a couple of slices of cake I whiled away the time with a few chapters of my book then with the late evening light fading I took Snowy and Poppie for their last walk of the day. Down at the marina various lights had come on in different places and with the stiff breeze of earlier on having dropped the now calm water produced some nice reflections.
Being completely alone in the lay-by overnight didn’t worry me, in fact I rather enjoyed the solitary peace and quiet, and as I settled down to sleep I had my fingers metaphorically crossed that I would wake the following morning to some more of the lovely weather I’d had that day.
It was another dull morning with lots of grey cloud around and the wind still blowing a hooley but with one or two patches of blue sky showing through there was a chance it would brighten up later on. I was nearing the end of the holiday though and I didn’t want to waste the day by staying on site so I took myself off to visit Gwrych Castle in Abergele.
The fascinating history of Gwrych Castle and its long line of owners dates back to 1485 and the Lloyds, a family with impressive ancestry and whose seat was Gwrych House, Abergele. Three hundred years later Frances Lloyd, heiress to the Gwrych estate, married Robert Bamford-Hesketh of Chester in 1786 and in 1788 their first son, Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh, was born. Frances died in 1797 when Lloyd was only nine years old and his father Robert subsequently rented out Gwrych House and moved the family to Chester, though he and Lloyd eventually moved back to the house in 1809.
From a very early age Lloyd had been fascinated by castles and after developing an interest in medieval architecture he made it his ambition to create a castle on the hillside behind the house as a monument to his mother and his Welsh ancestors. In December 1814 he embarked on a Grand Tour of Europe during which he made sketches of the architecture in some of the towns and villages he passed through but his travels were cut short in 1815 when his father died. Inheriting the whole of the Gwrych estates, which stretched across North Wales into north west England, meant inheriting a great responsibility so any plans to create a castle were put on hold and it wasn’t until December that Lloyd’s attention returned to building his new family seat.
Having sketched several designs of his own for his proposed vision Lloyd wasn’t confident enough to use them to turn his ideas into reality so he commissioned Charles Augustus Busby to produce a plan and sketch of a castellated mansion. Although Lloyd initially liked Busby’s design he felt it was too plain and nothing like the Gothic Revival castle he envisioned so in 1816, after drastically altering Busby’s plan with ideas of his own, he employed Liverpool-based architect Thomas Rickman, an authority on medieval architecture, to advise on Gothic window design. Rickman submitted several designs for cast iron windows though rather than choose one particular window pattern Lloyd picked elements of each design to create a new pattern which would be to his own taste and unique to Gwrych.
During 1818 the final plan for Gwrych was formulated, influenced by both Busby and Rickman, but it was Lloyd’s own ideas which produced the final development – without his direction and intense involvement in every step of the process Gwrych would probably have been just like any other Regency castellated mansion which can be seen throughout Wales and the rest of the UK. Work on the castle and outbuildings began in 1819, with the ‘official’ foundation stone being laid for the main house on June 13th that year. By 1822 most of the work was complete and Lloyd began furnishing the interiors and laying out the gardens, though over the next thirty years he also added towers, walls and battlements to the property, enlarging and developing what eventually became the largest built structure in Europe until the Crystal Palace was built for the Great Exhibition in 1851.
In 1825 Lloyd had married Lady Emily Esther Ann Lygon, youngest daughter of the 1st Earl of Beauchamp, with their eldest son Robert Bamford-Hesketh, named after Lloyd’s father, being born at Gwrych a year later. At the age of 25 Robert married Ellen Jones-Bateman of Pentre Mawr, Abergele, in 1851, thus uniting two gentry families, and in 1859 Winifred, their only surviving child, was born. Lloyd died in 1861 at the age of 73 with Robert subsequently inheriting Gwrych Castle and its estate, and over the years he and Ellen planted much of the present gardens with their enormous monkey puzzle and yew trees.
In 1878, at the age of 19, Winifred had an arranged marriage to Lieutenant General Douglas Cochrane, and in 1880 the first of their five children, Lady Grizel Cochrane, was born and brought to Gwrych Castle. Sadly the marriage wasn’t entirely a happy one and as a consequence Douglas spent much of his time either in Scotland or away fighting wars whilst his wife and subsequent children remained in her Welsh homeland, meaning that the two led increasingly separate lives. In 1885 Douglas became the 12th Earl of Dundonald when his father died, with Winifred becoming Countess of Dundonald, then in 1894 her own father Robert died at the age of 68 followed by her mother Ellen in 1902, with Gwrych Castle and its estates passing to Winifred.
Robert had provided in Winifred’s marriage settlement that the family’s wealth and land was hers alone to use or dispose of however she wished so following in her father’s footsteps after his death she chose to run her inherited estates herself with the help of an agent, resulting in her husband having little, if anything, to do with her affairs. By 1904 the two were virtually estranged and by 1906 the marriage was over, and though Winifred stopped short of divorce the Earl was banned from Gwrych, a fact which was to become significant in later years.
Throughout her years at Gwrych Winifred made many changes, refurbishments and additions to the castle including a wide 52-step marble staircase designed by architect Detmar Blow and installed in 1914. She was a remarkable woman, being an advocate for both womens’ rights and animal rights, championing many causes and financing many projects including the building of Abergele drill hall and the village hall in nearby Llanddulas. She donated land to build Colwyn Bay Community Hospital and in 1916 set up a Prisoner of War camp at Llansannon and a military hospital in London. The First World War took its toll on her however – she developed diabetes and died suddenly from heart failure in 1924.
Gwrych Castle was bequeathed to the then Prince of Wales as a royal residence but the bequest was declined and the property passed to the Church in Wales, of which Winifred had been one of its founding members in 1920, however to spite his wife in death the castle was re-purchased in 1928 by the Earl of Dundonald who sold the contents to meet the £70,000 cost. He claimed that Winifred had gone mad before her death and declared that no member of the family would ever live there again – and none ever did. The Earl himself died seven years later at his home in Wimbledon in April 1935 aged 82 and was succeeded by his and Winifred’s elder son Thomas who then became the 13th Earl of Dundonald.
The sale of the castle contents in 1928 started a decline in Gwrych as it lay virtually empty for the next twenty years although in 1939 the Government did, as an emergency measure, requisition the property from Thomas, the 13th Earl, to house up to 300 Jewish refugee children brought to Britain as part of Operation Kindertransport after being separated from their families. The children left Gwrych at the end of the war when they had the chance of being reunited with their relatives and in 1946 the castle and estate were sold by Thomas to Robert Jesse Rennie for £12,000, meaning that for the first time in nearly 1,000 years the lands had not been owned by a member of the Lloyd family.
Following the sale the estate was broken up – at the castle itself trees were felled in the woodlands and the vast parkland became subdivided farmland in multiple ownership. Two years later the castle was sold again, this time to entrepreneur Leslie Salts who laid new paths and a car park alongside the lower drive. The main rooms were refurnished, the original stables were converted into a cafe, a miniature railway was laid and a childrens’ zoo developed. As the ‘Showplace of Wales’ Gwrych was one of the first country houses in Britain to be opened to the public as an attraction and for the next twenty years it continued as a very prosperous business employing over 200 people and attracting nearly ten million visitors. By the late 1960s however Leslie Salts felt that the expectations of the public were changing so in 1968 he decided to sell the castle and retire.
Gwrych was purchased by a London-based development company but with the estimated cost of restoring the castle to its former glory being well beyond the company’s budget it was decided to put little money into the fabric and as much as possible into the entertainment content. The formal gardens were cleared and structures bulldozed to make way for a medieval jousting arena, the ‘Knights of Gwrych’ were formed as a permanent entertainment troupe and the Principality of Gwrych was created. Between 1972 and 1987 jousting tournaments, medieval banquets, markets and a bar operated in and around the castle but nothing was paid into the preservation of the building and by December 1985 the venture was deemed to be a lost cause, with only the bar and jousts in operation. The last jousting tournament was held in 1987 and the castle closed to the public in 1988.
In 1989 Gwrych was sold to an American businessman for £750,000 but his plans to restore the castle were never realised; it fell victim to vandalism, looting and arson and was left to decay. In 1994 the site became an illegal encampment for ‘New Age Travellers’ who stripped the lead and slates from the roof, sold off internal fittings and burnt the floorboards on bonfires, while local dealers stole architectural items like fireplaces which ended up in reclamation yards. It was eighteen months before the travellers were evicted but by then the castle had been reduced to little more than a roofless shell. Further damage was caused to the grounds in 1996 when they were used as a film set by Constantine Films for the filming of Prince Valiant – much of the slope in front of the castle was excavated and though it was later re-landscaped and restored to grass it was nothing like the gentle slope constructed by Lloyd Hesketh Bamford-Hesketh 150 years earlier.
Heading into the present day Mark Baker, an 11-year old schoolboy who passed the castle daily and played around its walls, found its destruction so appalling that he decided to do something about it and in 1997, aged just 12, he founded the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust with the aim of restoring the castle and making it accessible to visitors once more. The condition of the castle was monitored by the Trust and in 2006 lobbying Conwy Council to compulsorily purchase the property put pressure on the absentee American owner to put it up for sale. It was bought for £850,000 by City Services Ltd, trading as Clayton Hotels, and in 2007 they proposed a £6m project to convert Gwrych into a 90-bedroom 5-star hotel; the project was subject to planning permission but had the support of the Trust.
Significant sums were spent by Clayton Hotels on plans and partially clearing the site but work was halted by the credit crunch in 2008 and in 2009 the company went into administration. The following year the castle was purchased by another development company and in 2012 planning permission was obtained for a 75-bed luxury hotel but with the company unable to secure the considerable funds needed to invest in such a major renovation the project never got off the ground.
Although the future of the castle itself remained uncertain the Trust was eventually able to lease part of the site from the development company and the gardens and some of the outbuildings began to see a period of revival under the care of its members. In August 2016 a special open weekend was held to celebrate the life and achievements of world champion boxer Randolph Turpin who lived and trained at the castle in the early 1950s, then in 2017 the gardens were opened to the public on a daily basis. In June 2018 the castle and its immediate estate were sold to the Trust, it’s purchase enabled by a massive grant from the National Heritage Memorial Fund, and its future was finally secure.
I visited the castle during the open weekend in 2016 then again in August 2017 but aside from the formal gardens, which were still very much in their infancy, there was very little to see as the main building was still a dangerous ruin and therefore closed to the public. Much has changed since then however and a lot of work has been done, helped along in no small part by the 2020 and 2021 series of the I’m A Celebrity tv programme. Advance preparations for both series included work to make parts of the premises usable and safe for the celebrities and the overall revenue from ITV put the castle renovations at least two years ahead of schedule. I was very impressed with what I saw this time and I’ll certainly be making another visit in the not-too-distant future to see what else has changed.
**I visited and photographed a few other areas of the castle but these were all connected to I’m ACelebrity so they may become part of a future post.
In contrast to the glorious sunshine and blue sky of the previous day the morning was cloudy, grey and miserable with the wind still blowing an absolute hooley. The tent was still standing, albeit a bit out of shape on the side where the wind hit it, but not wanting to go out and risk coming back to find that another disaster had occurred I spent quite some time re-pegging and double-pegging all the guy lines and anchor points, which were checked and re-checked during the course of the morning. By 1.30pm though I’d had enough of being ‘stuck indoors’ but with so much grey cloud around it wasn’t worth going to the next place I’d planned to visit so I decided to have a mooch along Rhyl promenade, somewhere I hadn’t yet been.
Parking at the harbour I crossed the modern footbridge over the river onto a short stretch of main road and from there onto the pedestrianised sea front where I walked along until I ran out of buildings then headed back along the main promenade, taking snaps of anything which looked marginally interesting including the colourful childrens’ fairground rides, although I missed out the clock tower – apparently erected in 1948 it was in the middle of a small roundabout and was square, plain, and intensely ugly.
By the time I’d got back to the van I was feeling more than a little peckish so decided to treat myself to a meal in The Harbour, one of the Hungry Horse chain of pub/restaurants where I knew I could get some decent food. I just fancied a chicken tikka masala but sod’s law said that was one of the three things on the menu which they hadn’t got so I settled for steak and ale pie instead. I was only in there for an hour but when I came out I was surprised to find that the grey clouds had cleared away and the sunshine and blue sky were back, although by then it was too late really to go anywhere else and I didn’t feel like repeating the long promenade walk just to get some better photos.
Deciding to go and see Yasmine, the horse which Eileen often visits, I popped across the road and bought a small bag of carrots from Aldi as I didn’t want to go without taking a treat for her. On the way there I noticed that the friendly neighbourhood giraffe had swapped his jubilee crown for a sunshade so of course I had to stop to get another couple of photos of him.
Yasmine was in the far corner of her field when I got there but she ambled over slowly when I called her. She’s a very sweet horse and loves her treats but I only gave her three of the carrots, saving the rest for another couple of visits, then after making a fuss of her I set off back to the camp site to chill out for the rest of the day.
My walk along Rhyl promenade had been what could loosely be called ‘interesting’ – never having been there before it was good to see what the place had to offer but it was nothing to write home about, though I don’t think the dull grey day showed it at its best. Maybe it would look much better in the sunshine so who knows? – I might just do that walk again on a much brighter day in the future.