(Feature image: Wray Castle, with views down to Windermere in the background)
Wray Castle is an unusual National Trust property in that you are told not to expect to find a well-furnished, pristine historic country house on a visit here. Children will love Wray however, and outside of the school holidays, I think there is plenty of intrigue to make it a destination for people of all ages. Read on to see if you agree…
Wray Castle is an enormous mock-gothic house set in an estate made up of farmland and woodland on the north-western shore of Windermere. The castle itself was built in the 1830s for surgeon James Dawson and his wife Margaret, and actually has a bit of a boozy history! The money came from Margaret’s side of the family, who were spirit merchants, and unfortunately, an accountant, John Lightfoot, who acted as architect for the build, also apparently drank himself to death before the castle was finished!
Wray’s history continued to be mixed right up until the present day. On the death of Margaret and James, the castle was passed to one of Margaret’s relatives. It became a holiday let, with Beatrix Potter’s family famously renting the castle for the summer in 1882. The castle continued to exchange hands, and lost a substantial amount of its value during this time.
The National Trust acquired the castle and the remaining 64 acres of land in 1929 for £4,500 – the castle originally cost £60,000 to build, and is so intricate clearly no-one gave any thought to the cost of the house’s continued upkeep! The furniture had been sold off, and the building became the home of the Freshwater Biological Association from 1931-1950 (except when it was used during the Second World War to house exhibits from the Natural History Museum).
From 1958-1998 the castle’s tenant was the Merchant Navy, who used it as a residential training college for Radio Officers. Apparently it was run much as a ship would be, with the Gallery landing being the ‘Boat Deck’! Finally, Wray was used as a conference centre, and was to become a luxury hotel, but the plans for this fell through in 2012. Vodafone still have a mobile phone mast on the top of the central tower, and the National Trust are now making long-term plans for the castle, inviting visitors to suggest what they would like to see there in the years to come.
Those interested in the history of Wray can take one of the castle tours, which is what I did on my visit in September. Visually, the most interesting part of the castle has to be the Central Hall, but there are other smaller features to look out for in the least expected places, as well as outside.
If you don’t have time to take a tour, there is much to be enjoyed at Wray without the need to visit the interior of the castle itself at all because, as you can see from the photos, the exterior of the castle is bursting with character. You could take a wander round the grounds and to the lakeshore (there are lots of grassed and pebbly areas of beach from which to enjoy the view across the lake), or get a cup of tea and sit at one of the picnic benches outside the main entrance, both things I have done myself before now and really enjoyed.
Wray is also the starting point for the western shore walk to Claife Viewing Station and Ferry House which, in season, you can make into a round trip using a Walkers’ Ticket with Windermere Lake Cruises to get you back to your starting point in Bowness or Ambleside, or at Brockhole (see the website for alternatives in winter).
One of the main attractions of the castle at the moment is that it has an endless maze of rooms which have been decorated and kitted out for children to enjoy – no doubt very popular on wet days when families just can’t get outside! For this reason I would recommend that those with an allergy to the very thought of all those children, visit during a quieter period outside of weekends and school holidays – it really would be difficult to look round the building in peace at those times, and this is only a tiny selection of the rooms for children I discovered! 🙂
Some rooms also encourage you to visit other National Trust features in the area such as Allan Bank and Steam Yacht Gondola.
As it was the end of the day, I thought I’d stay behind and see the closing of the portcullis – I was even invited to photograph the mechanism before going outside!
As part of your admittance to the castle, you get a large map of the grounds too, and can follow a tree trail around the gardens. Here you’ll come across a Mulberry Tree, planted by William Wordsworth himself – it’s a tree with quite a view actually! You’ll also come across the original Walled Garden on a walk around the grounds, which has lots of potential although there isn’t much to see there at the moment. It’s enormous and makes you wonder what it looked like when it was a productive kitchen garden.
You can access Wray Castle by car from Ambleside, Hawkshead or Coniston, or on board a wooden launch with Windermere Lake Cruises. There is a fair amount of parking, but Wray does apparently get very busy during the holidays with cars being turned away, so it might be worth planning your visit with a trip on the lake to save any bother – either that or at least have a Plan B in mind if you’re not lucky enough to park the car!
Something else at Wray that has caught my eye recently is a series of hard hat tours which are due to take place in November. The website says that the tours take in spiral staircases and parts of the castle that are usually cordoned off to the public. I’m fascinated by this, and am really hoping to make a return trip – perhaps my third hard hat tour of the year for the blog! If you’re interested to go on one for yourself, take a look at Wray Castle’s web profile for dates.
- Following publication of this blog post, I have since written about my experience of one of the November hard hat tours, and you can find out more about what I saw in my recent blog post.
Have you visited Wray Castle? How would you recommend incorporating a visit to Wray into a day out? Do let other readers of the blog know by leaving a comment below.