Wray Castle: The many lives of a grand Victorian estate

Wray Castle looking down towards the lake
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 Castle from the car park
Wray castle from the car park

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.

The front of Wray Castle
The front entrance to Wray Castle – you can see its ornate fake arrow slits, shaped like crosses
The front entrance to Wray Castle
Looking up beneath the front entrance to the castle

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.

The Morning Room at Wray Castle
The Morning Room with original fireplace
Looking up from the ground floor in the Central Hall
Looking up from the ground floor in the Central Hall
The third level in the Central Hall
The third level in the Central Hall
Feature inside Wray Castle
A glass feature which presumably sends light down into the room below (I’ll have a look next time I’m there!)
Looking down into the main hall at Wray Castle
Looking down from the third level into the hall below
Above the servants' stairs at Wray Castle
Above the servants’ stairs

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.

The path down to the lakeside
The footpath down to the lakeshore – this is also the start of the Wray Castle to Claife Viewing Station walk on the western shore of Windermere
Woodland walk
The woodland walk which joins the lakeside footpath heading towards Claife Viewing Station, with the footpath that leads in the opposite direction to the boathouse and jetty. I didn’t have time to do it, but you can also walk out to a viewpoint which looks over the lake
The view from Wray Castle
The view from the front of Wray Castle where there are several picnic benches on the gravel outside
Wray Castle entrance
The front of Wray Castle looking down towards the lake, and some bike racks – whatever those are for… 😉

Wray Castle detailDetail at Wray CastleWray 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).

Wray Castle's double boathouse and jetty on Windermere
The double boathouse on Windermere, and jetty from which you can catch a boat with Windermere Lake Cruises – there was no boat due at this point, so I decided to come back…
The boat coming in to the jetty at Wray Castle
True to form I was late returning to photograph the boat and did a rather undignified run along the lower footpath – a member of staff assured me that I hadn’t missed it coming in, and probably thought me either an unusually dedicated photographer or completely potty! And if you’re super-observant you’ll notice that this boat is actually ‘reversing’ out, not coming in – it just happened to be my favourite shot!

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! 🙂

A children's room at Wray Castle
A room in which you can learn about dry stone walling and local National Trust land
A tree ring with key dates marked on a chainsaw bar
This feature is interesting and a little sad at the same time – it is a ring taken from a tree which was damaged by wind in 2008 at 220 years old. The National Trust have marked key historical dates such as the First and Second World Wars on a chainsaw bar attached to the ring
One of the children's playrooms at Wray Castle
One of many of the children’s playrooms
A Peter Rabbit-themed room at Wray Castle
A Peter Rabbit-themed room
A playroom at Wray Castle
A nautically themed room
The parent and baby room at Wray Castle
The parent and baby room

Some rooms also encourage you to visit other National Trust features in the area such as Allan Bank and Steam Yacht Gondola.

The Allan Bank room at Wray Castle
The Allan Bank room – the prints are really clever, and make you feel as though you are looking out through real windows
The Steam Yacht Gondola room at Wray Castle
The Steam Yacht Gondola room with one of the Gondola’s jetty ramps

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!

The portcullis
One of the only problems with waiting some time for something to take place is that it can happen pretty fast and take you off guard – first it was up, then it was down… there is a tiny, tiny gap at the bottom still though!

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.

The Fernery at Wray Castle
The Fernery next to the castle
William Wordsworth's Mulberry Tree at Wray Castle
William Wordsworth’s Mulberry tree, which he planted in 1845 – it’s a tree with a view!

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!

Spiral staircase at Wray Castle
I wonder what’s hiding at the top of the stairs – maybe I’ll find out in November!

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.


  1. Goodness me – did I actually write a whole blog post about a place and barely mention the food?! Although I knew I would be tight for time and so took a flask for a quick cup of tea on my visit, there is a pop-up cafe at Wray Castle serving tea, coffee, light snacks and sandwiches. There are no kitchen facilities, so everything is served in disposable packaging – quite useful if you plan to take it out to a picnic bench in the grounds though.

    If it’s busy, there are some more picnic benches at the top of the path leading to the lake shore (in the direction of the Claife Viewing Station walk).

  2. Hi Janine,
    Great info on Wray Castle – never been in, but its on my list.
    ‘Hope you’ve not neglected the clarinet practice whilst doing all this 😉

  3. Hey Janine,

    a lovely article with great pictures about a place that means so much – thie was “home” from 85-88, as it was for many others, Thankd for taking the time to write and share.

    (Ex Wray Caste Student)

    • Hello Mark, Thank you very much for leaving a comment – I’m pleased to hear you enjoyed the article! I believe quite a few ex-students visit Wray Castle, and the stories they have shared with the staff really do bring the building to life on a tour there! If you haven’t already seen it, do take a look at the other article I wrote following a ‘hard hat tour’ of the castle – these extra tours of the ‘out of bounds’ areas take place only in November, but you will no doubt remember many of these parts of the castle too: http://lakedistrictgems.co.uk/2016/11/08/wray-castle-hard-hat-tours/

  4. Thanks Janine – I live in North Cumbria but have never visited this castle in the south of the county. I found your article much more interesting and informative than others on this subject. I also loved the pics I will certainly be planning a visit when the house opens again in the spring. It will be interesting to see how the NT develop this place.

  5. Frank Hall

    I was a camper at Wray Castle, in the summer of about 1958 with what was then known as the Varsities and Public Schools Camps (VPS). VPS was a Christian inspired adventure movement who’s leaders were drawn from Varsity graduates and who’s campers came from many public schools country wide. Rather like a nascent OCT, the campers competed for the prestige of having the best inspected tent. Senior officers were known as the Commandant and the Adjutant. VPS had a junior camp at West Runton Norfolk and the senior camp at Wray Castle. At that time the castle was used as a Merchant Training College but during their vacation it seemed to be made available for rental to “respectable” groups. The campers were under canvas in ex military bell tents in the lower field, while meals and ablutions were to be enjoyed within the castle. The ethos of the movement was outdoor exploration, rock climbing, sailing and canoeing as well as botany and natural history study with attendant constant rain. All this with a non pervasive Christian slant, good food and pastoral care from multi-talented officers and stewards, my rock climbing guide was a serving Royal Marine commando officer. Officers used their own cars to ferry campers around the lake district for access to the fells for climbing..Bow Fell Buttress, Striding Edge, The Langdale Pikes..great times.
    “Wet” campers who partook of the canoeing and sailing also took turns in the safety boat and I recall having to row across to Ambleside to refill the outboard motor with fuel.
    We knew then that the castle was simply “mock” but it had many fascinating features within, even a room which we used to equip with microscopes for study of some of the specimens extracted from remote fell-side streams and which revealed wriggling life forms, alternately dosed with aspirin (sedated them) or sugar (enlivened them)
    This was outward bound before the notion became mainstream and character building on a grand scale.

    • Thank you very much for sharing your memories of Wray Castle and adventuring in the Lake District Frank – it sounds as though you thoroughly enjoyed your time at Wray, whatever the weather brought! It’s always fascinating to hear from those who remember the ‘castle’ in its previous forms.

  6. Our Withnell St Paul’s Boy Scout Troop had two summer camps at Wray Castle during WW2 1942 ,1943 .
    Wonderful memories with the Lake District at its best . You would perhaps see the odd car when we walked in with a handcart and ration books to pickup provisions in Ambleside .
    And the excitement of seeing wartime Sunderland Flying Boats taking off from the Lake
    Francis Barry Riding

    • Thank you very much for your comment. Wray Castle clearly brings back so many wonderful memories for people – it must be fascinating to compare how quiet the roads were then with now!

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