A peek behind locked doors: hard hat tours at Wray Castle

The roof on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
On the roof of Wray Castle

My fascination with Wray Castle started back in September this year when I visited the inside of this enormous mock-gothic Victorian house properly for the first time. It was whilst writing about Wray that I then came across its November ‘hard hat tours’ and thought what a great thing they too would be to share with you on the blog – after all, anything involving the term ‘hard hat’ does sound rather adventurous! If you haven’t seen my previous post about Wray Castle, you may benefit from taking a look before reading about the hard hat tours below.

This is the third hard hat tour I’ve done this year (others being visits to the Windermere Jetty construction site, and a tour of Force Crag Mine in the North Lakes), so at this rate I’ll need to invest in my own hat! Wray’s tour promises to take curious visitors up out-of-bounds staircases and through locked doors to see the house from a new perspective.

The cold weather had certainly kicked in when I returned to Wray this weekend, and as you are advised to dress up warm for the tour, I was already doing a pretty good impression of the new Michelin woman when I added the final layer in the form of a high-vis jacket, fitted my hat, re-applied my camera and camera bag, and was supplied with a torch. I could barely move, and summer suddenly seemed a distant memory! It was clear the tour was going to be good fun though when one of the other participants dropped to one knee and his wife exclaimed, ‘But you’ve asked me already!’ He was only tying his shoe lace…

We started our tour at the front door of the castle and, after a brief bit of history starting with its construction in the 1830s, headed through a small door at the bottom of one of the turrets and up a stone spiral staircase. After a bit of a climb we ended up on a portion of the roof, and learnt about some of the work and restoration that has taken place over the years here – the building’s so complicated that it’s no wonder the accountant who designed the castle drank himself to death before it was finished!

The turrets at the front of Wray Castle
The tour takes you up the internal spiral staircase of this turret, and on to the roof
Spiral stairs on a hard hat tour at Wray Castle
Here goes – send a search party if you don’t hear from me…!
The mock arrow slits from the exterior of Wray Castle
The mock arrow slits (or ‘cruciforms’) from the exterior of the castle
The roof on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
One of the roof areas, with the door to the spiral stairs in the turret on the right-hand side

The rooftop at Wray CastleFrom the roof at Wray CastleWindow detail on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle

We then looked inside one of the inner spaces of the roof, and out of some other hatches at further areas of roof on the other side of the building.

On a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
Another part of the roof, which looks up towards the highest viewing platform at Wray – I’m crouching with my camera hanging out of the door to get this
On hard hat tour of Wray Castle
Peering out of another door onto another piece of roof!

Many of the most interesting events in Wray Castle’s history relate back to the days when it was leased to the Merchant Navy, who used the building as a residential training college for radio officers. Unfortunately there was a fire in 1971, which is said to have been caused by a lit cigarette rolling under the floor boards, so the Billiard Room was seriously damaged and needed significant restoration.

On a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
Much to the amusement of the 11 other visitors on our tour, it was here that I performed an unintentional comedy routine by giving my hat a good whack on a piece of low ceiling whilst pursuing a photograph in the rafters – proof that these hats really do work, as I didn’t feel a thing! Mind you, where there’s no sense…
View from a rooflight on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
An ornate archway on the top of the castle, which you can only see from this particular rooflight
Mock arrow slit windows from inside Wray Castle on one of the hard hat tours
This room is fascinating – it’s bigger than I could show without a lens change, but it’s got several sides to it and the light comes in through the mock arrow slits you can see from outside the castle
A close up of one of the 'arrow slit' windows at Wray Castle on a hard hat tour
A close up of one of the ‘arrow slit’ windows
On a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
No-one’s quite sure what this is for, but the front comes off so you can see through, and it has been the site of a jackdaw’s nest! It leads to the ‘hanging turret’ which from outside apparently looks as though it is suspended in the air.

Next stop was the Billiard Room, which you see on a standard castle tour and which has a secret door back to the original spiral staircase – it’s a good job these areas aren’t all open to the public or you could get well and truly lost! Then it was on to the Merchant Navy’s kitchen, and a modern add-on to the castle which isn’t currently in use.

The Billiard Room at Wray Castle
The Billiard Room
On a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
Another secret door leads back to the spiral stairs
The Central Hall from the Billiard Room at Wray Castle
The Central Hall from the Billiard Room
Apparently when the Merchant Navy were at Wray, someone glued a 50 pence piece to one of the floor tiles to trick people as they came in the door – anyway, eventually someone else smashed the tile, which is why there’s an odd grey one!
The kitchen on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
The kitchen at Wray, which was used by the Merchant Navy
On a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
A modern area built on to the castle which is no longer in use – it is said that years ago a car was left in the way of the builders, and so they built round it. If that’s true, it’s still behind the back wall!

One of the last parts of Wray Castle you visit on a hard hat tour is the cellar area which was used by the servants – this is where your torch comes in handy!

The stairs on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
We’re going in that door under the stairs…
Entering the cellars on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
Have you noticed the post box? It’s believed that this was used during the Merchant Navy days so that the postman could access the secretary’s office easily.
The cellars at Wray Castle
You definitely need a torch for this bit

The cellars on a hard hat tour at Wray Castle

Steps above the cellars on a hard hat tour of Wray Castle
The tiny glass pieces here allow light in under a set of steps

One of the great things about the tour is that because the history of the castle is far from complete, staff at Wray are still unravelling its story – it’s imperfect, but fascinating because of that. Wray apparently attracts former Merchant Navy cadets who trained here, and they usually have lots of tales to tell too!

And as this was my third hard hat tour for the blog this year, how many hard hat tours can you go on without a photograph – I reckon I could get a job in demolition dressed like that!

Standing outside Wray Castle
That look says it’s time for a cup of tea (builder’s of course)…
The view from Wray Castle
That’s better – you can see the colourful autumnal view properly now I’m not in the way!

Wray Castle’s hard hat tours take place at the weekends throughout November (and have taken place in previous Novembers too, so hopefully this will continue in future years). Currently there’s a small charge of £3 to National Trust members and non-members on top of the standard castle admission price (which is included in NT membership) – for more information and booking, visit Wray Castle online. You can also go on a standard castle tour as part of your admission price too.

Thank you very much to the National Trust for their assistance in the production of this blog post. As always, although I do my best to ensure the accuracy of information I provide, do note that any inaccuracies in this article will be my own and not those of the tour guide!

Have you been on one of the Wray Castle hard hat tours, or have you memories of the castle in one of its former lives? If so, let other readers know by leaving a comment below!


  1. It’s unusual for me to feature somewhere in two blog posts within a short space of time, but I really did think the hard hat tours were worth sharing with you – and if you’re interested to see it all for yourself, there’s still time to book.

  2. One of the survivors

    I am one of the happy band that passed through RMS Wray Castle in the late 1980’s and there are VERY, VERY few stories that are publishable on your site!
    The course was based around learning the requirements to become a fully-fledged Radio Officer in the merchant navy. The course included sections on learning how to operate and repair marine radio transmitters, radar systems and other communication equipment that you use at sea. We also had to study morse code and at the end of the third year we sat the dreaded MRGC test, which was fiendishly difficult to pass. Success meant gaining your RO’s ‘stripe’ and opened the door to a life at sea or with various land-based radio operations such as the BBC, GCHQ and research work for companies such as Marconi.
    To clear up a few of your ‘grey-areas’, students were rarely allowed access to the roof, because most of it was fundamentally unsafe – but I was part of a team that installed one of the radars that used to occupy the highest turret. There were actually four up there at one stage (all operational) and we could even track water-skiers on Windermere with them! I was there when the canteen area was built and recall a car being in the garages that were used to form part of the structure, but I honestly don’t know if it was ever ‘walled-in’. In your second picture, there is a set of steps on the left that lead down to an unofficial bar that dispensed many terrible drinks, carefully selected to provide the most alcohol for the lowest price – look up EKU 28 and you’ll get an idea of what I mean!
    In the picture of the main hall (with the missing tile), we used to play table tennis and even held a judo competition once, as one of the students was an international exponent and invited his mates up to take on the local club – it all started in a friendly manner, but by the end a ‘light contact’ rule was definitely out the window.
    There are far too many stories to tell on this post – it really is a case of ‘you had to be there’. Oh, and one last word of warning, on the weekend of 17th/18th July 2018 the former inmates will be having another reunion, in and around Ambleside and probably visiting the castle, so I’d give it a swerve if I were you…

    • Thank you for sharing your experiences and adding stories and details to the photos here – from what I heard on the tour too, I can imagine there are so many more! How amazing that the castle is now accessible to the public and can be revisited. The ‘behind the scenes’ tour was especially fascinating, and I think there was a former student with us that day too! Enjoy the reunion!

      • One of the survivors

        One other fact that you’d struggle to track down is that a group of us built an ROV system (a remote controlled mini-submarine, similar to the one that they used to locate Titanic) in the upstairs area of the boathouse and actually sent it exploring the bottom of Windermere. We only had a 400m ‘umbilical’ so couldn’t get out into the middle of the lake, but it was amazing (and a little disappointing) to see how much rubbish had already been dumped into the lake by tourists.
        I’ll ask about the post-box in the cellar, I’m sure that one or two of the crowd will be able to shed light on it.
        On a sadder note, a couple of years ago the NT couldn’t decide what to do with the place as it needed more than a million spending on the roof, and the last conversation that I had with the senior warden was that they were seriously considering tearing the roof off and allowing the place to become a ruin – which I felt would be a really depressing solution to the running cost issues

  3. i have happy memories of Wray castle,back in the mists of time. I did my GMDSS licence up there as i already held VHF,HF,Long Range, Short Range, Offshore and aeronautical radio Licences i wanted a full house.The equipment was mostly Sailor and a very old HFand telex set.During my exam i was asked to demonstrate the telex but failed to notice that the aerial was LIVE not on dummy. i drafted a text from STALAG WRAY CASTLE, message read Greetings from the stalag, hope Mother is well,please ask red x to send food parcel as we are running short of food.Guards here are very kind busy with GMDSS course.Please reply RF Burns,
    and hit send, you can imagine the examiners suprise when a reply was received from both Portishead and the Dutch CRS advising mother is very well, food parcel on way from Red Cross, good luck with your exam GKA Portishead Radio. I never heard the last of that caper.. Accomodation was sparce but comfortable and the food was excellent. If i remember the resident warden was David (cant remember last name) Love the forum best wishes to all. Roger

    • Thanks very much for taking the time to share your memories of Wray Castle Roger. It’s been a while since I last visited now, so you’ve reminded me all over again just how lovely it is there. I particularly enjoyed the ‘behind the scenes’ tour and hearing more about how it was used during that time.

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