A gothic Christmas

Eleanor Mills, 21.12.2016
Hunting for ghosts at Bodelwyddan Castle
“If you look at her feet while walking across the room, you’ll see they follow you round,” said the visitor assistant at Bodelwyddan Castle in Denbighshire, north Wales, on my recent visit.

The castle doesn’t feel haunted, but that’s not to say it isn’t. I just visited during the daytime, and have a fondness for everything remotely gothic.

Bodelwyddan Castle, deceivingly named, has mostly been used as a house, not a fort. It’s name derives from old Welsh, meaning “place of Elwyddan”, who was a sixth century chieftain, so maybe there was once a building on the same site used for defensive purposes.

Anyway, Bodelwyddan’s castellated exterior, as we see it now, was largely constructed in the mid-19th century and, to my eyes, picks up on what the architect Horace Walpole (son of Robert Walpole, Britain’s first prime minister) started at his gothic folly, Strawberry Hill, during the second half of the 18th century. He wrote the first gothic novel, the Castle of Otranto, during the period he was modeling his self-proclaimed “little gothic castle”.

But Bodelwyddan doesn’t copy Walpole’s gothic completely – there’s more to it than that. The exterior was the work of architect Joseph Hansom (also the inventor of the horse-drawn Hansom cab), and my feeling is that he was a fan of John Vanbrugh’s work, the prolific English Baroque architect. You just have to look at Blenheim Palace, Castle Howard, and Seaton Delaval Hall. They all have Vanbrugh’s signature “castle-air”.

That, combined with Walpole’s signature “gloomth”, gives you something that looks a bit like Bodelwyddan. Edward Welch, another architect, was responsible for Bodelwyddan’s richly decorated neo-gothic interiors.

Considering there have been human bones found in a wall at Bodelwyddan – identity and motive remain unsolved – the castle might as well be a set for Walpole’s Castle of Otranto ghostly horror to play out.

Of course Bodelwyddan runs Christmas events, but I note the last one they’re holding is a Christmas Ghost Hunt – very fitting for the gothicised surroundings.

The website says: “After a lights-on guided tour we dim the lights and the paranormal investigation begins. Using a paranormal tool kit complete with dowsing rods, EMF meters, motion sensors, glass divination, table tilting and more, you will investigate a number of rooms, including the cellar. Nothing on this event is fabricated. Drinks and refreshments provided.”

I’d need a stiff one.

As I left the castle, back to the seaside town of Rhyl, the taxi driver tells me the tale of the now-derelict viewing tower on the beach front and how it “howled like a banshee”.

“Rhyl bought it from Scotland, but when there were complaints about the noise, the council phoned Scotland to ask what they did. ‘We sold it to you.’”

Later, on my return to London, all I could think about was how brilliant Bodelwyddan Castle was, to walk around in, play with the Victorian games on display, see the 19th-century portraiture on show by GF Watts and co, look at the caricatures in the billiards room, see the Victorian schoolroom upstairs. It’s a marvellous place, full of gloomth, glory and Christmas spirit, whether as a Victorian play or a ghost hunt.
I’ll go on one of their supernatural sprees one of these days, maybe after consuming quite a few strong spirits.