The National Trust has raised the portcullis at a castle where the grandkids, the kids and the big kid in you can play knights, knaves and no end of Narnia-style magic to their heart’s content.
The first sight of the towering, fairytale turrets and arrow slits takes you back centuries, but the penny soon drops that this is no preserved medieval relic and all is not what it seems.
For Wray Castle in the Lake District is a much more recent Victorian pile, built in 1840 by a Liverpool surgeon as a retirement home for two to impress friends and visitors alike, even though it only has four bedrooms amid the battlements.
The good doctor married a gin heiress, so he was able to afford an astonishing, Lottery-scale sum from her fortune to build his historical flight of Gothic-Revival fancy as a des res with a difference, showing in the process that he had a vivid imagination – and must have been crackers.
That shows up in the ornate design of the place, with wonderfully over-the-top touches and clear signs that he influenced the architects and builders to create a stunning and unique “ancient” monument, complete with mock ruins in the sweeping grounds, which was clearly a hit with a young Beatrix Potter when she stayed there with her family as a teenager. His wife, though, is said to have hated the place and refused to live in it.
It’s location near Hawkshead is the reason why the National Trust were delighted to acquire it in the late 1920s – not for the weird and wonderful building, but because its 60-odd acres of land included an almost priceless few miles of Windermere shoreline, with a jetty, so now you can even arrive by boat from Ambleside.
With the land secure, the castle itself was rented out to various tenants, like the Merchant Navy as a communications school, and more recently, to mobile phone giants Vodafone.
When they ended their tenancy a couple of years ago, the NT thought of leasing the unfurnished property as a hotel, but then decided to open it up to the public almost as it was – and rising visitor numbers hopefully mean that the off-beat attraction will stay open.
There is, say the NT staff, a fabulous panoramic view from the rooftop, but sadly, there’s no public access, at least not yet, as it is reached by spiral staircase and the dreaded Elf and Safety would not be too happy about the precarious footing on top.
And with a Vodafone legacy of a hi-tech phone mast up there, you wouldn’t want to set all your tooth fillings rattling in your head, either.
The inside of the castle reflects its use as a working environment over the past few decades, but there are original quirks aplenty, along with superb carved timber work, particularly in the soaring central hall. There’s also a full-size billiard room upstairs next to the bedrooms – just think of the effort in carrying its slate base up there – with a secret door and passage leading to the outside. One can only wonder why.
But unlike most other NT mansions and stately homes, Wray Castle is not packed with priceless and fragile fixtures, fitting and family antiques, and that’s what makes it so special – it’s one giant adventure playground and the only limit is your imagination, with all manner of activities laid on and any amount more that you can make up yourself.
Youngsters can have free rein – and free reign too, dressing up as kings and queens! – with open access to many of the rooms, including one where they can have a bash at building their own castle with giant lightweight blocks.
The estate is also a joy to explore outside, with things like den building, a family tree trail (poet William Wordsworth planted a mulberry tree there in 1845) a rope swing and loads of activities in the “50 Things to Do Before You’re 11¾” area.
There are also impressive-enough views without the need to go climbing to the roof, and you can picnic or sit in the cafe and look down to the lake. Don’t leave it too late to visit the cafe, though, for the rate that the sandwiches disappear from the self-service display shows just how delicious and popular they are. The NT has a great reputation for clean cafes and good, hearty fare (as well as spot-on toilets and a super shop) and the castle is no exception, with food prepared by the Tower Bank Arms near Sawrey, right next door to Beatrix Potter’s home at Hill Top.
The pub dates back to the 17th century, with a frontage featured in The Tale of Jemima Puddleduck, and is also owned by the NT, but is run independently by tenants who have created pretty impressive attraction of their own.
Thanks to the obvious potential of those beautiful butties, it’s now firmly on my agenda as a stopping-off point on my next trip to my favourite part of England – underlining that my long-standing NT membership is worth every penny.