Glenapp Castle Ballantrae - Restoration Story
In April of the year 2000, a very unique and exciting event took place in the sleepy Scottish fishing village of Ballantrae around eighteen miles south of the world famous Turnberry Golf Club in Ayrshire.
For the first time, after many years of neglect, followed by a painstaking restoration project, Glenapp Castle, the vast and spectacular Victorian mansion set high above the village overlooking the Irish Sea and the island of Ailsa Craig, opened its doors as an exclusive luxury hotel.
The castle has been the home of the Cowan family since 1994. For six years their full time occupation was the restoration and conversion of the castle and its thirty-six acres of magnificent gardens.
That work was completed and Glenapp Castle has now been restored to its rightful glory.
Inside Glenapp there are once more graceful lounges and elegant dining rooms with seemingly endless oak panelled hallways leading to seventeen individually furnished and decorated bedrooms and suites. All are now handsomely furnished with personally chosen antiques and fine oil paintings, and individually decorated to the highest standard in traditional style. The two ‘Master Rooms’ are palatial in size, with highly ornate cornice- work. There are two suites, which in addition to the bedroom area have an interconnecting sitting room. All of the castle’s rooms are bright and sunny thanks to the tall and elegant Victorian windows and all rooms have luxurious traditionally appointed en suite facilities, wireless broadband internet access (T-Mobile Hotspot) television, DVD player, video recorder and compact disc player. Each bedroom and bathroom has a direct dial telephone. Many bedrooms have coal and log effect gas fires, and all rooms have superb views of the gardens or the coastline, or both in many cases.
The Castle is a strikingly beautiful example of the Scottish Baronial style of architecture. Built in 1870 by the renowned architect David Bryce for James Hunter, the Deputy Lord Lieutenant of Ayrshire, the castles mellow sandstone battlements are topped by soaring turrets and towers, earning Glenapp a published place as one of the most romantic castles in Scotland.
Glenapp was for many years the private home of the Inchcape family who had made their fortune in shipping. In 1982, the third Earl of Inchcape sold Glenapp to an American family who used it as a holiday home, and spent many happy times there. In 1987 the castle was sold again and unfortunately began to fall into disrepair.
The gardens, which were open to the public until the early 1980’s, are now exclusively for the use of the castle’s guests. They are once more lovingly tended and look quite magnificent, boasting amongst other things, a spectacular walled garden, a remarkable category ‘B’ listed 150-foot Victorian Greenhouse filled with ornamental plants and flowers. Throughout the gardens there are many rare and unusual plants and shrubs including colourful azaleas and huge specimen rhododendrons. Semi-tropical plants such as palm trees flourish in the mild climate of the south west, which is influenced by the Gulf Stream. Fresh vegetables, herbs and fruit from the garden are used daily in the castle kitchens and there are freshly cut garden flowers in every room. There is now a new all weather tennis court and a croquet lawn.
The story of Glenapp Castle’s restoration began in the autumn of 1993 – Graham tells us, ‘Fay and I, a hotel manageress and a country vet, had been married for almost a year. I had been working in mainly farm animal practice for seven years and it had begun to dawn on us that this was not how we wanted to spend our lives as a married couple. Fay worked in her family’s hotel business in Stranraer – a hundred miles away, we both had little time off and something was going to have to give way. Fay loved her job and was living close to home and family so we decided that I would give up my position and do some locums while we looked around for something new. After I had briefly considered a career as a government vet we were discussing the possibility of buying a small hotel of our own and had been to view several places with little success.
One day, while looking through a property magazine, we happened upon a full-page advert for the sale of an unnamed, but spectacular looking Victorian Castle in South Ayrshire. It looked to be in a terrible state with overgrown gardens and peeling windows - but huge and incredibly beautiful. Neither we, nor Fay’s parents, with whom we were staying at the time, knew where it was or what it was called, and in any case it was obviously going to be completely out of our price range and it was virtually derelict. Just a romantic idea, and quickly dismissed from our thoughts. The next day, a Sunday, Fay’s mother and father, offered to take us out for lunch and off we set on a long roundabout trek through the countryside. Fay and I sat in the back seat getting hungrier and hungrier and more than a little puzzled as to the chosen venue, when all of a sudden just outside the little fishing village of Ballantrae - made famous forever by Robert Louis Stevenson’s book ‘The Master of Ballantrae’ - the car unexpectedly turned off the main road and onto a driveway, then wound slowly through almost a mile of trees. On rounding the last corner, past a pair of magnificent monkey-puzzle trees we had our first glimpse of our future home, Glenapp Castle. It was a completely breathtaking sight – a forgotten place - a sleeping beauty, like the castle in the fairytale that slept for a hundred years. The lawns were meadows and the paths merely suggested themselves by a dip in the ground. The windows were black and peeling and many were rotted completely away like missing teeth. The huge oak doors hung loose and creaking on their hinges. That day we stayed only a little while, but we were completely hooked. Nothing else would ever come close to this.
We arranged a viewing with the caretaker and were overwhelmed by the beautiful oak panelling and the fine cornice-work in the enormous rooms and equally overwhelmed by the huge amount of work required. I think that the gleam in our eyes and our total inability to discuss any subject other than Glenapp probably alarmed our family and friends considerably. Slowly, however, a plan began to unfold.
There were many hurdles to overcome and on more than one occasion, the whole thing was nearly called off, but after more than a year of negotiations, we managed to acquire a leasehold on the castle. Fay and I moved into the castle in June 1994, ten days before the lease actually came into effect, mainly to try and prevent the ever increasing flow of unwanted visitors intent on removing the fixtures and fittings from the by now caretakerless castle. Just in time, as it turned out, because that very weekend there had been some kind of party in the gardens and fires had been lit, the lawns were strewn with beer bottles and cans, the castle had been broken into and worst of all the beautiful sundial in the terraced garden had been smashed to pieces.
Our first year was spent ‘camping’ in the master bedroom, along with four electric fires, a four poster bed with its own chandelier, and a geriatric Springer Spaniel. We were often asked if we weren’t nervous of living alone in a vast deserted castle, but to us, Glenapp has never felt like anything other than a much loved home, despite its enormous size and we were just delighted to be here. Much of this first year was spent trying to get our plans passed by the local planning department, and making a start on the thirty acres of neglected garden and woodland. It took days for us even to get into the walled garden and the greenhouses alone were to take three months of joiner work and hundreds of panes of glass to restore. In the early days we had to switch four different hot water tanks on, to get scalding hot water in our bathroom. If we switched one off the water was instantly stone cold. Our bathroom was bigger than some of our friend’s flats, and boasted a row of nine fitted wardrobes as well as for some reason, a bidet on wheels.
The next five and a bit years were a blur of architects, planners, building control inspections, site meetings, consultants, workmen of every description, dirt, mess, power cuts, floods, leaks and all manner of major successes and setbacks. We worked all day and all evening, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Sometimes we weren’t off the premises for weeks on end. We certainly couldn’t converse on any other subject, which must have been very boring for our families and friends. After the first year, we moved out of the castle to allow all the wiring and plumbing to be replaced and for the next year and a half we lived in the small cottage next door. Our first son, Kerr, was born in 1996 and was often carried around the semi-derelict castle while Mum or Dad did whatever was required that day. We moved into our apartment on the top floor of the castle at the end of 1997, and very soon afterwards, we were able to purchase the castle outright from its previous owners. Our second son Ruadhan was born a month before we moved back in and both boys have never known any other home.
The last stages of the restoration were the fastest moving – all of a sudden rooms appeared where there had been bare stone walls. Suddenly people wanted to know where the beds were going so that electric sockets and switches could be put in place. Then, quite quickly strapping and plasterboard appeared, a skim coat of plaster and a moulded cornice and before we knew it, we were having to choose wallpapers, paint colours, curtain and upholstery fabrics, bathroom suites, kitchen and office equipment, dining room tables and chairs. And of course, carpets for sixty or so rooms. We drove to Newcastle to a massive factory and browsed through the archives and finally chose the patterns and each separate colour over a whole day and many months later the whole lot arrived on a vast articulated lorry at six o’clock in the morning. We had to wait till the workmen arrived because the lorry driver and I couldn’t even move the smallest rolls.
Over the years, we had gradually accumulated a big collection of furniture, all bought at auction and driven back to the castle by the van load. We had no auction experience at first and made lots of mistakes, but we got better at deciding what was good and what wasn’t and judging how much to pay – and most importantly – when to stop bidding! We ended up with several huge rooms at the castle stuffed to the ceiling with furniture and paintings – so much so that nobody could get in to decorate the rooms. We had to spend endless evenings shifting it all from one room to another - sometimes on our own - but occasionally some unsuspecting victim could be coerced into helping.
One of the last stages of the project was to actually place all the furniture in the rooms and hang all the paintings – a mammoth task. I vividly remember carrying large chests of drawers and wardrobes from one room to another and back again. It doesn’t seem to matter that much what the tape measure says about whether or not a piece of furniture or a painting will fit in a space. You have to actually see it in situ. It either looks right there or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t, you get to carry it somewhere else! We were still hanging paintings up at 3.00am on 20th April 2000 with the first guests due to arrive ten hours later. It was a very surreal moment as we stood in the entrance hall waiting for their cars to appear at the door, all the time our minds racing, trying to figure out if we had forgotten anything. I used to have a recurring dream about having forgotten to buy the silver cruet sets for the dining room, but luckily Fay had that one covered, and there they were. We were reasonably busy that first weekend – I think we had fifteen guests so we were half full. All seemed to go smoothly, and many of those first guests have been back to stay with us again, so it must have been alright!
Of course it was quiet at first, but every year the castle gets busier and busier. Exclusive-use has always been an important part of our business – we host many beautiful weddings and family occasions as well as private corporate occasions, but we don’t feel these occasions would mix well with our individual guests, so we keep them separate. We still try to personally meet every guest when they arrive and bid them farewell when they leave. We’ve only ever missed a few, and we still manage to meet every guest at some point during their stay with us. We are lucky to have a wonderful staff, many of whom are with us from year to year, and we are now open from late March right through until 2nd January, the day our New Year guests depart. We still close over Christmas as it’s the only school holiday we can spend with the boys and family.
We couldn’t be more proud of what we have created at Glenapp. The effort has been enormous but very worthwhile. The castle is a very special place to live and has proved to be a very special hotel. We are delighted that the castle has been successful in terms of awards and recognition, but the best bit for us is when guests tell us how relaxed they feel, or how much they enjoyed their dinner, or their restful night’s sleep. We don’t really see Glenapp as a hotel. The castle is very much our home, and it just happens to also have a constant flow of nice people coming to stay. We wouldn’t want it to be any other way.