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Dark Matters – Sites of Interest (September 2018)

THE HORRORS OLD AND NEW

OF MARGAM CASTLE 

Visited by DOMINIC KILDARE

MARGAM CASTLE in the old Welsh county of Glamorganshire wasn’t the setting Arthur Conan Doyle had in mind when he penned his all-time classic The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Other notable old houses can lay claim to that. But to come upon this stunning Gothic fantasy by the sea is to think how – had Conan Doyle cast eyes on it – then Sherlock Holmes’s creator would, surely, have been mightily impressed.

Built over a ten-year period from 1830-1840 the house stands on a site that has been occupied in one way of another for 4,000 years. It is a visual feast of towers, twisting chimneys and sky-piercing pinnacles that seems to be such a perfect study of all that is eerie and amazing that it is almost unreal.

A majestic staircase is perhaps the centrepiece of the interior where endless rooms look onto lawns and, in the distance, the sea.

The 850-acre grounds include a lovely long orangery.

The property was constructed for Christopher Rice Mansel Talbot, a Welsh landowner, industrialist and Liberal politician who created the steel town of Port Talbot which, from a distance, the mansion overlooks. Figures such as Talbot were known as ironmasters. And if ever a property was built as a display of wealth and position then Margam Castle is surely it.

Today the house is in the custodianship of the local council and is protected with a Grade One listing, the highest category for safeguarding historic buildings. It was however, seriously damaged by fire in 1977, and public access to the interior is limited (an aspect that disappointed me when I called).

One noted and frequent visitor was Henry Fox Talbot, the photography pioneer, a cousin of Christoper Rice Mansel Talbot.

There have been reports of interesting visitors of another kind, too: it is claimed that the house – once the site of an abbey – is heavily haunted.

Margam’s principal phantom is said to be Robert Scott, a gamekeeper. It is said he can be seen ascending the main staircase. He is claimed to be given to a range of poltergeist activities including throwing stones. When near, his ghost is said to exude a tangible anger and torment, connected with the shooting dead of a poacher in Margam’s past.

Reminiscent of Rudyard Kipling’s story ‘They’, the sound of children playing and giggling is said to have frequently been heard in the high-ceilinged hallways and great rooms. Small figures, reportedly children in Victorian dress, are said to have been seen darting in and out of rooms and have been blamed for a variety of ‘tricks’.

A cavalier, meanwhile, has been claimed to descend from a tapestry, and heavy footsteps and disembodied voices are said to have been reported by night watchmen. Ground staff are said to have seen a dark figure stalking the estate’s extensive acres.

In view of this wealth of wandering spirits it seems appropriate that the castle’s parkland was used recently to film a horror mystery due for release shortly starring Michael Sheen (who grew up locally).

Apostle, written and directed by Gareth Evans, is set in 1905 and revolves around a religious cult who occupy a remote island. They demand a ransom for a young woman, whose brother goes in search of her. As well as Sheen (who plays the cult’s charismatic preacher-leader), the cast (which has a strong Welsh representation) includes Dan Stevens. The set of a village was constructed on the Margam estate.

The film will stream on Netflix from October 12.

Margam Castle and Park is situated near Port Talbot in South Wales. Extensive parking is available on site. A service bus runs via Swansea and Port Talbot. A stop is located fairly near the castle. However, when Dominic Kildare alighted he found this required a walk along a road that had no footpath, with great care being needed when crossing the main road for the bus stop on the return route to Swansea.