The postbox just off the high street tells the tale of the contrasting reactions the arrival of the I’m a Celebrity … jamboree is provoking in the north Wales market town of Abergele.
The Rhyl Toppers, a group of yarn bombers (street artists using colourful displays of knitted or crocheted yarn rather than paint), has lovingly crafted a woolly vision of the show’s hosts, Ant and Dec, as knights in shining armour to crown the postbox.
But, rather less artfully, someone has stuck a scrawly, sweary note on to the box suggesting the ITV show is “utter crap” and urging McPartlin and Donnelly to “go home”.
“There’s always one or two critics,” said Tracey Brennan, who runs a gift shop and fruit and veg store in the town as she scraped off the offensive sign “But the vast majority of people love the show and what it is doing for the town.
“It’s been brilliant for Abergele – I reckon visitor numbers were up by 50% in the summer. It’s been good for people’s mental health at a time when we need it and it’s even meant housing prices have increased. It’s put us on the map.”
The reality show, in which celebrities take part in gruelling challenges and are tormented by close encounters with creepy-crawlies, arrived in the town last year when Covid put its usual milieu, the Australian jungle, out of bounds. At a time of lockdowns and firebreaks, fans lapped up the trials and tribulations that celebrities endured in and around the cold, damp surroundings of Gwrych Castle.
But there was also concern from animal rights campaigners that live creatures were being used as entertainment and the police investigated claims that non-native insects such as cockroaches could have been accidentally released into the wilds of Wales.
There was also a human tragedy when a 58-year-old woman, Sharn Hughes, died after being hit by a car after stopping to take a picture of the illuminated castle.
The show will be back on television on Sunday night and a stroll around the town seems to confirm Brennan’s view that most people are still onboard. Children from local schools have created “bug bunting” that is draped on many of the buildings. Shops and other businesses have competed for the best window display.
“I think it has brought energy to the town,” sai thed artist Pam Peters, who has created a splendid artisan fused glass rendering of Gwrych Castle for her shop window display.
An old bank building has been turned into an I’m a Celebrity … gift shop selling souvenirs, from tea towels and fridge magnets to handmade soaps. People drop in for packets of dried insects such as honey roast crickets, to re-enact their own “bush tucker trials” as they watch the show. The town’s Pen-y-Bont Inn is stocking up on mealworms, grasshoppers and crickets to grind up and add into I’m a Celebrity … cocktails.
The television presenter and naturalist Iolo Williams will be watching the show not for fun but to keep an eye on the animals. He is pleased that the show has upped the profile of north Wales. “But I’ll be dismayed if they continue to use live animals for entertainment,” he said. “My main worry, once again, is the use of non-native and potentially harmful species such as cockroach and locust. Should these get a foothold in such an ecologically sensitive area, the outcome could be disastrous.”
The show refuses to give details of where its creatures come from. A spokesperson said: “The team have many years of experience in producing the show and have rigorous protocols in place to ensure that animals are handled safely before, during and after filming, in compliance with animal welfare law. Welfare and safety is always our primary priority.”
Sian Williams, the head of operations in north-west Wales for Natural Resources Wales, said it had discussed non-native species and biosecurity issues with ITV and the production company to safeguard the local environment.
She said: “Any individual or organisation must obtain a licence from NRW under the Wildlife and Countryside Act or the Invasive Alien Species Order before transporting, keeping or releasing relevant non-native species.
“No licence applications have been received from the production company in relation to non-natives as part of their production of I’m a Celebrity.”
If the production company does not use species covered by the legislation or if they put measures in place to ensure that non-native species used in the production are not released or allowed to escape, it may not be necessary to obtain a licence from NRW.
The return of the show is also highlighting tensions between residents and the castle over access to footpaths in the grounds. Some locals accuse the castle of blocking off paths they have used for decades to exercise and walk dogs.
County councillor Andrew Woods said he believed most locals embraced I’m a Celebrity … and it had boosted the economy but he was working hard to keep the paths open. “There’s bitterness about that,” he said.
The castle, which is using I’m a Celebrity … to boost an ambitious restoration project, insists it is within its rights and argues the show is good for the town.
Mark Baker, the chairman of the Gwrych Castle Preservation Trust, said: “Everywhere you turn there’s pictures of Ant and Dec. It’s a festival atmosphere.”
Self-confessed superfan Sylvia Jones, a partner in a north Wales building company, agrees. She remembers trips to the castle as a schoolgirl to watch jousting.
“It’s great to see the castle being used again for something as exciting as this,” she said. “I love it.”
Original posted at www.theguardian.com