ARRINGTON, Tenn. (WKRN) — When people think of Middle Tennessee, castles typically aren’t the first thing to come to mind.
In fact, it’s rumored that Taylor Swift’s team was planning to fly to Europe to film the music video for her lead single “Love Story” before they realized there was a castle located right in Middle Tennessee where the singer lived.
“Somebody said, ‘There’s one out here’ and they went, ‘What?’” said Mike Freeman, a retired portrait photographer who calls Castle Gwynn home.
Drivers passing through Arrington on Interstate 840 might have gotten a glimpse of Castle Gwynn’s white towers poking through the trees before. Aside from Swift’s 2008 music video, locals know the castle as a part of the annual Tennessee Renaissance Festival.
But apart from those weekends in May, it is a private home to Freeman and his wife. Freeman first began dreaming up the castle in 1970 as a high school architecture student. He spent the next 10 years researching, and by 1980, he acquired around 40 acres of land to build it on.
‘I’ve tried to make it as authentic as possible’
Besides a sketch he had drawn in high school, Freeman said construction began with no other blueprints. He drew from the style of 12th-century Welsh border castles and his own trips to castles in France as he built the first tower.
“I’ve tried to make it as authentic as possible,” Freeman said. “These were 12th-century border castles, and they’ve got the French influence. Castles were built over hundreds of years anyway, so having several different styles is not uncommon.”
Today, the outside of the castle bears a remarkable resemblance to the original sketch Freeman created, which can be found centered on a fireplace in the castle’s south tower. Construction remains a constant work in progress, with a third seven story tower completed in 2017.
“If you do a little bit at a time— I’ve been fortunate to have some really talented people sharing the dream, without that it would have never happened,” said Freeman, who added that it’s taken “A lot of work, a lot of hours and a lot of head scratching… We just did it little by little.”
Each tower has a winding staircase leading to multiple different rooms. In the north tower, where Freeman and his wife spend most of their time, the first floor includes a foyer and kitchen with 60 brick arches made up of more than 14,000 bricks.
Freeman said it took a masonry worker and his four sons nearly two years to complete the brick work in the kitchen. In turn, Freeman photographed all four sons’ weddings. The kitchen also features stained glass windows and 12th-century gargoyles from England.
Any signs of wires or modern touches are strategically hidden behind the walls or other structures in the castle. Just a tower over, is the great room which includes a reception area, more brick arches, a chandelier and hooded fireplace.
Many items in the room are more than 400 years old. A nearly 400-year-old table from Warwick Castle is at the center of the room, with an over 600-year-old floor tile depicting the coat of arms of Henry VII lying just underneath the table.
Each tower is topped with a 12-ton, 30-foot-diameter cone-shaped roof. However, the pillars and stone and brick double staircase leading outside the front of the castle are probably some of the most recognizable parts of the castle for Taylor Swift fans.
The filming of Taylor Swift’s “Love Story”
Freeman can still point to the exact spots where the then-18-year-old singer stood as she recorded the music video for “Love Story,” her lead single on her second studio album, Fearless. The song references Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, but with a happy ending.
On the day of filming, Freeman said more than 75 crew members showed up to the castle.
“It was an all-day, all-night affair, they were filming till 2 o’clock in the morning,” he said.
The crew waited till the late afternoon to catch the light shining through the singer’s hair, and the art director even had rocks painted on a portion of the stone wall that was previously brown mortar. While faded, those paintings can still be seen today.
A shot from above showed Swift running down the double staircase, after which Freeman said she confided in him “that she was so scared she was going to trip and fall on the long dress she was wearing.”
Swift recently returned to the castle for the first time since filming her music video in 2008. While he “never did quite catch all of the details,” Freeman said she came back to film some advertisements and revisit earlier parts of her career.
“The few times she’s been out here, it’s just been like you and I talking, she’s just a wonderful, beautiful girl,” Freeman said. “Her parents are just as nice. They’re just super people… She’s just a good role model too. It’s hard to find these days. To have the castle, it’s part of her legacy.”
Touring the castle
While the castle is closed to the public for most of the year, each May people are invited to take a tour during the Tennessee Renaissance Festival, which Freeman started in 1986. Since Swift’s 2008 music video, Freeman said he’s encountered hundreds of young fans on tours.
“The year after the first video we had a school day and I had 300 little girls who asked, ‘Where did Taylor Swift stand? I want to stand in the same place’,” he said. “We’ve had quite a few fans, really. Every one of them says, ‘Where did Taylor Swift stand?'”
This year’s Renaissance Festival happens to kick off on May 6 as Taylor Swift performs in Nashville for The Era’s Tour. Tours are still mostly limited to a peak inside the castle because of COVID-19, but Freeman said he has crafted a video tour for fans wanting a look further inside.
In the coming years, he hopes to complete more of the castle, including a great hall and honeymoon suite, which were both under construction in May, and bring back full-scale tours. But looking back, Freeman said he’s proud to see the castle as it stands today.
“We’ve had so many things happen through the years, and after working on it this many years I look back on it and say, ‘Did I really do all that?’” he said. “Without the help of some very talented people it wouldn’t have happened.”
Festival hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. every Saturday and Sunday in May and on Memorial Day, Monday, May 29. Daily General Admission Tickets start at $25 per adult; $10 for children ages 6-12; and children ages 5 and younger are admitted for free.
The festival is held at Castle Park, 2135 New Castle Rd., in Arrington. For detailed information on this year’s festival, pass options, and to purchase tickets, click here.