For more than 360 years, the brooding medieval Fonmon Castle has belonged to just one family.

But that all changed when a businessman, who happened to be looking for a castle, googled 'castles for sale'.

Up popped Fonmon, in the heart of the Vale of Glamorgan countryside, setting in motion a chain of events that has culminated in an unlikely partnership between two men.

Nigel Ford became the proud owner of the Welsh castle in January 2019, taking over from Sir Brooke Boothby, a baronet who’d lived there for three decades.

"I was looking for a castle for the zoo I own in Stratford and I found this," says Nigel..

"I just Googled castles for sale and Fonmon popped up on the Savills site. The girl who was helping me search said: 'Do you want to move back to Wales' and I said: 'Yes, when can I go?'."

Nigel Ford bought Fonmon Castle after googling 'castles for sale'

The fortified castle takes its name from the nearby village of Fonmon and dates from Norman times. It has been sold only once before, to Colonel Philip Jones, a direct ancestor of Sir Brooke, during the English Civil War.

Whether it's the rectangular shape or the concrete roughcast on the walls or the sheer number of windows, the Grade I listed building looks less like a typical Welsh battle-ready castle and more like a grand country home, albeit a rather foreboding one.

Today it looks resplendent with a curtain of magenta ivy trailing down the walls, a burst of colour on an otherwise drab October morning.

We are sat around a large oak table in one of the many imposing rooms, a keen draught blowing through the corridor outside. Ancient looking pewter plates and tankards line the walls and two tubes of salt and vinegar Pringles on a low sideboard look distinctly out of place.

Nigel serves tea in mismatching modern china mugs and Welsh cakes. When he first appeared from behind a wall in the castle's car park, a deer skin hat clamped to his head and slightly wild eyes peering from underneath, you could have been forgiven for thinking he was the gardener rather than the owner.

It's a frequent mistake and one Nigel doesn't like to correct. He often acts as the castle guide himself when tour groups arrive.

"I never tell people I own it," he says. "All that self-effacing stuff, I hate it."

So for someone who found his castle on Google and who doesn't want to act like a member of the landed gentry, exactly why did he buy it and the four cottages and 350 acres that came with it?

"To make money," he darts back, without missing a beat. "There's no point doing anything if there's no money in it.

"I like making money, if you don't make money there's no point."

An unlikely partnership: Nigel Ford and local farmer Rhys Jenkins have struck up a mutual venture

The 55-year-old is originally from Leicestershire but grew up in the Gwendraeth Valley when his family moved to south Wales. He left school before finishing his studies and found a job milking for a local farmer by putting an ad in the Carmarthen Journal which simply read: "18-year-old looking for work".

He made his real money a few years later as a seed merchant, selling and distributing seeds across the UK. There must be considerable money in seeds to be able to snap up a Welsh castle for £3.6m?

There is, he agrees, although he did go back to agricultural college to do a diploma in agriculture first. His first job was driving forklifts in a warehouse before working his way up through admin and into sales.

These days, he runs his own wholesale seed business, All Things Rural, as well as a popular visitor attraction All Things Wild in the Midlands alongside his partner Rebecca.

He set up All Things Rural in 2004 in his bedroom he says. "I had no money, just £17,000, and a dented Mitsibushi." Now it has a turnover of £9-10 million, he says, and employs 15 people full time.

He followed this in 2012 buying up a bankrupt business near Evesham which he turned into popular attraction All Things Wild.

"It was a little farm that had gone bust and now we have more than 100,000 visitors through the gates every year," he explains.

"You can do anything if you just crack on," he adds brightly. "I've got good people around me and I work hard. I'm no genius, I just grind away. I start early and finish late."

Even so, he laughs at the idea of being "rich". "We do have a strong balance sheet," he admits. "But everything here goes back into the business."

Nigel Ford made his money as a seed merchant, selling and distributing seeds across the UK

Nigel is quick to deflect any sort of praise or admiration about his business achievements. Despite giving the impression that he has gone through life "winging it", Nigel is definitely a businessman and he knows what he wants and how to do it.

Nigel's speciality seems to be spotting an opportunity where others have perhaps failed. Something he learnt on the trading floor when he was a seed merchant, he agrees. But with Fonmon Castle, he was almost too late and nearly missed the opportunity completely.

"I asked if I could go and have a nose and a poke around but they said it was already off the market," he recalls.

"Once I was told I couldn't buy it, it was a red flag to a bull. So a few days later I paid my £4 and had a look round myself as a tourist. I put an offer in the next day and Sir Brooke sold it to me."

Sir Brooke was taken by Nigel, mainly because he was offering to keep the castle open to the public rather than turning it into a high value private home, he said.

"Sir Brooke commanded me to come down and see him and he interrogated me here, at this very same table, and then dismissed me.

"He rang up the next day and said he'd sell to me."

The room where the Nigel was 'interrogated' by Sir Brooke Boothby about his reasons for wanting to buy Fonmon

The castle was for sale in three lots and Nigel had put a bid in for the the castle itself and the estate. The third lot, the nearby quarry, was eventually sold separately.

Even so, it took nearly six months for the sale to go through thanks in part to the complex historic 'medieval' agreements and clauses that the ancient pile, which was built in the 1200s, came with. More than once his solicitor phoned him up and told Nigel what he was doing was "absolute insanity", he laughs.

When he got up on the roof, he found it was only watertight by virtue of "B&Q tarpaulins held down with wooden battens".

"I reckon it was about five years away from starting to deteriorate and fall into a state of repair," says Nigel, adding there was water coming into the library.

"The work we've done now should keep it good for another 100 years or so. There is always work to be done and running costs.

"You never really own these places you just look after them. If you get emotional about it, it will just kill you."

The Grade I castle dates from the 12th Century and has extensive grounds
Visitors will find the castle interior is just how they imagine it to be, complete with a suit of armour and grand sweeping staircase

The inside is largely for show rather than practical living, adds Nigel.

"When people come to visit they want to see a castle and how they expect a castle to look," he says. "It's all part of the experience isn't it?". The paintings on the walls are mostly copies. Sir Brooke took his extensive collection with him, explains Nigel, adding there were some original paintings valued in the hundreds of thousands.

His management style is "ruthless" he says, with only the smallest hint of sarcasm, but equally he is fair and lets people get on with it.

"You have to trust people," he says. His two boys, Joey, 10, and Elijah, 13, who are both home-educated, are also "put to work" when they come with him, he jokes.

Fonmon Castle is his next challenge: to create a family attraction in the Vale of Glamorgan that entertains and educates at the same time.

His vision is to follow in Folly Farm's footsteps but "the next tier down".

But first he had to spend money to be able to make money: around £600,000 on the leaky roof and another £200,000 investing in the outdoor historical attraction Step Through Time.

This included commissioning a range of life-sized dinosaur models which now lurk in the trees along a woodland trail in the castle estate. When the attraction is open and in full flow, a Dino Hunt Team are on hand to teach dino-lovers fun facts and interactive activities while there is also a medieval farm manned by actors who show visitors live in old times.

Game of Thrones actor and living history expert Ross O’Hennessy is in charge of that bit and has sourced the medieval peasants and farm hands from the actors he has trained.

As we walk through the empty Step Through Time, Nigel pauses to point out each element he has built over the past 18 months. Some of the fibreglass dinosaurs were made in Germany but some were made by Nigel himself back in the Midlands. They are strikingly lifelike and certainly impressive.

It's not uncommon for Nigel himself to don a realistic 'dino suit' and prance among the visitors himself, he adds.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Fonmon Castle was a popular wedding venue

In the seven-and-a-half weeks that Fonmon Castle was able to open after lockdown, Nigel is incredulous that more than 17,000 people came to enjoy the open space and extensive grounds.

"They just arrived with a blanket and a picnic and plonked themselves down for the day," he said. "It was great to see really."

He had just put the finishing touches to the impressive Halloween display around the castle grounds, complete with costumed actors and light show specialists, when talk of a second lockdown began. He managed to run the Halloween experience for two days before he had to close it down again. On the day we meet, his team are busy dismantling it.

"It was open for two days, then we had to stop," Nigel said. "We're moving it up to All Things Wild now."

Even more gutting for Nigel was the fact that nearly all the event tickets had sold out. Back inside the castle, there is a one-man-team busy refunding over £25,000 of ticket sales.

The Fonmon Castle Halloween exhibition is already being dismantled because of lockdown

Nigel spreads his time between his three businesses, spending two days at each one and travelling in a beaten up 17-seater minibus which has become his office and mobile home. If he had to commit to a "base" he would have to say Stratford, he says reluctantly.

"But I'd rather be here in Wales," he says.

It was during one of his fleeting visits to Wales last summer that Nigel spotted an article about local farmer Rhys Jenkins and how his family farm was just about to be flattened to make way for commercial development.

Rhys lives and works at nearby Model Farm in Rhoose alongside his father, Gethin. The Jenkins family have been tenants on the land since 1935 and 65-year-old Gethin had hoped to pass it on to Rhys. But out of the blue, landowner Legal and General revealed plans for a new business park which would consume more than 100 acres of Model Farm's land.

The financial services giant said the new business park would create 2,000 jobs and had hoped to have planning permission approved before the end of 2019. At the time, the company said the "important project" would help Cardiff strengthen its position as "a gateway for business, tourism and leisure, while attracting world class talent and contributing towards the creation of local employment opportunities."

An outline planning application was submitted to the Vale of Glamorgan council in August 2019 and is still being considered. If approved and development goes ahead, Rhys will see everything his family has built up over three generations completely razed to the floor, he says.

Local farmer Rhys Jenkins, who jumped at the opportunity to manage the Fonmon Estate

Much like Nigel was given a chance by Sir Brooke, so Rhys found himself summoned by Nigel for a chat about how he had a potential solution. Nigel proposed that Rhys take on the role of managing the 350-acre estate at Fonmon Castle. It was a lifeline for 33-year-old Rhys and he grabbed it with both hands.

"They are proposing to completely flatten the farm," said Rhys, who has two daughters, Ffion, two, and Freya, six months. "The plans came out of the blue. The last couple of years have been bad news after bad news and it came as a shock."

For Nigel, what he was proposing to Rhys was a no-brainer: "I like to give people a chance," he said.

"Rhys was just as likely as me to be given this kind of opportunity. If you don't give young people a chance they aren't going to thrive."

Farming is in Rhys' blood and he can't think of doing anything else. "Since my girls came along, it's given me a kick up the rear to make sure I can support them," he says, apologising for the cliche.

"It's nice to know I can carry on going with what dad has built up. This has been a big relief for dad and it's a great opportunity to do something a bit different while still farming.

"Dad had quite a few sleepless nights about it all. He is so family orientated and he would do anything to make sure that all three of his kids were looked after.

"Over three generations they had built the farm up between the three of them. To see that potentially flattened and taken away from him was a real kick in the teeth."

Both men have young children and passionately believe in educating the next generation

Rhys now manages the Fonmon Estate while also running his independent business, Wild Wales Seeds, from Model Farm. The unlikely partnership between the two men seems to work well, despite still being early days. They have an easy relationship and bounce ideas off each other effortlessly.

Neither are overawed by the grandeur or the history that has fallen under their responsibility but instead are excited about the plans in the pipeline.

Stood at the end of the woodland trail overlooking the picturesque Ffwl-y-mwn Brook river valley, the pair talk enthusiastically about the next stage.

Nigel wants to create a pirate-themed area in the valley and a "woodhenge" feature on the hillside opposite. With 350 acres to play with, his only constraints are his own imagination.

For Rhys, besides the raising of livestock in the lowland areas, the business will also include a summer maize maze in one of the fields opposite where we're stood. He has grand plans to design a Welsh dragon out of maize if he can, complete with colour-coordinated wild flowers to give it a proper Welsh red, white and green theme.

"It’s really exciting to be doing something slightly different, and to create a business that is pretty unique in Wales," says Rhys. "We’re keen to get involved with the local community and to help push how unique Wales is."