In northern Wales, 11 miles south of Conwy and 4 miles north of Betws-y-coed, across the bridge from the village of Llanrwst, on the floodplain between the River Conwy and the B5106 road, lies Gwydir Castle, the ancestral home of the Wynn family. Largely of 16th century construction, it's actually what remains of a more extensive Tudor courtyard manor house, and is the finest example of such in Wales.
Peter Welford and Judy Corbett, an architectural historian and a bookbinder respectively, pooled their meager life savings and a substantial bank loan to buy the place in the early 1990s. CASTLES IN THE AIR by Corbett is the utterly charming story of the pair's labors to restore Gwydir from its abysmally ruinous condition at purchase to something resembling its former glory.
The book offers a little something for everyone. There are the restoration adventures, of course, and also romance; Peter and Judy subsequently marry in an ancient chapel on a nearby hilltop. There's a fairly convincing supernatural ingredient that involves Peter being the unfortunate focus of animosity coming from the ghost of Lady Margaret Cave, a 17th century mistress of the manor, which resulted in his being struck on the head with a spade. There's hidden treasure, in this case the original carved wooden paneling stripped in totality from the dining room and auctioned off as a single lot in 1921 to (as it turned out) the American millionaire William Randolph Hearst, and later bequeathed to New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, which still had it stored in the original packing crates in a warehouse on the rough side of town. Throughout the narrative runs Judy's dry English wit, such as when she describes the visit by an impeccably dressed representative ("Please, just call me Bill") of The Met, who was so impressed by his first view of the castle that:
"... he didn't look where he was going and stepped into the biggest pile of peacock guano you have ever seen. Peter silently directed him to a patch of rough grass where he endeavoured to remove the vile-smelling substance from the stitching of his fine Italian shoes."
Above all, CASTLES IN THE AIR is the story of the pair's love affair with and dedication to something old, historic, and worth saving in the face of seemingly impossible odds. And it would seem they've succeeded beyond their wildest dreams; the recovery and reinstallation of the Dining Room paneling brought a visit by the Prince of Wales himself, though his shoes did stick to the floor varnished only hours before his arrival.
Judy describes herself and Peter as socially reticent almost to the point of misanthropy. Therefore, the fact that they accept paying B&B guests as well as hire out the ground floor halls out for weddings - see the official Gwydir Castle website - is indication of the financial strain imposed by the ongoing refurbishment of the manor house that continues to this day and into the foreseeable future. The Welford's affection for the ancient pile is evident in Judy's words:
"... to walk in the moon-washed shadows of the yew trees and to see the ancient profile of the house silhouetted against a cloudless sky was to feel oneself suspended out of time, as though in that moment we were living in parenthesis. Sometimes, if the night was cold enough, the trails of yesterday's peacock tails would be cast in frost across the patches of lawn we had managed to scythe the day before ... We would walk down to the bottom of the garden and sit on the massive slate bench ... with the sounds of the night rustling and chirruping around us."
How incredibly rewarding the lives of these two must be!
on 26 October 2009
My husband and I found Gwydir Castle by chance while driving through Snowdonia on holiday. It is indeed a wonderful house and I discovered Castles in the Air when I saw a copy lying in a window seat. Judy Corbett writes well and movingly of her and Peter Welford's search for an old house to rescue, their discovery of Gwydir in a ruinous state and their struggle to bring it to its present excellent level of restoration. They have done a great service for Wales in their efforts to rescue Gwydir and mobilised an international community of friends and supporters in the work, including the Prince of Wales. A reader meets a fascinating assortment of people, living and dead, who bring lost skills back to use and lost pieces of the house home.
The book brilliantly conveys a sense of place and the people who made it. The account is sometimes hair-raising, but is so well and honestly presented that I suspended disbelief. Well worth reading--and the royalties will help the Welfords with their splendid work.
on 14 February 2010
I found this book a really great read, I am not the type of guy who normally reads anything other than sci-fi, fantasy such as Terry Pratchett & technical stuff. So to say I really enjoyed this book amazes even myself! I have visited the castle in Sept 2008 but had a rushed visit as my wife was off colour on the day so have always intended to return again since then and if possible to try out the bed and breakfast! I first saw the castle sometime in the early 1990's when driving past but had the kids with me and it had been a long day so no chance of stopping then so I was very glad when I could finally get back to actually see the place.
This book brings the place and their ongoing struggles to fix it up to life with nice touches of humour and romance with just the little bit of "Victor Mildrew" in places.
Final word, buy this book its great and visit the castle!
Isle Of Man
on 1 April 2004
I got married at Gwydir Castle in 2003, so having a personal interest, I couldn't wait to read the book and find out more about the Welford's painstaking restoration of such a beautiful building and grounds.
From the very first page I was unable to put the book down. I was captivated by thier complete dedication and determination to rescue Gwydir. It is beautifully written, at times moving and funny and certainly one of those books which you can completely lose yourself in. Being unable to put it down, I read it all in one day and was dissapointed when I reached the last page. I would highly reccommend it to anyone who loves Wales, castles, restoration or who just wants a bit of escapism.
CASTLES IN THE AIR was sitting on my bookshelf for a while before I got around to reading it - usually I am a faction girl, so this piece of non-fiction was a slight detour from my usual escapism. However, once started, I was hooked. Admittedly, the picture on the cover first drew me in, with its romance and fairytale quality - what I found when I began the book was that the picture on the cover had done the story justice.
CASTLES IN THE AIR tells the story of Corbett and her then future husband's purchase and then restoration of a sixteenth-century mansion, Gwydir Castle in North Wales. Although it was virtually derelict when they first saw it and fell in love with it, years of patience and the foresight to see the potential meant that they were able to bring this gorgeous building back to life.
But, to say that CASTLES IN THE AIR is simply the restoration story of a young couple hooked on accomplishing their dream is to simplify the book and to take away a lot of its credits. Corbett is able to put her passion and love for the building to paper, and this love seeps off the pages. She perfectly manages to 'draw' a picture for the reader, showing the beauty of the house. For me, her telling of their story had bags of romanbce - the way she described the scenery and their way of life, despite at times living in something which was akin to squalor. Corbett has taken just the right amount of history, fact, humour, personal reflection and memoir to create a book which is not about bringing a building back to life, but rather about creating a future and a life with her partner.
For me, a person who loves castles and the landscape of Wales, the only way this book could have been even better would have been for me to be sitting in Gwydir's grounds whilst reading.
on 5 July 2012
If you have never been to this fascinating place, you must go to the stunningly beautiful Conwy Valley and there just on the edge of Llanwrst is this amazing ancient property.
We have visited it 3 times now over the last 20 odd years. We saw it twice in it's run down state of semi dereliction just prior to the squatters moving in when it was a sad and almost forbidding place. We visited again this year and the transformation we saw on this third recent visit was wonderful to see. Peter and Judy have worked wonders with this marvellous old place which just exudes mystery and atmosphere and to our mind, is a real gem in the Welsh crown.
As Judy makes clear in her book, it is not all gift wrapped, but is a truly authentic, interesting ancient property which anyone with a passion for history and things ancient will appreciate. There is a very special 'aura' about it and once seen is never forgotten. We adore it, and take our hats off to Peter and Judy for rescuing this stunning place. Oh, and by the way, the gardens are quite something too !
Judy's book is beautifully written and it really is a page turner. I can recommend the book even if you don't know Gwydir, but even more so if you do. Buy the book and go and visit Gwydir (and the peacocks)and be prepared to be wowed by this fascinating place.
on 16 May 2012
You might not think that a book about restoring an old house would end up being a compelling read, but this one certainly is. It is beautifully written, in a lovely calm and open style, yet somehow it's as good as a can't-put-it-down mystery novel. I don't want to spoil any of the dramas or mysteries, so I won't go into detail, but I can only say that I enjoyed it so much that I then bought six copies to give to various friends as presents, and they all loved the book as well. A splendid book which I loved and will happily read again.
on 18 August 2010
Having had visited Gwydir Castle in North Wales I found the book by Judy Corbett very interesting. It is well written and is full of humour.She has such passion for the castle that had been rescued from terible fate by young Judy and her husband. Definitely a good read!!
on 21 January 2010
My new husband booked us into the castle for a surprise honeymoon getaway and I was spellbound as soon as I entered the gate. The next surprise was the book detailing the pain staking work this lovely couple had put into making this a real castle not a watered down faux "ye olde worlde castle". The book was read in one go as I relished reading the ups and some terrible downs of this marvellous pair. A great book written by a true dreamer.