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Archive for the ‘Judy Corbett’ Category

I love reading about restoration projects, the grander and odder the building, the better.  Castles in the Air by Judy Corbett about the author and her husband’s experience restoring a Welsh castle fit the bill perfectly.  Now, I have simple needs.  I am content with a few anecdotes about trades people (troublesome or terrific), the discovery of the building’s charming/money-sucking quirks, and the stresses of an ever dwindling bank account.  But this book had so much more than that!  It had ghosts, tetchy tourists, trans-Atlantic treasure hunts and the Prince of Wales.  I defy you to ask for more.

Let me make this very clear: if I knew Judy or her husband Peter personally, their high ideals and indifference to any kind of financial security or physical comfort would drive me wild.  But at a distance their wildly impractical flights of romantic fancy can seem quite endearing:

We harboured a dream of one day buying a ruinous old mansion and renovating it as accurately as possible and living in it without electricity or any concession to modern life.  My dream was to wear a chatelaine round my waist, and keep wolfhounds and tend bees in some quiet corner of a walled garden.  I had a strong sense of the Gothic in me, and neglected houses, in particular, appealed to something deep within my psyche.  Peter said he would be happy to fall in with anything, provided the house was pre-1670 and had held Royalist allegiance during the Civil War; living in a Parliamentarian house was out of the question.

While still in their twenties, Judy and Peter purchase the sixteenth-century Gwydir Castle in North Wales.  Part ruin, part disastrous mid- 20th Century renovation project, the castle needs work.  Lots and lots of work.  Particularly since Judy and Peter’s aim is not just to make the building liveable but to restore it to its former glory – very former: the two want to recreate the original conditions, so it’s back to the 16th and 19th centuries respectively, depending on which wing you’re in.  They want it:

…to look as Sir John Wynn remembered it, when Good Queen Bess was upon the throne.  So if, at a moment’s notice, he were to step over the petal-strewn threshold, there would be no jarring anachronisms to raise an eyebrow.

For me, the best part of any renovation story is figuring out just how it was accomplished.  And, usually, that means how it was financed.  Judy and Peter exhausted their savings to purchases the castle in the first place so generating cash flow throughout the project was vital.  By any means.  From cashing in on the tourists and locals who were already coming to gawk, to running a B&B using the best rooms and the guest house , to hosting weddings and large receptions, to writing this book, they are impressively resourceful.  They are private people not terribly excited about always having strangers about – when the visitors would ring the bell, everyone would run in the opposite direction to avoid having to tour them about – but their commitment to the project forces them to make nice in order to keep their dream alive (at least until they were able to hire someone else to manage the guests – a very happy day).  And when it comes to buying back the castle’s original features that were earlier sold off at auction, they gracefully abandon their natural reserve in order to beg money from the Welsh heritage service and also give interviews to the media in hopes of someone somewhere hearing what they’re doing and being able to help them track down more the of the castle’s historic pieces.

As befits any castle, there are ghosts.  Some are relatively harmless – a ghostly hound, for instance, who plays with Judy and Peter’s own dogs – while others are much more sinister.  Judy’s tales of her encounters with the malicious ghost Margaret form a chilling chapter.  I don’t generally read ghost stories but I am apparently quite susceptible to them, as I found out while reading about Margaret one dark and stormy night when I was alone in the house.    I kept reminding myself that I don’t believe in ghosts but it was much easier to remember that the next morning, in the light of day.

An excellent, wide-ranging chronicle of a massive and fascinating project and of the two young optimists mad enough to take it on in the first place.

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