I’ve sped past Gwydir Castle many times and, because it’s local, tend to fall into the trap of thinking I can go anytime I wish. But then one never finds the right time. When a friend lent me Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air – an account of the restoration of Gwydir – I quickly became hooked. And I had to see for myself the result of many years of struggle to bring Gwydir back to medieval life. Passing beyond the boundary wall is stepping back into history, and there’s an instant cloistered atmosphere. The property is described as ‘… an irregularly planned house in late Perpendicular Gothic style with some late 16th century Renaissance detailing. It is of roughly J-shaped plan, constructed of slate-stone blocks with sandstone dressings and slate roofs. Many of the building materials came from Maenan Abbey.’
In 1994 Peter and Judy left London to search for a house to restore. Drawn to North Wales, partly because Judy grew up there and partly down to Hiraeth – the Welsh word for homesickness – there was already a powerful magnet along with an affinity to rain, the mountains, and ancient Welsh history. They discovered a crumbling 16th century stone mansion hovering on the periphery of the flood plains in Llanrwst. Gwydir wasn’t your average ‘doer upper’. Regarded as one of the finest Tudor houses in Wales, the derelict castle was formerly the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family. Having fallen foul of previous attempts to ‘modernise’ it, the building had lost its majestic identity to a hideous nightclub along with a makeshift recording studio. Despite this, Peter and Judy’s dream of owning such a place had them pursue a sale, and soon they were sharing the marginally less squalid floor space with rats, bats, and a ghost.
The story related by Judy is one of unwavering obsession, and how the sheer size and magnitude of the task they had undertaken almost emotionally and financially defeated them, in part down to a period of ghostly possession in the name of Lady Margaret Cave – the most compelling and convincing account of a haunting I’ve ever read. And this sets a theme for living in Gwydir, where the constantly blurred edge of real and imaginary, past and present, becomes the norm.
In 1921 some of Gwydir’s historic contents – including two panelled rooms – were sold. The Dining Room was purchased by newspaper tycoon William Randolph Hearst (of Citizen Kane fame). Hearst was after purchasing historic interiors to furnish his mock castle in California. The fireplaces, panelling and door cases from Gwydir were crated up and shipped to America. In 1995 Judy and Peter discovered Gwydir’s lost Dining Room in a warehouse belonging to the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Following lengthy negotiations, they were able to purchase the 17th century panelling, fireplace and door case, and all were finally returned to Gwydir – six tons of it, in fourteen giant packing crates – after a seventy-five-year American exile. I love how Judy describes this homecoming in her book, the way the very essence of Gwydir seemed to fill the air the moment the lids were eased off the crates…
The restored Dining Room wing, with its reinstated panelling and folded leather frieze was opened by HRH Prince Charles in the summer of 1998. The search continues for the Oak Parlour… Inconceivable then that these treasures should be at risk of flooding, and yet the Conwy River is prone to bursting its banks and Gwydir has fallen foul on more than one occasion. But plenty of locals are willing to pitch in and a band of volunteers are helping to build a sandbank wall.
This is a beautifully and evocatively written book; and records how Peter and Judy struggled to live in a cold, damp gothic property with not much money, but a huge amount of love for the building and a tremendous determination to get it right.