Castles in the air: the restoration adventures of two young optimists and a crumbling old mansion by Judy Corbett

Gwydir Castle
Waterborough, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Bit of a different style of review this time. I know there are a few who enjoy a spooky story on GP, as do I – especially when it’s one apparently based in reality. So I thought I would pick out one aspect of this book to highlight.

Judy Corbett and Peter Welford had set their hearts on buying 500-year-old Gwydir Castle before they were married and before it was even officially for sale. ‘We would have slept in a tent just to be near it’, she says. At that point, it was owned by a doctor but inhabited by a motley commune of hippies and what sound like circus artists who had installed a bar and piled up original oak panelling for firewood. Once Judy and Peter finally achieved ownership in 1994, the arduous and expensive task of renovating began. They had a specific vision: to maintain the castle’s character as a building which had grown organically and been added to and altered over many ages, restoring it without destroying its romantic charm while also avoiding the dreaded ‘National Trust shop’ ambience. Along the way, they hoped to discover as much as possible about the history of the place through old maps and documents.

The trouble started when they began to remove a hideous 1940s fireplace and open up the original massive space. After much wielding of  lumphammer and crowbar, Peter gave an almighty heave and then suddenly staggered forwards, almost hitting his head on the stones. ‘What d’you think you’re playing at?’ he asked, straightening up. Judy pointed out that surely he didn’t think she had pushed him – in any case, she was standing right in front of him at the time. The incident was forgotten, until Peter was showing some visitors round, and was pushed hard again, down a spiral staircase this time, sustaining scrapes and bruises.

Judy, by trade, was a bookbinder and had bagged one small room as her workshop where she could get on in peace and quiet as and when necessary. She had just got what she describes as a ‘dream commission’ – an order for rebinding a multi-volume work in fine morocco leather, no expense spared. Losing herself in the work, drifting off into ‘the zone’ familiar to those whose concentration is fully applied, she gradually became aware of a strange feeling. It was as if someone was in the room with her: that sensation of being observed, of someone looking over your shoulder. Then she began to sense glimpses of things out of the corner of her eye – a flash of blue silk, a suggestion of a lace cuff. She had a very strong sense of some presence wishing to make itself known. Suddenly, she ‘knew’ the woman was called Margaret. Judy was convinced the encounter was somehow linked to Peter’s proposing to her shortly before. Judy had a clear knowledge of Margaret’s face, although she had never seen it: dark hair, a slightly hooked nose, a mole on the cheek. Far from finding this unsettling, Judy began hurrying to her study workroom more and more, eager for another encounter with the fascinating being who seemed to be there.

What happened next was disturbing. Margaret seemed somehow to inhabit Judy’s mind and seemed to begin to take her over. Judy, always quiet and retiring, found herself behaving in ways utterly unlike herself – driving dangerously over mountain roads, inexplicably stacking logs in the Land Rover so carelessly they almost came loose and rolled downhill on the journey; all the while despising Peter and falling out with him to the extent they almost broke up. Peter, not quite sure what was going on, eventually even suggested they should sell the place and get out – anything to go back to how they were before.

The crunch came when they were doing some outside repairs on a single-storey roof. Peter went inside to have a look at the hole in the tiles from below and Judy, together with the others who were helping, saw with horrifying clarity a spade lift up, bounce across the roof twice and slice down through the hole. Peter had to be taken by ambulance to hospital, where he needed ten stitches in his head. On the way, Judy told him what she thought had been happening. ‘I know who she is!’ he exclaimed. His research had unearthed one Lady Margaret Cave, who had come to live at Gwydir  after marrying the owner, said to be a notorious philanderer. Things had quickly gone wrong after the birth of her son in the early 1600s and reports said she became a bitter and vindictive woman, driving her husband abroad to escape the situation. He died in Italy shortly thereafter.

Now maybe they were all deluded … or maybe not. Things seemed to calm down after that, although Lady Margaret did make another appearance later on, in a more helpful manner, as if to make amends. What was strange was the discovery, some time later, of a nineteenth century account of Gwydir, which labelled Judy’s workroom as: ‘Sir Richard Wynn’s chamber … also called The Ghost Room’.

Then there was the grisly discovery under the cellar steps …

I should stress the book is not all ghostly happenings. It is a totally human story – very funny in parts, and practical in others (recipe for making your own soap, anyone?), full of strange characters and wonderful things – from cooking a peacock to a treasure hunt which leads to America. I particularly enjoyed the part where Prince Charles got stuck to the floor. Let’s leave it there.

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