This is the story of a young couple with no money or experience but lots of dreams & determination. Judy & Peter fall in love with a derelict castle in Wales & decide to buy it & restore it to its former glories. They persuade the castle’s owner to sell it to them & then have to set about evicting the squatters, removing the evidence of various “renovations” that have been done since the 1950s, including part of the castle being turned into a seedy nightclub, & living in a filthy, cold & wet home while they try to work out the puzzles of the castle & its past. They’re determined to bring it back to the glory of the 17th & 19th centuries (one wing each) & remove the accretions of bad taste & inauthenticity that have obscured its beauty.
There was a kind of ghostly nostalgia to it all, echoes of what the great house had once been and could be again. We would attempt to blow the dust off its ravaged face and play the alchemist’s hand, transmuting a low and unloved drinking den into a wonder, a lovely glowing ruby in Wales’s mossy crown. We would stitch up the wound that neglect had made in its past. We would seal up the roofs with love. And those who had written off the dear old house (and there were many), the ‘old buildings-stand-in-the-way-of-progress’ types, would one day eat their words.
This romantic view of their mission, their destiny, never really leaves Judy & Peter. The book opens in a storm when they each patrol a wing of the castle checking for leaks & emptying buckets. It continues with unreliable tradesmen, sceptical locals & uninvited visitors who turn up day & night to look at the castle as though it were a National Trust property. They ask a friend who’s also a surveyor & architect, to have a look at the castle & tell them what needs doing. He says there’s enough work to keep five builders working full time for years. Judy & Peter aren’t daunted by this assessment, even though they’ve spent all they had on just buying the castle & have no budget for the restoration. They work at their own jobs (Judy is a bookbinder who sets up a workroom in the castle, Peter is an architectural historian) to finance the restoration, doing what they can themselves & often having just enough money to pay the tradies at the end of the week.
Apart from sheer hard physical work, they also do a lot of historical detection, trying to rediscover the past. They become determined to recover as much of the original fixtures & fittings as they can, especially after discovering a catalogue from a sale of the contents in 1921. They discover that William Randolph Hearst, the American newspaper owner bought the panelling of two of the rooms & travel to New York on the trail. Along with the bats, mice & other unpleasant inhabitants, they also discover that Gwydir is home to several ghosts. The most frightening of these is the ghost of a woman who becomes fixated on Judy & begins to influence her behaviour & personality in a very malevolent way. Eventually their hard work pays off as they begin offering B & B, hiring out the chapel for weddings & opening the castle to tourists. The culmination of all their work is a visit by the Prince of Wales to officially open the castle.
I admit I can’t think of anything worse than living in squalor, working day & night to restore a building that is only one step away from falling down altogether. I don’t have that kind of mad determination & single-minded devotion to a dream. But, I did enjoy reading about someone else doing it. I enjoyed reading about the history of the castle & its former owners & the research Judy undertook in pursuit of her dream. I was inspired to take Castles in the Air off the tbr shelf (where it had been since 2005) by Captive Reader’s lovely review a couple of weeks ago. Another example of blog reading leading me to an exceptional reading experience.