A Welsh Castle Ghost Story

In 2007, Ken and I spent two nights at the haunted Gwydir Castle in the foothills of Snowdonia, North Wales. Even though the place is called a castle, the Tudor-era structure feels more like a manor house or mansion than the towering medieval fortress ruins that dot the region.

Gwydir Castle in north Wales is a lovely bed and breakfast—and home to several ghosts.

(If you’re a castle lover, northern Wales is your dream destination.) Gwydir is a private home, a museum, and a bed-and-breakfast (with two rooms)—all historically decorated in antiques.

Yet, this charming Tudor “castle” has a ruined past. Built around 1500, it was the ancestral home of the powerful Wynn family, descended from the Kings and Princes of Gwynedd. It was rat-infested, crumbling and damp—and being used as a night club when Judy Corbett and her husband-to-be Peter Welford bought it in 1994.

There are 10 acres of gardens at the historic Gwydir Castle. Peacocks roam the grounds. At night, their haunting cries seem to call "help, help!"

(For a vividly written account of Judy and Peter’s process of bringing Gwydir Castle back to life, read Judy’s memoir, Castles in the Air.)

The couple had little money but a passion for history, so they spent years living in a construction zone doing much of the painstaking historical restoration themselves. In the process, they encountered a number of ghosts with hundreds of years worth of sitings.

Meet the Ghosts

There’s a female spirit who is reportedly a victim of her lover, one of the Wynn baronets, who stuffed her body behind the wall in a passageway—or possibly in a secret enclosure within the wall called a Priest’s Hole. (A Priest’s Hole was a hiding place for Roman Catholic priests during the turbulent Tudor years when Britain’s “official” religion vascillated between Protestantism and Catholicism, depending on the monarch.)

This behind-the-wall Priest's Hole was possibly the hiding place of a murdered mistress in the 1600s.

Many people report a foul smell in one of the house passageways—the centuries-old stench of the woman’s corpse. Ken and I smelled nothing, but the passageway certainly feels colder than the rest of the house.

There’s also a ghost of Sir John Wynn—possibly the murderer—who is often seen on the spiral staircase. Gwydir even has a ghost dog, a large one. Judy and Peter actually dug up the skeleton of a large dog years ago in the basement.

Ken and I didn’t do any actual “ghost hunting” at night. Instead, we slept cozily in our four-poster canopy bed in the Duke of Beaufort’s Chamber, a lovely large room furnished with antiques and a private bath in the hall.

Our castle room: The Duke of Beaufort's Chamber

Except for the bedrooms, the castle does not use electricity (to keep it authentic). And, at night, the alarm system is activated, so one doesn’t want to creep about and wake the whole house. Besides, why would ghosts appear only at night?

The closest I came to an apparition was when the castle’s two large lurchers (a British breed of dog I’d never heard of before) bounded through the breakfast room. A moment later, a third dog nosed through the breakfast room door and streaked across the room. But, there were only two dogs that I knew of! Could the third have been the ghost dog wanting to join the living pair in play?

Malevolent Lady Margaret

The wisteria-surrounded doorway into the B&B section of Gwydir Castle

There is (or at least was) one sinister spirit at Gwydir Castle, a woman who haunted Judy for months early during the renovation. Lady Margaret followed Judy everywhere and triggered a series of “accidents” apparently intended to harm Peter.

Fortunately, Lady Margaret Cave—whose good nature darkened radically after the birth of her son in the early 1600s—has not appeared since. She was married to the philanderer Sir John Wynn, so perhaps being married to him sent her into an eternal rage against the man of the house.

Dream Come True: Sleeping in a Castle

There’s nothing nightmarish about staying at Gwydir. In fact, spending two days among its archways, mullioned and wisteria-covered windows, and Tudor-style beams was a dream come true. It’s a little like sleeping in a museum—a fantasy of mine since I was 10 and read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

The dining room is lavishly restored with its original wood panels, which were spirited off to America by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s.

The castle dining room has a story so long and fascinating I can’t even go into it here. Suffice it to say that its glorious Tudor panels were bought by William Randolph Hearst in the 1920s and stored at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for decades. Now they’re magnificently back in the castle.

Gwydir Castle is three miles from the resort town of Betws-y-Coed and 12 miles from the medieval walled town of Conwy, so it’s a great B&B to stay at while exploring the North Wales castles. It’s also within walking distance of the market town of Llanrwst, which has train and bus connections plus several good restaurants and pubs.

Gwydir Castle is open to the public (admission fee) March through October. Check for times.

P.S. I highly recommend Judy Corbett’s book, Castles in the Air: The Restoration Adventures of Two Young Optimists and a Crumbling Old Mansion (Random House, UK, 2004). I bought a copy while staying at the castle, and I read it on train rides across Wales and on the plane home.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Spooky Postscript

In gathering photos for this blog entry, I noticed that a number of them have round, ghostly patches of light. At first I thought they were shiny flash spots or reflections, yet most of them are against backgrounds with no reflective surfaces. Then I thought they might be dust motes or raindrops on the camera lens.

But they appear in indoor photos and those taken on sunny days. Could they be blobs of ectoplasm? Were Gwydir’s spirits dancing around us?

You decide. Let me know what you think by leaving a comment below.

Here I am in the lovely breakfast room. Note the halo around the unlit candlestick behind me. For comparison, the candle on the table is lit—and has a simple glow. Methinks there's a spirit lurking.

Gwydir Gate, with some white, round lights. Are they ghost entities or merely raindrops on the camera lens?

Glass Sculptures Bloom at the Denver Botanic Gardens

"Summer Sun," a glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly, at the Denver Botanic Gardens ©Laurel Kallenbach

Late summer is a great time to visit the Denver Botanic Gardens, and until the end of November, the gardens features an exhibit of glass art created by Dale Chihuly.

My husband and I attended on a warm, sunny September day and reveled in the late-summer colors—golds, yellows, reds—as the flowers have a last hurrah before the coming cold weather.

Chihuly’s somewhat avant-garde glass sculptures are integrated into the floral color schemes of various gardens and ponds. They sometimes augment the flora—but more often eclipse it, usually being bolder and brighter than the foliage around it. That was OK by me, although I did still appreciate the less flashy shows of dahlias, black-eyed susans, mums, cacti, and more.

A stunner, “Summer Sun,” was possibly my favorite of the glass sculptures with its spherical nest of spirally, curly-cue, fire-colored branches, both treelike and solar.

"Float Boat" is a rowboat full of playful glass bubbles. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Water art was likewise appealing. The Monet Pool, with its stately water lilies, featured a whimsical rowboat overflowing with brilliant, swirl-colored bubbles. Nearby, the Japanese Garden pool was the location of a sapphire-colored amphibious boat, with onion-shaped “bobbers” in the water.

Wandering from sculpture to sculpture was a treat—especially after a week of dreary rain. So, a Sunday afternoon stroll in the sunshine was welcome respite—and the glass was certainly photogenic. Lots of other people had the same idea, so at times there were crowds, which abated about the same time as kickoff for the Denver Broncos game.

Dazzling dahlias at the Denver Botanic Gardens ©Laurel Kallenbach

I hear a reliable rumor that nighttime is an even more breathtaking time to visit the Chihuly exhibit at the Denver Botanic Gardens; lighting on the glass would be even more impressive.

I’m checking the calendar now to plan that after-dark excursion.

Green at the Gardens

A few words about the sustainability aspects of the Denver Botanic Gardens. First, its Visitor Center is powered by a solar photovoltaic array located on the roof. The array currently in place produces 10,000 watts, one third of the Gardens’ planned total. Ultimately, the solar system will be enlarged to produce 30,000 watts of solar panels, enough to completely power six Denver homes. This will reduce CO2 emissions from burning coal for power by 90,000 pounds per year.

"Polyvitro Crystal Tower" and "Blue Crystals" by Dale Chihuly ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another eco-friendly aspect of the Gardens is that it showcases water-efficient gardening practices—important in Colorado and the West, where water is a precious resource.

A number of gardens are created with climate-appropriate, low-water plants. Several gardens require no irrigation at all. Visitors can get tips from the Botanic Gardens on how to practice water-efficient gardening in their own yards.

The Dale Chihuly “Garden Cycle” glass exhibit will run at the Denver Botanic Gardens through November 30, 2014.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Lessons in the Simple Life: Maine Schooner Style

On our sailing trip aboard Isaac H. Evans, a 126-year-old schooner, we had access to the endless outdoors: voluminous sky, sea, and islands—and stars galore.

Big water, little sky. The scenery while sailing Maine's Penobscot Bay is spectacular. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Yet, on a schooner, you’re confined to a small boat except for the times when it’s anchored and you debark. The reality of “tiny” hit me when I first saw our cabin; there was so little space in our bunks that we couldn’t sit up in them. We had to sort of crawl in horizontally. And only one person at a time could stand up to dress or brush their teeth. (There is a tiny sink in the cabin, which was quite convenient.)

However, over time, Ken and I wrapped our brains around the idea of “smallness,” and the bunk became a cozy haven—especially when at night we placed a hot soapstone (heated in the massive galley stove) under the covers.

Ken tucked into the lower bunk in our cabin on the Isaac Evans schooner. (Some cabins have double beds; you get a choice.) Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

I’m not saying we didn’t smack our heads a few times on the beams, but I realized how little “stuff”—and space—you need on this type of adventure.

Loo with a Shower

Having a nice hot shower in the teeny-tiny head—basically a Port-o-Potty—was also a funny lesson in “less is more.” Here’s the drill for whenever you decide it’s time to freshen up.

First, you go barefoot and wear as few clothes as possible into the shower/toilet. Then, inside the head, you stand in front of the toilet (the only place you can stand, really), undress, hang your clothes on the wall pegs, and cover them with the tiny plastic shower curtain. The four inches behind the curtain are the only part of the head that don’t get sopping wet.

Next, you grab the handheld showerhead and spray yourself with the hot water. Turn the water off (we’re always conserving water on a boat), lather up with shampoo and soap; then rinse. There’s not much elbow room, but after a couple of days, it feels wonderful to be clean.

Having a sink in the cabin was handy...but you still have to climb the ladder to get to the loo. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Finally, you towel off, pull on your (mostly) dry clothes, and emerge smelling clean, fresh and rather victorious after having succeeded in the tiny-shower quest.

Needless to say, there are no hair-driers—unless you count the breeze.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

 

Four Days Before the Mast: Adventure on a Maine Schooner

 

The Isaac H. Evans under sail. Photo courtesy Maine Windjammer Association

“Camping on the water.” That’s how the website describes a sailing trip aboard the Isaac H. Evans, a 126-year-old schooner that departs from Rockland, Maine’s harbor and sails around Penobscot Bay. On board are 20 lucky passengers—including me and my husband—and we’re in for a historic sailing experience.

The Evans was built in 1886 for oyster-catching and hauling, but nowadays it’s outfitted with small bunk rooms with electric lights. For four days in early June, it was home to me and Ken. We were keen on doing an unplugged, historic sail—a unique way to have a vacation. (Trips range from just overnight to a week in length; we chose the four-night adventure.)

Owned by Captain Brenda Thomas and her husband Brian, also a captain, the Isaac Evans is wind powered, although the gasoline-powered yawl boat—aptly named Tug ’n Grunt—pushes the boat when the wind dies. So not only do we get to enjoy an experience from days long past, but schooner sailing is eco-friendly too: very low carbon emissions. For more on this, see “15 Reasons to Take a Wind-Powered Schooner Trip in Maine.”

All Hands on Deck

On the morning we leave Rockland Harbor, Phil Bidwell, our first mate, instructs passengers on how we can help the crew of five to raise the sails. Helping out with the sailing is completely optional—but learning about sailing is half the fun! So, we all pitch in and line up along the rope lines to raise the giant mainsail, which is surprisingly heavy. We were advised in advance to bring gloves to keep from getting rope burns from the thick rope, which furiously whips through our palms.

Guests help the ship's crew hoist the sails. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Once all the sails are up, we glide along so smoothly that I can hardly feel the movement. As the crew bustles around, we watch as the lighthouse passes by. Twenty minutes after setting sail, two porpoises swim in tandem along the starboard side.

Already on the first day, I realize the pleasures of living on a historic boat: watching seabirds patrol for fish, seeing seals snoozing on rocky islands, gliding into quiet coves, skimming across the water, having your morning coffee on deck as the sun rises over the forested island hills.

There are other schooners to watch as well. We’re lucky enough to be part of the Maine Windjammer Association’s Schooner “Gam”: a rendezvous of all the ships in the association. So on our first day, we see a dozen other schooners sailing on the horizon—all heading to our meeting point in Gilkey Cove.

Schooners, I discover, are gloriously graceful with their angled sails, their sleek lines, and their slim prows. And, because she’s mostly made of wood, iron and brass, the Isaac Evans has an organic, living, breathing quality. I can see why our crew is passionate about what they do—even though they work super hard for long hours.

For the Love of Schooners

For Ken and me, the charm of the schooner sail is the relaxation and slow-down factor. It’s the sort of vacation where you can leave behind the 21st century for a simpler time. It’s amazing how quickly we forget about electronics and world events and just slip into a rhythm of the sun and moon, wind and tides.

Mostly, our daily routine centers around meals—which are incredible. Our cook, Wally, coaxes fresh-baked culinary delights from the belly of a 1905 cast-iron stove they call Glenna. (The stove is a Glenwood brand.) To give you an idea of the good eats, here’s a sampling of our saliva-stimulating menus over the four days: Maine blueberry pancakes, lobster quiche, fresh fish chowder and cornbread, haddock stuffed with crab, pork loin and biscuits, and strawberry rhubarb pie.

Wally is assisted by deckhand Aiden, a 17-year-old young woman who really knows the ropes—she’s been sailing since she was a little kid. For activity, there’s swimming, fishing, and rowing to uninhabited islands and hiking their rocky shores — but nobody minds if you lounge on deck and watch lighthouses drift by.

All of us passengers—even the kids—got to take a turn at the boat's helm. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

Outdoor Living on a Historic Schooner

What I love most about my schooner sail on the Isaac H. Evans is the ocean and being in nature. As a landlocked Coloradoan, I can never get enough of the ocean. If I don’t get to the sea at least once a year, I feel bereft. And the ships of the Maine Windjammer Association make a total oceanic adventure possible. (Because the weather was cool and rainy for two days of the sail, the water was too chilly for me to literally immerse myself in the salty waves. Wading had to suffice.)

The flip side of our outdoor sailing experience can be dealing with foul weather. We contended with almost two days of rain and cold, and spent them huddled around the woodstove in the bunk area or helping the cook in the toasty-warm galley. On one particularly blustery night, our group of sailors gathered around the table, swapped stories, sang songs, and got to know each other better.

Luckily, Ken and I had brought our long underwear and wool hats—I had even purchased some Wellies for my feet (very little call for them in dry Colorado!)—yet still there were times when I was cold during this sail in early June.

During our four-day excursion, we learned to follow our course on the nautical chart, furl the sails, hoist the anchor and coil the ropes. Though purely optional, playing sailor is half the fun. Even mundane chores — vegetable chopping, dishwashing — are more fun at sea.

And to top off the excitement—and clinch the authentic Maine experience—there’s a lobster bake on the beach of a pretty little island. (More on that in a later post!)

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and erstwhile sailor

Next post: “Lessons in the Simple Life: Maine Schooner Style”

The Isaac H. Evans  is a member of the Maine Windjammer Association (MWA), a fleet of more than a dozen schooners built in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Some are a bit fancier than others; a few have engines to fill in with sail power. Some do not take children under 16.

MWA schooner trips last from two to six days, sometimes include special themes. For instance, the Isaac H. Evans offers cruises with live music, knitting, pirate adventures, puffin excursions, lighthouse spotting, photography and full-moon night sailing.

Maine Windjammer Association members "raft up" for the annual Schooner Gam in Maine's Penobscot Bay. Photo © Laurel Kallenbach

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