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?

New Uses for England’s Old Phone Booths

During my walking vacation in England’s Cotswold Hills, I was glad to see that the iconic red British phone booths were still located in the villages. But now that everyone carries a smart phone, people have had to be creative—and they’ve given the old phone booths new lives and new purpose.

The phone booth in Upper Slaughter now houses a defibrillator. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The phone booth in Upper Slaughter now has medical applications. ©Laurel Kallenbach

One booth in Upper Slaughter, Gloucestershire, now housed a defibrillator. You can use your phone to dial 999 for an ambulance, but you can’t jumpstart your heart with your mobile device.

Stanton now sports a bright-red Information booth. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Stanton now sports a bright-red Information booth. ©Laurel Kallenbach

In Stanton, another beautiful village in Gloucestershire, the red phone booth—located right outside the Old Post House—was now acting as a miniature Tourist Information Center. Step inside and you can pick up brochures on local attractions and find contact information for area restaurants and hotels.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Read more about my Cotswold hiking trip:

More about my travels in England:

Exploring Myth and Prehistory at England’s Rollright Stones

I loved visiting England's Rollright Stones. ©Ken Aikin

I loved visiting England’s Rollright Stones. ©Ken Aikin

There are few things I love better than poking about in prehistoric Britain. Located near several of the Cotswolds’ most beautiful villages are one of England’s most charming megalithic sites, called the Rollright Stones.  Not only are they magical, they’re surrounded by colorful stories to boot.

Because our vacation was free from the worries of driving on the left-hand side of the road, Ken and I arranged a taxi from the White Hart Royal Hotel  in Moreton-in-Marsh to the Rollright Stones, which consists of three monuments: the King’s Men stone circle, the Whispering Knights burial chamber, and the King Stone standing stone. Each was built hundreds or thousands of years apart, between 3800 and 1500 years BCE.

The King's Men stone circle in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

The King’s Men stone circle in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

We arrived in the midst of a drizzle, arranged for our driver to return in two hours, and followed the signs through the trees to the largest site, The King’s Men stone circle, where we stood beneath the trees and read the legend of the Rollright Stones from our guidebook.

The tale, which probably dates back to medieval times, goes something like this: A king and his army were marching through the Cotswold Hills when they were changed to stone by a witch—no doubt a wise woman who reasoned that the land was better off remaining as crop- and pastureland instead of becoming a battlefield. So, the crone turned the king into the lone-standing King Stone, his army into the King’s Men circle of stones, and his treason-plotting knights into the Whispering Knights standing stones. The witch then transformed into an elder tree, which supposedly still grows on the hill; if that elder is ever cut, the spell will break, and all the Stones will come back to life.

The King’s Men Stone Circle

The drizzle ceased, and we walked out into the open hilltop to a sweeping panorama of the Oxfordshire/Warwickshire countryside. And then we saw the beautiful King’s Men stone circle, the highlight of the Rollright Stones’ three sites. Dozens of pocked and craggy limestones—most less that six feet tall—stood in circular formation.

The King’s Men stone circle is one of the sites at England’s Rollright Stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The King’s Men stone circle is one of the sites at England’s Rollright Stones. ©Laurel Kallenbach

It was easy to see why they’re named for soldiers—many of the more upright stones did seem to have human shapes, although some of them were squat. Each stone possessed amazing character: each was weathered like an aged person’s face. In addition, the stones are covered by unique lichens in many hues—rust, ochre, burnt umber—and according to the info board about the circle, some of those lichens are 400 to 600 years old! The stones are surrounded at their bases by grass, moss, stinging nettles, and tiny field flowers.

Ken beside one of the tallest stones in the King's Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ken beside one of the tallest stones in the King’s Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Ken and I were roaming alone among the stones, admiring their topography, when we were joined by a quartet of vivacious girls who skipped five or six times around the circle counting the stones.

There’s another legend about the King’s Men stone circle: the stones are supposedly uncountable. There are 70-odd stones, but in places it’s almost impossible to tell where one stone begins and the other ends because they lie in a cluster. Other stones barely show above the ground and the tufts of grass. According to the story, if you count the same number of stones three times, you are granted a wish.

These girls counted the stones in the circle—and got their wish! ©Laurel Kallenbach

These girls counted the stones in the circle—and got their wish! ©Laurel Kallenbach

After the girls had raced around the circle, we overheard them declaring to their mums that they got the same count three times, so they were all making a wish.

After the group left, I began counting stones but was distracted when I looked into the stand of trees that grew in a horseshoe around the circle. In the shrubbery, something shiny and colorful caught my eye, and when I went to look, I discovered that it was clooties—scraps of cloth or other decorations—tied to the branches.

Clooties at the King's Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Clooties at the King’s Men circle ©Laurel Kallenbach

Clooties (also spelled “cloughties” or “clouties”) are a Pagan tradition for honoring trees and asking for healing, and they’re commonly found at sacred sites (like ancient standing stones) and healing wells across the UK and Ireland.

The Rollright clooties were made of ribbon, cloth, stalks of barley or wheat from the surrounding fields, daisy chains, and bits of colorful litter like candy and gum wrappers and a Pellegrino label that the makers probably cleaned up from the vicinity. I imagined that a Pagan group, celebrating Lughnasa just a few weeks before in early August, might have freshly decorated the boughs.

To give thanks for my regained mobility after hip replacement—which made it possible for me to travel to England for a walking holiday—I assembled my own clootie out of dandelions and a spray of leaves, and I tied them to a branch.

Last, I circumnavigated the circle again, counting the stones. I came up with 76, but didn’t have time to do a second or third pass; we still had two more sites to visit before our time was up, so I left it to the mystery.

This stone truly looked like a human outline in the King's Men circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

This stone truly looked like a human outline in the King’s Men circle. ©Laurel Kallenbach

I did, however, take a moment to try to envision the stones with no gaps between them. According to historical and archaeological documentation, the stones may originally have numbered about 105, all standing shoulder to shoulder—even more like a militia than they look now. Over the millennia, many of the stones have fallen, and some were carted away in the last millennia for use in building bridges and whatnot.

In modern times, the Rollright Stones have been used to exhibit modern sculptures, including Anish Kapoor’s Turning the World Inside Out, and for plays, notably Mark Rylance’s production of The Tempest in1992. The Stones are also regularly used for private wedding and naming ceremonies and other celebrations, according to the Rollright website.

The Whispering Knights

Just a short walk past pastures of grazing sheep are the Whispering Knights. This trio of upright stones is aptly named because the stones lean into each other, so it doesn’t take much imagination to picture them as disgruntled knights furtively colluding against the king.

Three Whispering Knights at the Rollright Stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

The three Whispering Knights at the Rollright Stones ©Laurel Kallenbach

In reality, the vertical stones originally formed a Neolithic portal-dolmen, with these upright stones supporting a capstone, or flat “roof.” Sometime between 3800 and 3500 BCE, builders constructed this portal to lead into a communal burial chamber, which was used for human remains well into the Bronze Age, according to the sign posted at the site.

Today the Whispering Knights are surrounded by an iron fence to discourage people from climbing on the stones and damaging them or the lichens that grow on them. The Knights gaze over the farm fields and stands of trees as far as the eye can see. People toss coins into the crevasses of one of the fallen stones—for luck I suppose. Or perhaps to insure that they will return to this lovely place.

Another view of the Whispering Knights, part of a collapsed passage dolmen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Another view of the Whispering Knights, part of a collapsed passage dolmen. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The mysterious stones seem to have captured the imagination of people in the region for centuries: There’s an age-old story that on New Year’s Day, the three Whispering Knights hoist their rocky bodies and “walk” down the valley to the brook for a drink of water. The church bells of the nearby town of Long Compton are also supposed to inspire this migration. If ever there were three stones with human personalities, it’s these three.

Other local folklore includes this story: A local farmer wanted one of the largest stones to build a bridge over a stream. It took 24 horses to drag the stone down the hill, and one worker was killed on the way. Eventually the farmer got the stone positioned across the stream, but by the next morning it had flipped over onto the bank! Each time the farmer moved the stone into a bridge position, the same thing happened. Then the area crops failed, so the farmer and his friends decided to return the stone to its original position. This time it took only onehorse to drag the heavy slab back up the hill!

The moral of the story? Don’t mess with ancient megaliths—and never underestimate their power or majesty.

The King Stone

We walked back to the road and crossed, passed through a farm gate, and wandered up to the lone King Stone, which rises sinuously from earth to sky.

 

The gate leading to the field where we found the King Stone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

The gate leading to the field where we found the King Stone. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Its lovely curve isn’t how the stone originally appeared; its shape is the result of centuries of human vandalism, now hopefully curbed by an iron fence with arrow-shaped spikes at the tops.

According to the sign, 19th century drovers and visitors chipped off part of the stone as good-luck charms and to “keep the Devil at bay.”

Bad luck, if you ask me. In fact, it’s a criminal offence to damage any monument stones like this in Britain.

There’s something lonely and exposed about the solitary King Stone, which looks as if thousands of years of wind passing over the hilltop had unfurled solid rock, sending it sailing skyward into the mottled clouds. Or perhaps the presence of adjacent burial chambers and cairns contributes to the melancholy atmosphere.

The time-swept King Stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

The time-swept King Stone ©Laurel Kallenbach

Or, maybe it’s the scale of time at the Rollright Stones: We humans have a lifespan of a hundred years if we’re lucky, whereas the King Stone has been a sentry over these Cotswold hills for more than 3,500 years. The Whispering Knights have guarded their secrets for almost 6,000 years.

After two hours at the Rollright Stones—which slipped by in the blink of an eye—our taxi driver returned to whisk us along the country roads and back to our hotel, which has been operating as an inn since the 1600s. Such is time in the ancient lands of Britain.

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

The entrance fee to the Rollright Stones is just 1£. For more information, including instructions to get to the site, visit RollrightStones.co.uk.

More about megaliths:

The circle at the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

The circle at the Rollright Stones in the Cotswolds ©Laurel Kallenbach

 

Guitars in the Parking Lot: Nashville’s Bluebird Café

Guitarists and singers warm up while waiting in line at Nashville’s Bluebird Café . ©Laurel Kallenbach

“The best songwriters in the world pass through these doors.” So says a small wooden sign above the doors of The Bluebird Café in Nashville, Tennessee.

I never made it through the doors of this modest café, located in a small strip mall a few miles outside of downtown Nashville—but that didn’t keep me from understanding what it’s all about.

I heard a lot of up-and-coming and wannabe songwriters and performers in the parking lot, all just hoping to get inside for five minutes during Monday’s Open Mic Night to perform. My goodness, there were a lot of talented folks, young and old, who queued up during the late afternoon—all just aching to share their passion for country, gospel, pop, and folk music with other people.

The Grand Ole Opry may be the tippy-top of country music stardom, but The Bluebird Café is definitely the heart and soul of the music industry. Known as one of the world’s preeminent listening rooms, the 90-seat Bluebird Café has gained worldwide recognition as a songwriter’s performance space where the “heroes behind the hits” perform their own songs.

Kathy Mattea, Garth Brooks, and Taylor Swift were all discovered at The Bluebird—and you can see that dream of fame and stardom in the eyes of most of the people waiting in line. Bluebird fever hit especially hard in October 2012, when the Café made its primetime TV debut on the ABC drama Nashville. (The Bluebird figures often in the show’s plotline, which deals with Nashville’s music industry and politics.)

Monday Night Open Mic

When my husband and I arrived at The Bluebird at 5:00 on Monday afternoon, a line of people already stretched from the front doors, past the barber shop and the furniture store and the Chinese massage place, past the Porter Paints, and around the corner into the alley.

Musicians of all ages waited for hours on a hot afternoon, but their dreams were not dimmed by the heat or the parking lot setting. ©Laurel Kallenbach

At least a third of the people waiting for the Bluebird to open were carrying a guitar. From grizzled biker types to kids in braces, everyone looked expectant. Some women wore sleek mini-dresses; most people were in shorts, but most of them sported cowboy boots.

We took our place at the end of the line of about 140 people in the alley. More and more people kept coming. Luckily, the skies were cloudy, so instead of sweltering on the pavement, we were merely hot and sweaty.

While we waited, we struck up a conversation with 19-year-old singer/songwriter Ari Castronovo and her dad (he’s her backup guitarist). When they mentioned they’re from Chicago, the couple behind us overheard. They were from Chicago too—and so are the folks behind them. Our group quickly became chatty. Except for me and Ken, our little enclave was all here to play for Open Mic night, and the excitement and tension were high.

A 40-something guy behind us clutched a laminated piece of paper bearing the Bluebird logo stamp. Two years ago he was in line for Open Mic Night but didn’t get to play. In compensation, the Café gave him the stamp, which moved him higher on the list of tonight’s performers—he was assigned to the number 9 performance slot—although he still has to stand with us in the alley. Singer Number 9 had laminated his stamped card for safe-keeping over the years. The songwriter’s version of a “golden ticket.”

Ari Castronovo sings outside The Bluebird. We hope she knocked ’em dead when her turn to perform came. ©Laurel Kallenbach

As more than an hour passed, the camaraderie in the line grew. Everyone encouraged each other; everyone commiserated. Ari received a number in the low 30s, and when the Bluebird “bouncer” estimated that at least 40 people could perform during the two-hour open mic, her eyes got wide. She’d have to wait for a couple more hours, but she’d get her three minutes on stage.

The bouncer also explained to us that the first 90 people in line would be seated at the tables for dinner or drinks. The rest of us—performers or listeners—would have to wait outside until tables or seats opened up. This meant that a lot of the hopeful performers would stand outside on the sidewalk or in the parking lot until their number was called. Then they’d wait until the previous performer was finished, walk off the pavement and onto the stage, sing their song—just one per person—and come right back out again.

As a result, the parking lot became a warm-up room. Musicians who had at least an hour’s wait ran down the street and returned with to-go food from MacDonald’s, California Pizza Kitchen, or Whole Foods. The singers who were up soon tuned up their guitars and warmed up their vocal cords. They sang for each other in the parking lot; they clapped for the competition.

We got private performances from Ari, from a 12-year-old from Ohio, and from a singer 15 people behind us the line whose soprano voice soared over the traffic noise from Hillsboro Pike.

It was a nice consolation prize, because we decided by 7:00 that we were tired and hungry. Ari offered to share some pizza with us: she wanted us to hear her sing, and so did we, but the truth was that even when we pressed our noses up to the café’s window, we could barely see or hear the performer.

We watched Singer Number 9 from Chicago walk in, strained to hear an occasional lyric over the speakers, and watched him come out, flushed with adrenaline and excitement and hug and kiss his wife. It made our hearts pound in empathy.

A young singer/songwriter stands poised to walk inside The Bluebird—and into the spotlight. ©Laurel Kallenbach

Regretfully, we abandoned our place in line, feeling a little like traitors, and headed back to our car. While eating our salads over at Whole Foods, we wondered how all the singers were doing on their night to shine—and get seen—at the legendary Bluebird Café. We, alas, would never know.

Would it have been better to have gained admittance to The Bluebird? Yes and no—but ultimately we wouldn’t have traded our “back scenes” glimpse of the excitement for the actual performance. Sure, it would have been nice to sip a beer and enjoy a burger at the table, but getting to know the aspiring talents outside was something we’ll remember much longer. And after all, there’s always next time…

Laurel Kallenbach, freelance writer and editor

Originally posted November 2013