September 16th, 2009


Forward Into the Past

We spent a good portion of the last 24 hours in the past--the 17th century, to be exact, with forays backwards into the 13th and forward into the 18th.)

The 15th-17th century parts were the most satisfactory. I'm not going to say that if you've seen one of Edward's Ozymandiasoid castles, you've seen them all, but they are remarkably (and understandably) similar in form and function, varying mostly in what you can see from them (mountains, with or without sea) and size (medium, large, extra-large). We didn't exactly skip Carnaerfon, but we admired it from the outside, wandered through the walled town a bit, and pressed on to Conwy, which was much more to our taste--another walled town with a harbor and a quai, but smaller and (for our money) a lot more charming.

A great deal of the charm came from Plas Mawr , a Tudor house built by Robert Wynn between 1576 and 1585. It's had a chequered career since, but has been recently restored to its original glory, limehair plaster walls, molded and painted ceilings, paneling, and all. As luck would have it, a group of 17th C. Historical Re-enacters were in residence, spinning, making clothes, doing laundry, hanging around the kitchen with ingredients and an apron. Sunday, the day we were there, they just happened to be recreating a 17th C. wedding.

It was sublime. Every stitch was accurate, from the women's caps and chemises to the men's hand-knitted (and gartered) stockings, the serving-men's bare heads, the heavily currented bride-cake, and all the food at the feast, which smelled deliciously of cinnamon and nutmeg and was eaten with knives and fingers. A consort of music played airs from Playford, and we all processed to the churchyard and back and attended the feast and the formal Bedding of the Bride and Groom, complete with mildly rude jokes. If the bride (who was in sober truth betrothed to her groom) had blushed any harder, she would have caught fire.

After it was over (and Ellen had scouted around all the dishes, tasting this and that until told not to), we poked into every corner of the house, from straw-strewn kitchen to the recreated 19th C. boarder's room in the attic and the laundry yard and miniature knot garden out back. The sun came pouring in the windows, glinting off polished pewter and old glass and much-waxed chests and tables, and it was all very beautiful and magical. I liberated two chips of slate from the laundry-yard for my Rocks of the World collection.

After that, Conwy Castle, although inarguably lovely, was decidedly anticlimactic. Or perhaps it was just that I had climbed all the steep, winding stairs I could stand for one day, thereby missing all the beautiful views from the battlements. Ellen braved the stairs, though, and took pictures of the views while I wandered the inner courts and saw what was left of Edward and Eleanor's chambers and mused on colonialism and romanticism and expansionism and fear of heights and courage and whether we should stop for dinner before getting to our next stop or buy some cheese and bread and not risk driving after dark.

Picnicing won. We bought cheese and bread, got into the car, and drove to Gwydir Castle. Which really deserves a post all its own, so I shall give it one.

A Castle in Wales

You know how it all too often is, when you go to a place someone has recommended to you with stars in her eyes, a perfect place, an enchanted place where historians and romantics and artists will feel as if they've somehow come home. A place, moreover, that sounds like the perfect backdrop for a story you're having a horrible time getting to straighten up and fly right, a place that will cure your artistic ills and shower you with inspiration.

Which is not exactly what Elizabeth-Jane Baldry said over dinner in her cozy little Victorianische cottage across the street from our temporary Chagford home, but it's certainly what I wanted to hear, and what the eternal optimist in me hoped for. A recipe for disaster, right? A clear invitation to Yo-I-Oh decor and faux tapestries and geraniums in the gen-oo-ine Toodor Not-Garden?


Following signs to Castle Gwydir, we wound down thickly wooded hillsides along twisty little country lanes until we got to a stone gateway, filled from edge to edge with great, heavy, iron-studded doors. Shut, of course. Taking heart from a car parked on the verge, we parked too, and crept through a little portal into a pebbled courtyard.

It was enchanted. It was perfect. It was the house of heart's desire.

Judy Corbett, the owner, let us through a great stone hall, hung with massive old tapestries, with a massive Jacobean table covered with a Welsh woven cloth, up a narrow and worn spiral staircase and into a second stone hall, ditto, at the end of which was a parlor, darkly paneled, a second and less scary flight of steps down to the ground floor, and our room, which was also perfect. Ochre walls, a stone fireplace with a portrait of Charles II over it, deep window embrasures, an very old oak chest, a carved and canopied bed with red plush curtains that actually drew closed. And a large draped table with a chair in front of it, perfect for writing.

We wanted to move in forever. Instead, Ellen walked to the village just over a stone bridge possibly designed by Inigo Jones to buy cheese and bread for dinner, and I sat in a windowseat in the parlor, writing in my journal as the light faded and the owners' two beautiful lurchers rolled in the bright green grass. We ate in there, too, by fire and candle-light reflected off the white tablecloth and a brightly polished brass charger and the pendulum of a 17th c. hanging clock ticking solemnly in a corner. White we ate and drank (perry, which Ellen also bought), Judy came in and we talked. She's written a memoir of finding and restoring the house called Castles in the Air (which I'm currently reading and loving) and a novel called Envy. We talked about writing and old house living and writing and revising and ghosts, and then she went to her own supper and we retired to the curtained bed.

In the cold, grey light of a cloudy Welsh morning, the castle proved just as magical as it had by golden sunlight the evening before. We poked our noses into every public nook and cranny, from the priest's hole (conveniently (for my story) located) to the garderobe to the Jacobean dining room whose paneling had been bought by William Randoph Hearst way back when, never used, sold to the Metropolitan Museum, who never used it either, and finally sold back for what they'd paid for it (not adjusted for inflation) to Judy and Peter, who polished it and reinstalled it, none the worse for its adventures. They're re-plastering the bare stone walls as they can afford it--they've done everything at this point except the 4 great halls--and all in all, it looks more like a genuine, living historical house than any place I've ever seen--even including Plas Mawr, which looks Disney-clean and bright next to it.

I don't think I've ever been in a place where history enfolded me so immediately and intimately. It's both intensely romantic and uncompromisingly real--very like its owners, who blend idealism and practicality in a way I haven't run across very often. When he is not trimming the hedges and researching and mixing historically accurate limewash paint, Peter paints wonderfully drafted and composed anti-technological allegories in the style of the Flemish School and the Italian Mannerists. We bonded over Memling and Dutch still-lives.

It was hard to leave. We only managed at last by collecting a couple of feathers from the resident peacocks to take home and promising ourselves to come back some day. It helped that our next stop was Portmeirion, which I've been wanting to visit for years, being a big Prisoner fan and all. Which I'll write about the next time. Might be a while, though, since we're heading into London tomorrow, and the mad social whirl of the Big City. After all this countryside and (relative) peace, these distant vistas, these hillsides spotted with sheep, cows, and newly-baled hay, it's going to be, well, odd.