For me, this story started one Sunday afternoon in the small Welsh town of Narberth, which, like all small Welsh towns on a Sunday afternoon, feels like the end of the world. I walked the streets and then climbed its mound to the castle. And that was when I saw it.
Someone had put a chain across the entrance, from which dangled the notice “Private”. Fair enough, most castles in Britain, even the ruins, are privately owned, even though they are in Government care. But this chain was made of plastic.
I stepped over it, and it was then that the surprises came, one after the other. There was an abandoned car, its tyres flat, beyond which there were piles of stone and a concrete mixer. A concrete mixer. All repairs to ancient monuments have to be done under official supervision, and then old techniques like lime mortar have to be used. This castle was a building site.
Someone had re-roofed one chamber, a real cowboy job. But not only that, he had moved in. There was a caravan, which seemed to have been broken into, and a tap and an overhead electric cable. Whoever that someone was, he had had water and electricity laid on to a medieval castle. Yet everything looked abandoned.
Upon further investigation I discovered what had happened. In the early 1980s an elderly man had turned up in Narberth, who, by some accounts, had been an Australian sheep farmer, and by others a P&O steward. But the accounts were agreed on one thing: his name was Perrot.
Since the 16th century the Perrots had lorded it over Pembrokeshire, the grandest of them the giant Sir John, the viceroy of Ireland, said to have been the illegitimate son of Henry VIII. But he had died in the Tower of London in 1592, convicted of treason, and his estates were confiscated, with his family slipping into history. But now after 400 years they were back.
The castle then belonged to the local doctor, who was so impressed by the old man’s story that he sold the ruin to him for, so it is said, £5. But it was what happened next that startled everyone. The last of the Perrots, which was how he had introduced himself, moved in. The first thing he did was to remove all the topsoil of what had been an overgrown garden 40 yards long: this, you must remember, was done by a man in his seventies, who started work at dawn and continued until the light went. A man living at the foot of the mound told me that his wife became so concerned for his welfare that she took cakes up to him.
Stone was delivered, tons of it, and gravel. Perrot dug down, up to four feet, to reveal the curve of towers hidden for centuries, and some work was meticulously done, but for the chamber he roofed over he used new sandstone, an offence against every heritage law. Yet no inspector called, for no one in authority knew what the lost heir was up to. And then, as suddenly as it had started, it was over. The lady who took him cakes went up one morning and found Robert Perrot, aged 77, dead in his caravan.
When I called, time had again stopped in Narberth Castle, the car and tools and concrete mixer being just as the last of the Perrots had left them.
In his will he named his sister’s grandson as his heir, so a young dentist in Essex has to face the problem of what to do with a partly rebuilt castle in Wales. It will probably occupy him for the rest of his life.
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