An Eccentric French Architect and His Dream of Rebuilding a Castle

If Axel Letellier and the Castle of Penne sounds a bit like the title of a Harry Potter novel, then sometimes that's quite appropriate. Axel is a man with a mission in Penne-du-Tarn, a small village in the French Midi-Pyrenees. It is not one that involves the triumph of good over evil exactly.

Rather it's about the preservation of ancient history and its fascination for children. Because do not doubt it: children are fascinated by what happened in the past. Dinosaurs, continental plates, witches and ogres, ancient Romans and Greeks, wars and plagues, giants and monsters, real or imagined, kids will soak it up with relish.

Axel is 34 now, a highly qualified architect. He is a specialist in the restoration of ancient chateaux and houses, meticulous to every fine detail from choice of materials to traditional tools and workmanship. His training and experience also means he understands (most people do not even begin to, and that includes French architects) the convoluted bureaucracy that surrounds efforts to reinstate old buildings and present them in their former glory.

There is no doubt that France loves its old buildings but it surrounds efforts to restore them with such a myriad of legislative requirements that the effect is to put off bewildered restorers. The buildings are abandoned for no better reason than that it's just too difficult to work through the layers of bureaucracy.

On top of that, grants or support for such restorations are minimal. You have to be very tenacious to go it alone. Axel Lettelier is clearly tenacious. Not only that, his determination on this particular project began at the age of 10. "My father bought me here then. I own it now. I bought it four years ago. I am a man of my word. "

Just what he has taken on is apparent when one first visits the massive promontory above the village of Penne where the castle was built around 950 and abandoned 450 years ago. It was closed completely to the public on health and safety grounds some 25 years ago. On 28 June 2010, Axel Letellier launched his project upon the press and public. To widespread acclaim, this remarkable architect with his passion to preserve and restore historic stonework, announced his future plans.

His wife, Sophie, a graphic designer, is developing an animated children's trail, complete with approbably attired medieval knights, weaponry, noises off and smells. Says Sophie, "It will be a very vivid illustration of what life would have been like for the soldiers here at that time.

The fortress teeters impossibly on the cliff edge, some 130 meters high and flanked by the Aveyron Gorge on one side and the River Aveyron on the other. The beautiful, unspoiled little medieval village of Penne with its 557 inhabits is eclipsed by the beginning monument reaching towards the sky.

The castle's origins are Celtic and over the centuries, the defenders were attacked by Romans, Franks and Saracens. In the middle ages, it was a Cathar stronghold and was assailed during the Albigensian Crusades. Occupied by the English during the 100 years war, the castle began to fall into ruin after it was sacked by the protestants in 1586 during the religious wars.

The soldiers fought back in various ways with a carefully zig-zag entrance path that ideally claims crampons and full climbing gear to mount. Unwelcome visitors could have seen well in advance and the three-part entrance way reflected a useful drop hole through which could have raised a multitude of stones upon the unsuspecting heads of guests. Later, it was axes.

So what is it that makes Axel Letellier want to bring this castle back from abandonment to real life? "It is my passion. I care so much about it. The people who built this, the soldiers who employed it. I want to make sure that powerful history is retained in the modern era, for my children, and my children's children." When he first visited the site, the very cliff edge supporting the castle had crumbled almost entirely away.

"It was a complete ruin." That made me very sad. I bought it with no planning permission to do anything with it and the Mayor of Penne was completely against me at every turn. "I have been through the French legal planning regulations on restoration of old buildings many times, for chateaux, other castles, old houses and I have good support from a specialist lawyer friend. I knew it would take time but that if I was determined, I would eventually get those permissions.

"Now the site is a hive of busy workmen working with traditional tools, carting materials up and down the steep path and gradually bringing the ruins back to life. fallen over the centuries down in the gorge below. "So far, I've spent about € 400,000 of my own money. I have no access to grant or public aid at all. We desperately need to raise more funds to continue. Rebuilding walls that are three meters thick, using traditional masonry tools and techniques, is a very expensive business. "

Plans for this year include the installation a visitors center as well as a cultural and educational center to portray the historical background. A battlement is to be reconstructed and what was the original library will be reconstructed and used for various events. There will be a 3D film depicting the construction over the centuries until the fortress was abandoned in 1585. "Yes," says Axel, overflowing with passionate energy for all his lithe and slight frame, "there is still a lot to do."