A castle fit for a king
The Australian landscape is not one often associated with castle turrets or brave knights galloping on white steeds, lance in hand, ready to pursue their quest. Indeed, sighting a monarch on Australian soil is a rare occasion. The dream of nobility and bravery, however, has inspired two very different people to build castles in rural Australia and their dreams have, in turn, inspired other people to create their own vision and pursue a life entirely of their own making.
This story reads just like a fairytale. Once upon a time in the late 1800s, a little boy in a poor village in the hills of north-eastern Spain sat at the feet of his grandmother. There, in a simple stone and mud hut, he heard stories about romantic Spanish castles and nobles who lived lives of excitement and chivalry.
This boy, Jose Paronella, eventually migrated to Australia and made his fortune by hard work and a little luck on the sugar cane fields of North Queensland. With money, vision, tenacity and courage, Jose set about developing his dream of a romantic castle, which he eventually built along a river south of the township of Innisfail.
It was an audacious epic. Everything in the castle grounds needed to be built by hand – the grand staircase, pavilions, ornamental pools, castle towers, even a magnificent ballroom, complete with chandelier. Based on the romantic Moorish garden designs of his native Spain, Jose carved ornamental gardens from the wild rainforest using water, bridges and decorative walls. Various landscaped sections, some created as open spaces and some contained, include a vine-enclosed grotto and a “secret garden” reached by a dark tunnel. Other areas were left to the magical beauty of wild hanging orchids, ferns and palms, giving the place a tranquil, natural setting.
To achieve all this Jose fully focused on his goal and overcame huge obstacles, including motley crews of itinerant labourers, extortion by local mafia gangs, climatic extremes, engineering problems, transportation issues and difficulties with materials. Often it was one groaning step forward and half a discouraging step back.
The sort of person to make this happen had to be driven. Jose had a knack for affecting people around him with his enthusiasm and passion. Being an eternal optimist in the face of crippling obstacles meant that nothing stopped him.
Jose had his flaws, of course. A product of his parochial upbringing, he dominated his family, exploited his workers and occasionally crossed the thin line of the law. But he was also chivalrous and courteous, embodying the attributes of the nobility as he imagined them.
The castle soon attracted attention and visitors from miles around and became famous for its theatre, dances, weddings and afternoon teas. Then, in 1948, Jose died and it seemed as though his dream died with him, helped along by floods and fire which destroyed parts of the grounds and structures. The park, sold out of the family in 1979, was later ruined by more floods and a cyclone.
Nature took over the grounds and reclaimed the park. The Spanish dream was buried and Paronella’s castle passed out of people’s awareness. Then, in the 1990s, a family came across a turret in the wilderness. Mark and Judy Evans, inspired by Jose’s dream, bought the park in 1993 and restored some of the walkways and gardens, leaving much of it in its ruined state to preserve the romantic effect of a lost ruin in the jungle.
Once again, the castle and its beautiful grounds have become a magnet for locals as well as people travelling to North Queensland. In the intervening years, tourism has become one of the region’s most vital industries, so more visitors than ever are flocking to the castle, now named Paronella Park. Jose’s dream has at last been realised – more people than ever are admiring and enjoying his castle. And the Evans have their own dream: to preserve not just a beautiful and unique place of wonder and history, but a monument to a passionate dreamer.
The moat is deep, the flags flutter in the cold breeze and the cries of the hanged echo off the thick stone walls. On a hill northwest of Melbourne sprawls the third largest castle in the world, with commanding views over the central Victorian highlands. Kryal Castle is a vast complex of gothic towers, turrets, parapets and battlements, complete with moat and drawbridge.
Entering the castle is like stepping into a medieval world where you soon forget the kangaroos hopping about on the hills outside. The wooden bridge has a reassuring clatter when you cross the moat and the stone walls and floor feel solid and cool. A thick wall runs around the perimeter currently containing armouries, display buildings, a chapel, an “eatery”, accommodation and even a cemetery.
Public hangings, held on the central lawn, turn out to be highly amusing, light-hearted performances by costumed characters, many of whom live in the castle grounds. Audiences laugh along with the performers as they make jokes and try several unsuccessful attempts to hang the rather appealing “criminals”.
The large, grassed space also plays host to whippings with lovely, if rather naughty, wenches at the post. The same space vibrates to the thunder of hooves when knights on horses ride through during tournaments.
All this emerged from the vision of one man. Keith Ryall – or King Keith as he likes to be known – presides over his castle with a sovereign’s eye for all that is old and gruesome. The medieval collections, hanging and jousting displays, feasts and cemetery are all part of his lifelong medieval fantasy. He even looks like a real king. Sixty-three years old, lean and aloof and wearing a deeply thoughtful look, he has his mind on small details as well as grand plans, holding the bigger picture of his kingdom, his people and chattels in mind as a good king must. Like Jose Paronella, he is a dreamer and his story is just as unique.
At the end of the Second World War, a returned soldier and “Rat of Tobruk”, Bert Ryall brought a captured sword back to his home in Australia. His young nephew, Keith, had just started school and part of the curriculum involved learning about British history and colonies so Keith’s school books included pictures and information on suits of armour, shields and weapons.
Two years after the war, Bert gave his nephew the captured sword, a scimitar. Keith instantly became enraptured by it. He kept the sword by him at all times, slept with it, even ate with it, and before long a dream sprang from its curved blade: to build a castle and fill it with medieval items, to live and breathe the ancient medieval codes, and to become a knight. His school mates mocked and made fun of Keith when he told them he was going to build a castle. “They all thought I was a nutcase,” he remembers.
After school, Keith hung around the local blacksmith, Matt “Hoop Iron Hawk” Hegrey. Hoop Iron taught the young lad how to make horseshoes before advancing him on to steel smithing. “At 17 I was making armour and swords and studying medieval history, most of which I have kept up all my life,” Keith says.
It was armour that made Keith wealthy and in 1972, at the age of 31, he began to build a castle, finally fulfilling the dream he’d held for more than a quarter of a century. Keith named it Kryal after putting the first letter of his name together with his surname and dropping an L.
“It started with shops selling my armour then expanded to include copper- and brass-smiths, a wood turner, a glass blower and painters. We even used to make model dragons but that folded when the Chinese began to make dragons at a fraction of the price. Now it is cheaper to import dragons from China.”
Keith knows every stone in the place. He planned the castle, built it and is still adding to it. The enormous range of medieval collections, housed in stone and wooden buildings, is mind-boggling. It’s the biggest armoury in the southern hemisphere and contains everything from full suits of armour to swords, shields and lances. “We recently polished all the armour and it took us six months. A huge job but it needed to be done as they had not had a polish in 30 years.”
The castle funds itself from visitors’ fees and functions. “We have our own chapel, and weddings are huge. The bride and groom receive a sword with their family name on it as a family heirloom. We leave some space for children’s names to be added.”
“We used to have big cats here – lions and pumas – but the lions escaped from the cages and wandered around scaring people.” He chuckles at the memory. “There were people running everywhere in panic and jumping on tables. Such a lot of fun.”
Then his eyes darken and his mouth presses together for a moment as he remembers what happened to the original sword given to him by his uncle. “Someone stole it six years ago. I felt the loss deeply. Since then I have lived and worked for one reason – this castle.”
Making use of the large space contained by high walls, the castle grounds occasionally thunders to youth raves with police, dogs and the fire brigade in attendance. The “doof” music and ground-shaking thump of thousands of feet would have made a medieval revelry crowd proud. Film productions make use of the costumes and weapons and the resident falconer puts on daily bird of prey displays, flying the beautiful and deadly creatures, all long wings, sharp claws, hooked beaks and beady eyes, with long ease, respect and familiarity.
Jousting used to be a regular feature before Keith dropped this sport due to high insurance costs. Not long ago, however, a few keen and likely lads stormed the castle and talked Keith back into jousting again, so occasionally the lances come out and the white kerchiefs of ladies flutter again. The insurance terms for jousting require that the lances contain balsa wood halfway along their length so they can break if the impact is too hard. “Insurance means you can’t have accidents,” Keith broods. The prospect of death or disability, something knights of old had to take in their stride, has no place in the machinations of the modern day.
The jousters live and work within the castle walls and are responsible for the horses during training and performing. One of these jousters is creating his own dream, using Keith’s dream as a stepping stone. Tall, proud and with long dark hair, Jules Szigeti is the very picture of a young knight. He has picked himself up from a lingering despair caused by the death of his father at a very young age and has found in Kryal Castle a dream to make his own.
“My father was a stuntman but I never got the opportunity to learn the things he could have taught me,” Jules reflects. “I never found anything I loved doing until I came to Kryal. I arrived with the intention of bringing jousting back to the castle. I did some training, joined a jouster at different shows around Australia as well as at Kryal and found something I love doing. I really enjoy entertaining a large crowd and giving them something different and rare to see.” Jules then started to dream about becoming a stunt man and re-creating his father’s stunt organisation. He is planning to join his uncle, a stunt choreographer in Europe, and “embark on reclaiming my birthright”.
Keith has been instrumental in this. “Keith has inspired me in many ways,” says Jules. “As a man, from his chivalry, honour and determination, but mostly for what he has achieved. Here is a man who has lived to see his dream realised. Against all odds and the negativity of others, he created something wonderful that has brought fun and excitement to countless people.
“I look at him and think, ‘I’m not going to be one of those people who just sits and waits for something to come their way while watching life passes by’. I will seize my dreams, forge them into reality and have them realised.” Snapping his visor shut, Jules the new dreamer, turns his horse and gallops off into the sunset.
Two dreamers who put their passion into action have gone on to inspire others. Jose and Keith have proved that dreams can come true, and make a difference to those who come after.
Phoenix Arrien is a freelance photojournalist.