Me and my home: Winging it in Wales

Aos Griffiths lives and breathes butterflies from a hilltop home
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The Independent Online

Aos Griffiths, otherwise known as The Original Butterfly Man, lives with his Patagonian wife, Carina, and their three daughters Elina (five), Alaw (four) and Heledd (nine months) on a six-acre hilltop site between Llangollen and Corwen, in North Wales. Next to their three-bedroom detached bungalow is the workshop where Aos (pronounced Ayoss - it means "nightingale" in Welsh) produces and sells his multi-coloured aluminium butterflies

Aos Griffiths, otherwise known as The Original Butterfly Man, lives with his Patagonian wife, Carina, and their three daughters Elina (five), Alaw (four) and Heledd (nine months) on a six-acre hilltop site between Llangollen and Corwen, in North Wales. Next to their three-bedroom detached bungalow is the workshop where Aos (pronounced Ayoss - it means "nightingale" in Welsh) produces and sells his multi-coloured aluminium butterflies

I was brought up on a farm just a mile or so from here, down in the valley below, and at the age of 26 (I'm 60 now), I packed my bags and went off to see the world. All over the place, I went, during the next 13 years.

I'd trained as a joiner and carpenter, and found work more or less wherever I went - Canada, Mexico, Patagonia, Chile, Tahiti, New Zealand, the Pacific Islands, Samoa, Hawaii, Peru. To be honest, I never expected to come back and settle here in the UK, but the Falklands changed all that; I was living in Argentina at the time and the war not only made it difficult for me stay there, it also damaged the economy and made it hard to find work.

Once back here, I began making my butterflies on the table in my Mum's kitchen. I'd already worked out the basic design while I was working in a rollerskate factory in the Argentine. There's a bit on the bottom of a rollerskate, which if you look at it, is just like a butterfly's body.

Commercially, though, I was in totally the wrong location; we lived down this tiny, narrow road, well off the beaten track, and it was very hard trying to attract business. When people did find their way to us, I made sure never to send them back the way they'd just come, in case they blocked other potential customers coming in the opposite direction. Instead, I'd direct them across country, the long way round.

I jumped at the chance of buying this place, because it's right next to the A5 and there's no possible way you can miss it. It cost me £98,000 back in the 1980s, and I reckon if I were to sell the whole complex tomorrow, it would fetch in the region of £1m. Being next to a busy road is essential. We haven't got a website or anything, so we rely a lot on attracting passing traffic; not so much the coach parties, who are usually just pensioners stopping off for a pee - but more the private motorist who happens to be driving by.

All the improvements I've made here have been in order to catch people's eye. I've had these big galvanised wrought-iron gates made in the shape of butterflies; when you open them, they play There's A Welcome In The Hillside. And this year, I've built a 12ft-high windmill out of this purplish volcanic rock called palfrey stone, which I've had imported from Patagonia (22 tons of it). The sails are about 10 feet wide, and I've rigged up a motor so they constantly whirl - it all helps to make us a landmark, to encourage people to come in.

I've got to be honest with you and say that when it comes to improvements and building work, I've concentrated almost totally on the business rather than our home. In terms of living space, we are getting a bit cramped, now that we've got three children - but there's lots of space outdoors for them to play.

The one thing everyone comments on is the variety of languages that we speak to each other. I speak Spanish to my wife, for example, and Welsh to the kids, while my wife speaks Spanish to the kids, who speak English at school but speak mainly Spanish and Welsh at home. To make things more confusing, when we go to visit her relatives in Patagonia, quite a few of the older people over there speak Welsh.

The other thing visitors always comment on is the fact is that we haven't got that many butterflies on our own house. They're all over the workshop, of course - I think there were 350 at the last count - but I think just one or two is the correct number for a house. As for where you position one, there are no hard and fast rules; all I would say is that putting a butterfly on a wall is like putting a brooch on a woman's dress. If it's in the wrong place, it shouts out at you; if it's in the right place, you hardly notice it.

We've got some customers who are now on their 10th or 12th butterfly (£25-£45 a time); they send us photographs showing where they've fixed them - on sheds, roofs, drainpipes, porches, trelliswork, phone kiosks and even children's plastic play houses. I'm not sure I can exactly put my finger on the power that butterflies have, but I did once get a marvellous letter from a student in Bangladesh who'd read an article about me in an Emirates airline magazine. He said that butterflies were God's own treasures - and that just looking at them purified the soul. I guess that about sums it up. You'd be surprised, though, by how many people can't stand being anywhere near a butterfly; quite often, visitors will come in the shop and start to panic because they feel under threat from all these winged creatures; they have to rush outside and escape.

Of course, having my place of work so close to my home is both a blessing and (sometimes) a bit of a curse. It's marvellous not to have a long journey to and from work each day; what's not so marvellous, though, is when I'm in the house with my feet up, and at nine o'clock at night there's a frantic ringing on the front door, and someone's standing there who's desperate to get a butterfly because they're on holiday perhaps and not going to pass that way again.

I never turn anyone away, mind - when you're self-employed you can't afford to pass up a sale. The only thing that does get a bit wearing is when people keep asking me how I got started making butterflies. You see, I leave out piles of brochures in the front of the shop, explaining how I got the idea (while backpacking in New Zealand and watching a large butterfly settle on the side of a house). Having read the brochure two minutes earlier, they'll then come up to me and ask: "How did you get the idea?" I suppose it's fame of a sort - people want to hear it from my own mouth - but when it happens 20 or 30 times a day, it can start to get to you a bit.

As for the view, well, I know it's lovely, but the fact is, I never have time to look out at it. The only sight I really want to see out of my living-room window is lots of customers driving through the gate.

The Original Butterfly Man (Y Boi Gloynnod) is at Berwyn Lodge, Glyndyfrdwy Village, Clwyd LL21 9HW (01490 430300). Write or telephone for a colour brochure of his hand-painted butterflies, dragonflies and ladybirds.

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