Llanmihangel Hidden Houses of Wales


Llanmihangel

Series discovering some of the finest houses in Wales. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen visits Plas Llanmihangel, an impressive Elizabethan manor house in the Vale of Glamorgan.


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Transcript


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If you turn your back on the town, if you take that village track up an unmade road,

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you'll find something absolutely extraordinary.

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Wales's hidden houses.

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In this series, I'll be stepping back in time,

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going over the threshold of some extraordinary places.

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I'll be revealing secrets and I'll be seeking out scandal packed histories.

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Bricks and mortar will never seem the same again.

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Today we're in South Wales, in a house that has been renovated by a couple of silver surfing go-getters.

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We are doing it ourselves basically.

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Originally the home of an English upstart who became an aristocrat.

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I think he was probably a good squire, because he was as hard as nails.

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It's a castle built to keep people out. It's now welcoming the locals back in.

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-I'll go and get a knife.

-Why is she going to get a knife?

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-I'm now slightly worried.

-Slit your throat!

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Somewhere at the end of one of these incredibly long and skinny roads

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you get in the Vale of Glamorgan, there is Plas Llanmihangel.

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And it is an extraordinary house with a very dense history.

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That, I am not surprised by. Look at that.

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That is Hogwartsian architecture at its most spunky.

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What a drive. Oh, my goodness.

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Obviously designed to repel all boarders.

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Hang on, hang on, almost there.

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It's about keeping people at bay obviously, this house.

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Because, if you survive the drive,

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and I'm not sure I'm going to, then...

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the next problem...

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..is battling the battlements...

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and getting through the front door.

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In the 12th century, Plas Llanmihangel was owned by a Norman knight and is described as a grange.

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It was probably a one-storey building, not the magnificent gentry house we have here today.

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Now it's owned by Sue Beer and her architect husband David.

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And they have, for the past 20 years,

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been realising their ambition to turn this imposing ramshackle castle

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into a home which everybody can enjoy.

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How on earth did you two come to take on something of this magnitude?

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-We were seeing a cousin of mine that we hadn't seen for 30 years.

-Yes.

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-And we thought, being English as we are, that South Wales was full of chimneys.

-Right.

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And we were so surprised that we asked him to bring us for a drive around the area. And he came...

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-In July.

-In July, yes.

-When it was lovely and sunny.

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And he came outside the house and stopped, got out, and said,

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"There you are, David, it's going for a song."

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Just how little was that song?

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-£139,000.

-That's a very, very little song.

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-For this size.

-And 12 acres.

-When was that?

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-'88.

-In July, 22 years ago.

-22 years ago.

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Because, the other thing is, it was a big project to be taking on.

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What do you mean?!

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You weren't straight out of short trousers, were you(?)

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You forget, through your lifespan, you have a whole series of,

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-if you're lucky, surges to different things.

-And this was a surge.

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You took this on when so many people

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are thinking of downsizing, not upsizing.

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-And not just upsizing, but up, up

-,

-upsizing to something

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that required the most enormous amount of renovation work.

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-But it was the challenge.

-Yes, we love it.

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The whole work, we were determined to have that done properly. We are doing it ourselves, basically.

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And, of course, because it is all their own work,

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Sue and David have no idea how much they have spent on the renovation.

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All they know is it has taken them 20 years, that cash is always tight.

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And that there's forever something left to do.

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Let's go in, because I am intrigued by your castle.

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-It is a castle.

-A little castle.

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-A teeny castle.

-It's a fortified manor house.

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-It's a pint sized castle.

-Defensive too.

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Very stony, isn't it? There's a lot of stone.

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It's built of stone. It's a stone area.

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It is a stone area.

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-Go a bit further north in Wales and you have timber.

-Timber, yes.

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Certainly, there was a real sense of wanting to... What, keep people out or keep people in here?

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Definitely to keep people out.

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It hasn't worked, has it?

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Well, we leave the door open.

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And who were they trying to keep out?

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Well, in the 12th century, it would have been about

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keeping out the marauding Welsh, keen to get their hands on whatever treasures lay inside.

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Really, by the sound of it, around here, it's like the Wild West.

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Wales was very Wild West.

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Why bother working when you can go and break into that fat, plump looking farmhouse.

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-There's bound to be food there.

-Exactly.

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These bolts fascinate me.

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I have never seen this before, and it is such an ingenious and very simple solution.

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I'm thinking about having it installed to keep the choir back in my village at bay.

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It's a very simple means, isn't it?

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Because you don't get a pull bar until you build it in when you're building a structure.

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So you can't do it after the event?

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You've got to think about this as you are actually doing it.

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This is all part of it. It was very much a very standard form of locking up the doors.

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So unbelievably simple, they're basically just bracing the door

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against attack from the inside, because it comes out of that slot, goes into that slot.

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Into the keep, as it is called.

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And this is a piece of oak you can replace.

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Off the estate, yes, absolutely.

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And no need for any keys.

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What an utterly brilliant idea.

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There's a very simple way of understanding this house.

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You've got a box like that.

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With a floor going across.

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And you've basically got one house at one end,

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and one house at the other. We're in the west side now.

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And then you go into the central section of the hall and then the east side.

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Today, this bit of the house accommodates the living quarters, as it did back in the 16th century.

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Due to the fact that the bedrooms were always put in the warmest part of the house,

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which of course, back then, would have been above the kitchen.

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What an earth is all of this? Is that torture? Is that tying people...?

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No, the interesting thing was, this kitchen, and that's what it is, the kitchen, it always has been.

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-I'll go and get a knife.

-Why is she going to get a knife? I'm now slightly worried.

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To slit your throat, I suspect. Anyway, have a look.

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The point here is that this didn't exist to start with.

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The kitchen went from that wall right through to the main kitchen fire.

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She has got a knife as well.

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Oh, I see! Isn't that clever?

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-A brilliant knife sharpener.

-Isn't it?

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Are you allowed to do that?

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-Probably not.

-Just out of interest, this being an incredibly

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historical monument and everything, quietly great chunks falling off it.

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It's nice to see it being used.

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It should be used. These houses should be used.

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Yes. What I was leading on to say was simply that the cook or cooks,

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that served the whole house, however many guests, that served the house.

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And she had nothing to sharpen her knives on to start with.

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But when this got built, and this got built because they came down here to use the stair

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to get into the main bedrooms above.

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The main bedrooms, because the fire burns all day, all winter and so forth, a bit of heat.

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She at last got sandstone here.

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-Somewhere to sharpen their knives.

-And that's what happened.

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Fabulous. Oh, that will be a stair!

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I did tell you there were steps everywhere.

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Mantraps everywhere. This is incredible.

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So tell me about the bread oven.

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Ah.

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What they used to do was to take the hot ash from the fire, put it in the oven there,

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heat the oven up,

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then stick your arm in to see if it's hot enough.

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And they used to then brush the ash out, put the bread in, seal the door.

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And when the door - the seal - when it cracked, the bread was done.

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Take the bread out. The bottom is full of ash.

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So you don't slice it like that, you slice it across, and you give the upper crust to the upper crust!

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I see.

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And the servants have the stuff with all the ash in.

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That'll be handy for the pub quiz. But look, knives again.

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-Once you've sharpened your knife on the door jamb...

-Just turn it round

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and they come out absolutely polished.

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-It's wonderful, very decorative. Very, very decorative.

-Yes.

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Have you not got any contemporary labour-saving device?

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-It doesn't look like it.

-We try not to.

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-Are you not tempted to go and buy yourself something that plugs into the mains?

-Not really.

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Sue and David have known each other for 40 years.

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But for the first 20, Sue was married to someone else.

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As Shakespeare once said,

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"The course of true love never did run smooth."

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It does sound very much like a kind of a romantic novel, I think, the fact that you've come together

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and done this, created this together.

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I think David was really, really frightened when I turned up at his door.

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I mean, it's one thing to have a lovely relationship with somebody.

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It's another thing when they knock on the door and say, "I'm here!"

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When you came here...

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Obviously David, as an architect, has very specific uses for here.

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What were you bringing here, do you think?

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Other than your effervescent personality!

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No, actually, I am an extremely hard worker.

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And obviously I've done plastering and I've done painting,

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all of those sorts of physical things.

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But really, he's the person who's put, physically, the place together.

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And we needed money.

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We're not rich people.

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And so the house has always had to earn its living, and I was good at that side of it.

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And the way they earn that living is running a B&B.

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Albeit a rather superior one.

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We make a good team actually, don't we?

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-Oh, yes, we do.

-When we're doing the bed and breakfast, we've got our own jobs in the morning.

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We're fine as long as we don't speak!

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It's interesting, because we have been reducing the time factor

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between rising and appearing downstairs, and then starting the laying out.

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You speak for yourself!

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I know it's a bit of a hard way...

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Well, you stayed up too late last night.

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-I know.

-Ooh!

-Well, I didn't say a thing about it.

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She knows, though.

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-It's the one eye open.

-I think she thought she'd got away with it as well.

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Oh, no. You never get away with anything with David.

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I just go a bit quiet.

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She gives it away when she heads for the door and nearly misses it.

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The glorious thing about this house is it's always been used.

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-And I love it.

-With a project like this, you're going to have that.

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I would imagine that so many people would never have got this far,

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because it is... It must have been so daunting.

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No, we never found it daunting at all.

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Were they never moments when you were just wandering around, and thought, this is too big?

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No, never, not even once.

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-Not even vaguely.

-So that will be "no" then(?)

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Not much is known of Llanmihangel's Norman ancestry.

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We know that something existed here.

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But from about 1500 to 1685

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it was the seat of one of Wales's oldest aristocratic families,

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the Thomases.

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This is stunning, absolutely stunning.

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It's the main room of the house at the moment.

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And this is the oldest bit, isn't it?

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-The hall.

-The hall, yes.

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-Yes.

-Well, the oldest bit is underneath this.

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This is the oldest pretty bit, then?

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The other bits are quite nice!

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It's rather lovely.

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The whole atmosphere in here is just absolutely...

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what you want, really, from a manor house.

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This fireplace is amazing.

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-What's the heraldry?

-The quartering of the marriage couple of the early Thomas family.

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And then, as is common in Wales,

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as long as you can establish a relationship, however tenuous it is,

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to other families, usually the great families,

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then you're allowed to portray it,

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because that tells any Welshman coming in that would recognise these, and they would,

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the relationship of the current family of Thomas to these great families in Wales.

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They're bigging themselves up, aren't they?

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-They are, in a sense. It's quite legit.

-It's like leaving your address book open

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when you've got people coming round, so that you can see

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Jamie Oliver's number and Madonna's number.

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Is that what you do, do you?

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Yeah, I do!

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They're always doing it to me!

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Obviously, you two love it as somewhere to entertain, and judging by the lovely long table...

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Just being here.

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Exactly, drinking in the history.

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I find that fascinating,

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because to have that dirty great big coat of arms

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above the door seems...slightly unusual for a drawing room.

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Well, I suppose you're right about that, but it wasn't only just a drawing room,

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this was also a courtroom on... We don't know what.

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Monthly, something like that, a court was held here.

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The dungeons are downstairs for those that were brought up, and the sheriff,

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that's what we're talking about.

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And that's the Tudor coat of arms.

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I was going to say, we can date that quite well,

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because for the one and only time,

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you've got the red dragon of Wales as part of the English coat of arms.

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Which means that this was a household loyal to the throne.

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Between 1485 and 1603, the dragon formed part

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of the arms of the Tudor dynasty to signify their Welsh ancestry.

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In the 17th century, it was replaced by a unicorn, by order of James I.

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This was a courtroom.

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This was right at the centre of the house because it's the big, grand house.

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Yeah, but the Thomases owned it, but they had gone to higher realms,

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and where do you go?

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You go to London, where all society is, and you've got your huge estates - and they WERE huge.

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The Llanmihangel estates were thousands of acres.

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-And that gave them the money to have the rich lifestyle that they had.

-Mm.

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But there were some responsibilities.

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So they left this place behind as a domestic dwelling,

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but it was still hugely symbolic for them

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and for the hierarchy, the status of the area.

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Yes, I think that's got it in a nutshell, really.

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Now, we've searched the length and breadth of Wales

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for some kind of pictorial evidence

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of this esteemed Welsh family and have come up with zilch. Nada.

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Absolutely nothing. All that's left

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is the coat of arms.

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So the Thomases were the undisputed lords of their manor,

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so why rule the dynasty from a courtroom located bang in the centre of their house?

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Something I'm hoping architectural historian, Tom Lloyd, will be able to tell me.

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He can do it in his great hall, sitting at his big table at the top

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with the local jury sitting down at the side tables,

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and he could terrify his tenants, which is what he wanted to do.

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That would be fun, better than chasing sheep.

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In those days, you had to try and keep law and order on your estate,

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because the local landlord in a place like this was the lord and master of his domain.

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The last Thomas to live here, Sir Robert Thomas,

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known with little affection as Sir Robert the Ass, was an ass at business.

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Everything he touched turned to rubbish.

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Now, because we don't know what he looked like, you're having to make do with...me

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and my personal representation of the man who brought shame and disgrace to his family name.

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Good, isn't it? Historical archives show

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that Sir Robert Thomas the Ass had the world upon his thumb.

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All his business ventures went astray, and he was rather an unbalanced character.

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From being one of the wealthiest families in the county,

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they became one of the poorest, and eventually he was faced with the inevitability

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of having to sell his estate.

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Waiting in the wings, observing this from the shadows with an enormous chequebook and a very beady eye

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was Sir Humphrey Edwin, Lord Mayor of London in 1697.

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ORGAN MUSIC

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HE CLEARS HIS THROAT

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I'm wondering whether you've forgotten to put coins in the meter.

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Or is this just a power cut, or are you just going for camp?

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No, it's one of the very few churches that doesn't have electricity. And long may it remain so.

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-That means you've got to pedal like fury to...

-Absolutely.

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-..squeeze anything out of this.

-Yes.

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Here we are, exquisite church, fabulous history,

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dirty great big monument to HUMPHREY and absolutely nothing to the Thomases.

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I think that Sir Humphrey would have got rid of any sign of the Thomases,

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because there was a certain amount of dispute about the estate,

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and he wanted to make his mark, and the Thomases had no right whatsoever...

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to this estate.

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And that's why you've got that.

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It's a risk. No-one knows what he looks like,

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no-one knows the man and that, in a way, is weird.

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To be Lord Mayor of London and not have any kind of documentary

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visual evidence of what the guy looked like is strange.

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But he wasn't a good squire, was he?

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He wasn't like the Thomases.

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Oh, I don't think they were, either. They were just broke all the time.

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True, that's not so good!

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But I think in one sense he was probably a good squire,

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because he was as hard as nails.

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From Lord Mayor of London to Lord of the Manor of, well, here,

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a rural hamlet in sleepy Glamorgan.

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By this stage, Sir Humph was a billionaire, a Branson in a big wig.

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In fact, a recent survey of the richest people since 1066

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put together by the Sunday Times places him at 236th.

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And for him, having a country pile with lashings of history

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was an essential ingredient in his social climb.

0:22:130:22:17

So he came here, a celebrity squire.

0:22:170:22:20

You know the kind of look - Guy Ritchie, Madonna,

0:22:200:22:23

Elizabeth Hurley, Elton John, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen...

0:22:230:22:27

And Llanmihangel did indeed bring Sir Humphrey

0:22:290:22:32

the status he so desperately craved.

0:22:320:22:35

His ambition to buy his way into aristocracy

0:22:350:22:37

was ultimately realised through his daughter.

0:22:370:22:40

Anne married a close neighbour

0:22:400:22:42

who just happened to be the heir to Dunraven Castle.

0:22:420:22:46

These big houses are two a penny in the Vale of Glamorgan.

0:22:460:22:49

Just what was it about this place

0:22:490:22:51

that attracted the great and the good to build here?

0:22:510:22:54

Architectural historian Tom Lloyd thinks he has the answer.

0:22:540:22:57

Well, it was a wonderful place to live.

0:23:030:23:05

Here we are, sitting in the sun.

0:23:050:23:07

The agricultural land is fantastically rich.

0:23:070:23:09

The very good building stone, above all, encouraged you to build.

0:23:090:23:12

If you can dig out wonderful stone from the ground easily, then you can

0:23:120:23:17

just build so much better and you can get much more carried away with it.

0:23:170:23:22

It was also competitive. Once your neighbour down the road

0:23:220:23:25

builds a big house, you want to do it the same.

0:23:250:23:27

And I think that stimulated a great deal because,

0:23:270:23:30

in particular, in Elizabethan times show was everything.

0:23:300:23:33

It was all about how grandly you were dressed

0:23:330:23:36

and how grand your house was. And the more opulence

0:23:360:23:38

you could show, the higher up the league table you were.

0:23:380:23:42

The reason this place had many nice houses were the shops in Cowbridge.

0:23:420:23:46

You know, lovely little shops there. You can imagine them

0:23:460:23:49

all flocking here because they want to buy some potpourri.

0:23:490:23:52

But in the 19th century, London was the place to be,

0:23:530:23:57

and so the landed gentry

0:23:570:23:59

abandoned their countryside estates

0:23:590:24:01

in favour of town houses in the Big Smoke,

0:24:010:24:03

leaving the mansions to a succession of paying tenants.

0:24:030:24:07

In 1860, Llanmihangel

0:24:110:24:12

was the home of the entrepreneurial Jenkins family.

0:24:120:24:16

Moving forward in time,

0:24:180:24:20

because I've got a picture here of the Jenkins family.

0:24:200:24:23

I don't know too much about them, but I do know he had three daughters,

0:24:230:24:28

and his wife died, and he ended up marrying the housekeeper,

0:24:280:24:32

-which kept the family together.

-What did Jenkins do?

0:24:320:24:35

He was a brewer and had a brewery in Cowbridge.

0:24:350:24:39

And Jenkins' brewery... have we any evidence of...?

0:24:390:24:42

Well, I've got a...

0:24:420:24:44

Oh, you see? You're so reliable.

0:24:440:24:47

You're never far from a bottle, are you?

0:24:470:24:49

This is absolutely true!

0:24:490:24:51

What is exceptional about this house

0:24:560:24:58

is that it's been in continuous occupation since the 12th century,

0:24:580:25:02

and now it's a Grade-I-listed building,

0:25:020:25:04

which should safeguard its future

0:25:040:25:07

for posterity, something Sue is already contemplating.

0:25:070:25:11

Eventually, David and I are going to get really old!

0:25:110:25:17

And maybe we won't be able to cope. And then

0:25:170:25:21

-who takes it on?

-Mm.

0:25:210:25:24

And it's not going to be the person

0:25:240:25:26

-who's got the most money, that's for sure.

-Mm.

0:25:260:25:29

Probably, hopefully, people like us, who need to have to try,

0:25:290:25:33

and then you have to share it,

0:25:330:25:35

because you can't manage it without sharing it.

0:25:350:25:39

But the thought of somebody coming in and being somewhat pretentious

0:25:390:25:46

and closing off the house to...everyone,

0:25:460:25:50

I would find that very, very difficult, and I would haunt.

0:25:500:25:54

-You'd come back and rattle chains?

-Absolutely.

0:25:540:25:58

I've been genuinely impressed

0:25:590:26:01

with the love and the warmth emanating from these two.

0:26:010:26:04

I might have to go back to bed.

0:26:040:26:07

Now, those are proper eggs.

0:26:090:26:10

can you see they don't...

0:26:100:26:12

They do everything as a team - even the breakfast.

0:26:120:26:15

No, they were having...

0:26:150:26:17

And the constant, incessant renovation

0:26:170:26:20

which a house like this generates is in fact a pleasure.

0:26:200:26:24

It's a way of showcasing their hard work to the world.

0:26:240:26:28

Thank you very much.

0:26:280:26:30

Do you think that you've finished, or is it like the Forth Road Bridge,

0:26:320:26:36

the Forth road bridge of love - you keep going round and round

0:26:360:26:39

in circles until you've done what you need to do?

0:26:390:26:43

No, it isn't, simply because whilst we are now maintaining lots of stuff

0:26:430:26:49

that we repaired or restored 20 years ago, that's true,

0:26:490:26:52

but there's still new stuff to be done

0:26:520:26:54

and stuff that I've deliberately not done.

0:26:540:26:58

But there is nothing lord and lady of the manor

0:26:580:27:00

about you two, is there?

0:27:000:27:02

-Hopefully not.

-No, I don't think so.

0:27:020:27:04

-We have no intention to be.

-He says very proudly!

0:27:040:27:07

But the critical thing about this place,

0:27:070:27:09

and I think the thing that gives this place

0:27:090:27:12

such an extraordinarily special atmosphere,

0:27:120:27:14

is the fact that both of you work so incredibly hard on it

0:27:140:27:17

But it's not something that you keep back for yourselves.

0:27:170:27:20

It's not a selfish pleasure at all. It is about sharing, isn't it?

0:27:200:27:24

-Well, certainly for me.

-Yeah.

0:27:240:27:26

-Mm.

-And you?

0:27:260:27:28

Well, yes!

0:27:280:27:29

THEY CHUCKLE

0:27:290:27:31

-He'll just say, "Yes, dear."

-Yes, dear.

0:27:310:27:33

-"Yes, dear, it's about sharing."

-It's about sharing.

0:27:330:27:37

When you think that this house was actually designed to repulse,

0:27:420:27:45

I think that David and Sue have done an extraordinary job

0:27:450:27:48

in making it quite so welcoming.

0:27:480:27:50

And that's all down to them.

0:27:500:27:52

That's down to their energy, their application, their eccentricity,

0:27:520:27:57

if you like, all at a time when most people would, I suppose,

0:27:570:28:01

have written them off and suggested

0:28:010:28:03

that they should have been mixing cocoa rather than cement.

0:28:030:28:06

But, don't forget, this place was once the country seat

0:28:060:28:11

of one of the most crashing snobs in English history.

0:28:110:28:14

And yes, I do mean you, Sir Humphrey.

0:28:140:28:16

So it's just brilliant that these days

0:28:160:28:19

it's looked after so well by a pair of rock'n'roll lefties

0:28:190:28:25

who are actually desperate to share it with you and me.

0:28:250:28:28

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd.

0:28:460:28:49

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:490:28:52

Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen visits some of the finest houses in Wales, stepping back in time to uncover their hidden stories. He turns his attention to Plas Llanmihangel - an impressive Elizabethan manor house in the Vale of Glamorgan. During his historical journey of discovery, Laurence meets the couple who have spent the past 20 years battling to restore a building with a very colourful past.


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