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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If you turn your back on the town, if you take that village track up an unmade road,
you'll find something absolutely extraordinary.
Wales's hidden houses.
In this series, I'll be stepping back in time,
going over the threshold of some extraordinary places.
I'll be revealing secrets and I'll be seeking out scandal packed histories.
Bricks and mortar will never seem the same again.
Today we're in South Wales, in a house that has been renovated by a couple of silver surfing go-getters.
We are doing it ourselves basically.
Originally the home of an English upstart who became an aristocrat.
I think he was probably a good squire, because he was as hard as nails.
It's a castle built to keep people out. It's now welcoming the locals back in.
-I'll go and get a knife.
-Why is she going to get a knife?
-I'm now slightly worried.
-Slit your throat!
Somewhere at the end of one of these incredibly long and skinny roads
you get in the Vale of Glamorgan, there is Plas Llanmihangel.
And it is an extraordinary house with a very dense history.
That, I am not surprised by. Look at that.
That is Hogwartsian architecture at its most spunky.
What a drive. Oh, my goodness.
Obviously designed to repel all boarders.
Hang on, hang on, almost there.
It's about keeping people at bay obviously, this house.
Because, if you survive the drive,
and I'm not sure I'm going to, then...
the next problem...
..is battling the battlements...
and getting through the front door.
In the 12th century, Plas Llanmihangel was owned by a Norman knight and is described as a grange.
It was probably a one-storey building, not the magnificent gentry house we have here today.
Now it's owned by Sue Beer and her architect husband David.
And they have, for the past 20 years,
been realising their ambition to turn this imposing ramshackle castle
into a home which everybody can enjoy.
How on earth did you two come to take on something of this magnitude?
-We were seeing a cousin of mine that we hadn't seen for 30 years.
-And we thought, being English as we are, that South Wales was full of chimneys.
And we were so surprised that we asked him to bring us for a drive around the area. And he came...
-In July, yes.
-When it was lovely and sunny.
And he came outside the house and stopped, got out, and said,
"There you are, David, it's going for a song."
Just how little was that song?
-That's a very, very little song.
-For this size.
-And 12 acres.
-When was that?
-In July, 22 years ago.
-22 years ago.
Because, the other thing is, it was a big project to be taking on.
What do you mean?!
You weren't straight out of short trousers, were you(?)
You forget, through your lifespan, you have a whole series of,
-if you're lucky, surges to different things.
-And this was a surge.
You took this on when so many people
are thinking of downsizing, not upsizing.
-And not just upsizing, but up, up
-upsizing to something
that required the most enormous amount of renovation work.
-But it was the challenge.
-Yes, we love it.
The whole work, we were determined to have that done properly. We are doing it ourselves, basically.
And, of course, because it is all their own work,
Sue and David have no idea how much they have spent on the renovation.
All they know is it has taken them 20 years, that cash is always tight.
And that there's forever something left to do.
Let's go in, because I am intrigued by your castle.
-It is a castle.
-A little castle.
-A teeny castle.
-It's a fortified manor house.
-It's a pint sized castle.
Very stony, isn't it? There's a lot of stone.
It's built of stone. It's a stone area.
It is a stone area.
-Go a bit further north in Wales and you have timber.
Certainly, there was a real sense of wanting to... What, keep people out or keep people in here?
Definitely to keep people out.
It hasn't worked, has it?
Well, we leave the door open.
And who were they trying to keep out?
Well, in the 12th century, it would have been about
keeping out the marauding Welsh, keen to get their hands on whatever treasures lay inside.
Really, by the sound of it, around here, it's like the Wild West.
Wales was very Wild West.
Why bother working when you can go and break into that fat, plump looking farmhouse.
-There's bound to be food there.
These bolts fascinate me.
I have never seen this before, and it is such an ingenious and very simple solution.
I'm thinking about having it installed to keep the choir back in my village at bay.
It's a very simple means, isn't it?
Because you don't get a pull bar until you build it in when you're building a structure.
So you can't do it after the event?
You've got to think about this as you are actually doing it.
This is all part of it. It was very much a very standard form of locking up the doors.
So unbelievably simple, they're basically just bracing the door
against attack from the inside, because it comes out of that slot, goes into that slot.
Into the keep, as it is called.
And this is a piece of oak you can replace.
Off the estate, yes, absolutely.
And no need for any keys.
What an utterly brilliant idea.
There's a very simple way of understanding this house.
You've got a box like that.
With a floor going across.
And you've basically got one house at one end,
and one house at the other. We're in the west side now.
And then you go into the central section of the hall and then the east side.
Today, this bit of the house accommodates the living quarters, as it did back in the 16th century.
Due to the fact that the bedrooms were always put in the warmest part of the house,
which of course, back then, would have been above the kitchen.
What an earth is all of this? Is that torture? Is that tying people...?
No, the interesting thing was, this kitchen, and that's what it is, the kitchen, it always has been.
-I'll go and get a knife.
-Why is she going to get a knife? I'm now slightly worried.
To slit your throat, I suspect. Anyway, have a look.
The point here is that this didn't exist to start with.
The kitchen went from that wall right through to the main kitchen fire.
She has got a knife as well.
Oh, I see! Isn't that clever?
-A brilliant knife sharpener.
Are you allowed to do that?
-Just out of interest, this being an incredibly
historical monument and everything, quietly great chunks falling off it.
It's nice to see it being used.
It should be used. These houses should be used.
Yes. What I was leading on to say was simply that the cook or cooks,
that served the whole house, however many guests, that served the house.
And she had nothing to sharpen her knives on to start with.
But when this got built, and this got built because they came down here to use the stair
to get into the main bedrooms above.
The main bedrooms, because the fire burns all day, all winter and so forth, a bit of heat.
She at last got sandstone here.
-Somewhere to sharpen their knives.
-And that's what happened.
Fabulous. Oh, that will be a stair!
I did tell you there were steps everywhere.
Mantraps everywhere. This is incredible.
So tell me about the bread oven.
What they used to do was to take the hot ash from the fire, put it in the oven there,
heat the oven up,
then stick your arm in to see if it's hot enough.
And they used to then brush the ash out, put the bread in, seal the door.
And when the door - the seal - when it cracked, the bread was done.
Take the bread out. The bottom is full of ash.
So you don't slice it like that, you slice it across, and you give the upper crust to the upper crust!
And the servants have the stuff with all the ash in.
That'll be handy for the pub quiz. But look, knives again.
-Once you've sharpened your knife on the door jamb...
-Just turn it round
and they come out absolutely polished.
-It's wonderful, very decorative. Very, very decorative.
Have you not got any contemporary labour-saving device?
-It doesn't look like it.
-We try not to.
-Are you not tempted to go and buy yourself something that plugs into the mains?
Sue and David have known each other for 40 years.
But for the first 20, Sue was married to someone else.
As Shakespeare once said,
"The course of true love never did run smooth."
It does sound very much like a kind of a romantic novel, I think, the fact that you've come together
and done this, created this together.
I think David was really, really frightened when I turned up at his door.
I mean, it's one thing to have a lovely relationship with somebody.
It's another thing when they knock on the door and say, "I'm here!"
When you came here...
Obviously David, as an architect, has very specific uses for here.
What were you bringing here, do you think?
Other than your effervescent personality!
No, actually, I am an extremely hard worker.
And obviously I've done plastering and I've done painting,
all of those sorts of physical things.
But really, he's the person who's put, physically, the place together.
And we needed money.
We're not rich people.
And so the house has always had to earn its living, and I was good at that side of it.
And the way they earn that living is running a B&B.
Albeit a rather superior one.
We make a good team actually, don't we?
-Oh, yes, we do.
-When we're doing the bed and breakfast, we've got our own jobs in the morning.
We're fine as long as we don't speak!
It's interesting, because we have been reducing the time factor
between rising and appearing downstairs, and then starting the laying out.
You speak for yourself!
I know it's a bit of a hard way...
Well, you stayed up too late last night.
-Well, I didn't say a thing about it.
She knows, though.
-It's the one eye open.
-I think she thought she'd got away with it as well.
Oh, no. You never get away with anything with David.
I just go a bit quiet.
She gives it away when she heads for the door and nearly misses it.
The glorious thing about this house is it's always been used.
-And I love it.
-With a project like this, you're going to have that.
I would imagine that so many people would never have got this far,
because it is... It must have been so daunting.
No, we never found it daunting at all.
Were they never moments when you were just wandering around, and thought, this is too big?
No, never, not even once.
-Not even vaguely.
-So that will be "no" then(?)
Not much is known of Llanmihangel's Norman ancestry.
We know that something existed here.
But from about 1500 to 1685
it was the seat of one of Wales's oldest aristocratic families,
This is stunning, absolutely stunning.
It's the main room of the house at the moment.
And this is the oldest bit, isn't it?
-The hall, yes.
-Well, the oldest bit is underneath this.
This is the oldest pretty bit, then?
The other bits are quite nice!
It's rather lovely.
The whole atmosphere in here is just absolutely...
what you want, really, from a manor house.
This fireplace is amazing.
-What's the heraldry?
-The quartering of the marriage couple of the early Thomas family.
And then, as is common in Wales,
as long as you can establish a relationship, however tenuous it is,
to other families, usually the great families,
then you're allowed to portray it,
because that tells any Welshman coming in that would recognise these, and they would,
the relationship of the current family of Thomas to these great families in Wales.
They're bigging themselves up, aren't they?
-They are, in a sense. It's quite legit.
-It's like leaving your address book open
when you've got people coming round, so that you can see
Jamie Oliver's number and Madonna's number.
Is that what you do, do you?
Yeah, I do!
They're always doing it to me!
Obviously, you two love it as somewhere to entertain, and judging by the lovely long table...
Just being here.
Exactly, drinking in the history.
I find that fascinating,
because to have that dirty great big coat of arms
above the door seems...slightly unusual for a drawing room.
Well, I suppose you're right about that, but it wasn't only just a drawing room,
this was also a courtroom on... We don't know what.
Monthly, something like that, a court was held here.
The dungeons are downstairs for those that were brought up, and the sheriff,
that's what we're talking about.
And that's the Tudor coat of arms.
I was going to say, we can date that quite well,
because for the one and only time,
you've got the red dragon of Wales as part of the English coat of arms.
Which means that this was a household loyal to the throne.
Between 1485 and 1603, the dragon formed part
of the arms of the Tudor dynasty to signify their Welsh ancestry.
In the 17th century, it was replaced by a unicorn, by order of James I.
This was a courtroom.
This was right at the centre of the house because it's the big, grand house.
Yeah, but the Thomases owned it, but they had gone to higher realms,
and where do you go?
You go to London, where all society is, and you've got your huge estates - and they WERE huge.
The Llanmihangel estates were thousands of acres.
-And that gave them the money to have the rich lifestyle that they had.
But there were some responsibilities.
So they left this place behind as a domestic dwelling,
but it was still hugely symbolic for them
and for the hierarchy, the status of the area.
Yes, I think that's got it in a nutshell, really.
Now, we've searched the length and breadth of Wales
for some kind of pictorial evidence
of this esteemed Welsh family and have come up with zilch. Nada.
Absolutely nothing. All that's left
is the coat of arms.
So the Thomases were the undisputed lords of their manor,
so why rule the dynasty from a courtroom located bang in the centre of their house?
Something I'm hoping architectural historian, Tom Lloyd, will be able to tell me.
He can do it in his great hall, sitting at his big table at the top
with the local jury sitting down at the side tables,
and he could terrify his tenants, which is what he wanted to do.
That would be fun, better than chasing sheep.
In those days, you had to try and keep law and order on your estate,
because the local landlord in a place like this was the lord and master of his domain.
The last Thomas to live here, Sir Robert Thomas,
known with little affection as Sir Robert the Ass, was an ass at business.
Everything he touched turned to rubbish.
Now, because we don't know what he looked like, you're having to make do with...me
and my personal representation of the man who brought shame and disgrace to his family name.
Good, isn't it? Historical archives show
that Sir Robert Thomas the Ass had the world upon his thumb.
All his business ventures went astray, and he was rather an unbalanced character.
From being one of the wealthiest families in the county,
they became one of the poorest, and eventually he was faced with the inevitability
of having to sell his estate.
Waiting in the wings, observing this from the shadows with an enormous chequebook and a very beady eye
was Sir Humphrey Edwin, Lord Mayor of London in 1697.
HE CLEARS HIS THROAT
I'm wondering whether you've forgotten to put coins in the meter.
Or is this just a power cut, or are you just going for camp?
No, it's one of the very few churches that doesn't have electricity. And long may it remain so.
-That means you've got to pedal like fury to...
-..squeeze anything out of this.
Here we are, exquisite church, fabulous history,
dirty great big monument to HUMPHREY and absolutely nothing to the Thomases.
I think that Sir Humphrey would have got rid of any sign of the Thomases,
because there was a certain amount of dispute about the estate,
and he wanted to make his mark, and the Thomases had no right whatsoever...
to this estate.
And that's why you've got that.
It's a risk. No-one knows what he looks like,
no-one knows the man and that, in a way, is weird.
To be Lord Mayor of London and not have any kind of documentary
visual evidence of what the guy looked like is strange.
But he wasn't a good squire, was he?
He wasn't like the Thomases.
Oh, I don't think they were, either. They were just broke all the time.
True, that's not so good!
But I think in one sense he was probably a good squire,
because he was as hard as nails.
From Lord Mayor of London to Lord of the Manor of, well, here,
a rural hamlet in sleepy Glamorgan.
By this stage, Sir Humph was a billionaire, a Branson in a big wig.
In fact, a recent survey of the richest people since 1066
put together by the Sunday Times places him at 236th.
And for him, having a country pile with lashings of history
was an essential ingredient in his social climb.
So he came here, a celebrity squire.
You know the kind of look - Guy Ritchie, Madonna,
Elizabeth Hurley, Elton John, Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen...
And Llanmihangel did indeed bring Sir Humphrey
the status he so desperately craved.
His ambition to buy his way into aristocracy
was ultimately realised through his daughter.
Anne married a close neighbour
who just happened to be the heir to Dunraven Castle.
These big houses are two a penny in the Vale of Glamorgan.
Just what was it about this place
that attracted the great and the good to build here?
Architectural historian Tom Lloyd thinks he has the answer.
Well, it was a wonderful place to live.
Here we are, sitting in the sun.
The agricultural land is fantastically rich.
The very good building stone, above all, encouraged you to build.
If you can dig out wonderful stone from the ground easily, then you can
just build so much better and you can get much more carried away with it.
It was also competitive. Once your neighbour down the road
builds a big house, you want to do it the same.
And I think that stimulated a great deal because,
in particular, in Elizabethan times show was everything.
It was all about how grandly you were dressed
and how grand your house was. And the more opulence
you could show, the higher up the league table you were.
The reason this place had many nice houses were the shops in Cowbridge.
You know, lovely little shops there. You can imagine them
all flocking here because they want to buy some potpourri.
But in the 19th century, London was the place to be,
and so the landed gentry
abandoned their countryside estates
in favour of town houses in the Big Smoke,
leaving the mansions to a succession of paying tenants.
In 1860, Llanmihangel
was the home of the entrepreneurial Jenkins family.
Moving forward in time,
because I've got a picture here of the Jenkins family.
I don't know too much about them, but I do know he had three daughters,
and his wife died, and he ended up marrying the housekeeper,
-which kept the family together.
-What did Jenkins do?
He was a brewer and had a brewery in Cowbridge.
And Jenkins' brewery... have we any evidence of...?
Well, I've got a...
Oh, you see? You're so reliable.
You're never far from a bottle, are you?
This is absolutely true!
What is exceptional about this house
is that it's been in continuous occupation since the 12th century,
and now it's a Grade-I-listed building,
which should safeguard its future
for posterity, something Sue is already contemplating.
Eventually, David and I are going to get really old!
And maybe we won't be able to cope. And then
-who takes it on?
And it's not going to be the person
-who's got the most money, that's for sure.
Probably, hopefully, people like us, who need to have to try,
and then you have to share it,
because you can't manage it without sharing it.
But the thought of somebody coming in and being somewhat pretentious
and closing off the house to...everyone,
I would find that very, very difficult, and I would haunt.
-You'd come back and rattle chains?
I've been genuinely impressed
with the love and the warmth emanating from these two.
I might have to go back to bed.
Now, those are proper eggs.
can you see they don't...
They do everything as a team - even the breakfast.
No, they were having...
And the constant, incessant renovation
which a house like this generates is in fact a pleasure.
It's a way of showcasing their hard work to the world.
Thank you very much.
Do you think that you've finished, or is it like the Forth Road Bridge,
the Forth road bridge of love - you keep going round and round
in circles until you've done what you need to do?
No, it isn't, simply because whilst we are now maintaining lots of stuff
that we repaired or restored 20 years ago, that's true,
but there's still new stuff to be done
and stuff that I've deliberately not done.
But there is nothing lord and lady of the manor
about you two, is there?
-No, I don't think so.
-We have no intention to be.
-He says very proudly!
But the critical thing about this place,
and I think the thing that gives this place
such an extraordinarily special atmosphere,
is the fact that both of you work so incredibly hard on it
But it's not something that you keep back for yourselves.
It's not a selfish pleasure at all. It is about sharing, isn't it?
-Well, certainly for me.
-He'll just say, "Yes, dear."
-"Yes, dear, it's about sharing."
-It's about sharing.
When you think that this house was actually designed to repulse,
I think that David and Sue have done an extraordinary job
in making it quite so welcoming.
And that's all down to them.
That's down to their energy, their application, their eccentricity,
if you like, all at a time when most people would, I suppose,
have written them off and suggested
that they should have been mixing cocoa rather than cement.
But, don't forget, this place was once the country seat
of one of the most crashing snobs in English history.
And yes, I do mean you, Sir Humphrey.
So it's just brilliant that these days
it's looked after so well by a pair of rock'n'roll lefties
who are actually desperate to share it with you and me.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd.
E-mail [email protected]
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.