Series discovering some of Wales's finest houses. Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen visits Cresselly, the mansion which has been home to the Allen family for the past 300 years.
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If you turn your back on the town, take the village track,
follow the unmade road, you'll find something extraordinary.
The hidden houses of Wales.
In this series, I'll be turning back the clock,
stepping over the threshold of some incredible places,
seeking out scandal-packed histories.
Bricks and mortar will never be the same again.
In this episode, we'll be visiting a house that relied on the proceeds of the Irish Sea.
It was a very profitable business because every ship that passed had to pay a toll.
A house with a 140-year-old roller-skating rink!
Great-great-uncle Henry, he built it in about 1880.
And he did it really for his own entertainment.
And where a former resident climbed this rope every night to bed.
And two of his nephews greased the rope after they had a row with him.
I'm in Pembrokeshire, which to its many, many, many friends is often known as Little England.
And I'm fond of Pembrokeshire.
I used to come here as a child on holiday so a lot of it's familiar
but I'm in search of a house that's halfway of being an architectural milestone
and a family millstone.
The posh side
is on the road, the other side
is at the end of a swoopingly gracious drive...and there it is.
That is text book country house, isn't it?
A couple of wings, some rather gracious Venetian windows.
But there is something a little bit foreboding about it.
It looks like it should be occupied by a slightly eccentric major,
a gentleman of means, but slightly short temper.
The imposing Cresselly House was originally built by the Allen family nearly 250 years ago.
That could be a fort, almost.
Today, it's still owned by the Allens and is run by Hugh, the eighth squire of Cresselly.
Hugh, how do you do?
I'm just admiring your craggily handsome house.
-Very craggily. Come in.
Do you mind me calling your house craggily handsome?
-It's very craggily, it's not very handsome.
-I think it is.
I think it's very craggily handsome.
Now you see, look, this is extraodinary because this is, to me, this is a very blokey environment.
This is a very masculine hall, instantly.
It's not a feminine hall at all.
It's not, there are no bowls of pot pourri and chintz, you know, it's all huntsmen and furniture.
It's a macho hall, isn't it.
It's macho! It's macho manor.
So how long have your family been here because you're how many generations down the line?
I'm eight generations so my great great great great great great great grandfather built it in 1769.
-As we see it today or...?
-No, just the central bit.
It was built as a neo palladium villa with Italian influence.
Each generation does a bit more, you know, tinkers with it.
What have you done?
-Painted it yellow.
-I've done more landscaping... Painting yellow! Yes, lots of painting.
-Very inappropriate colours.
-I think this works very well.
I think it's a very Georgian colour and it looks fabulous with the daffodils, at the very least.
To that gracious Georgian villa were added a pair
of clunky Victorian wings, which doubled Cresselly in size.
Today it's a sprawling labyrinth
of family history, memorabilia and eccentricity.
It is, in a very real sense, a time-warp of a building.
Everywhere you look, there are generations of Allens looking back at you.
Time just seems to have stood still.
When you were a child, was it somewhere that you
saw as a very warm home or was it slightly big and a little bit scary?
I think it was quite big and scary,
you know, we played so much in the gardens.
No, I think it was big and scary, but lots of fun.
You've gone through various incarnations, haven't you?
Because you grew up here but actually in your early years you were much more into machinery.
I was fascinated by cars.
My parents and the whole family, horses, and I really couldn't do horses.
I just wanted to drive cars fast so anything with wheels.
So your career as a fast car driver, we ought to point out,
was not necessarily Kensington high street, it was something you did...
Yeah, I did it for very few years, not very long.
17 to 20-something.
You know, you can't think of anything more opposite than here -
you were travelling abroad a lot, living in London.
What was it that brought you back here?
I mean, the pull of Cresselly is huge and I did used to come back
but I was definitely living away from here,
and I wouldn't say I gave into the hall, because I'm absolutely consumed by Cresselly.
I wouldn't say it's an obsession but it's close, really.
I'm totally in love with the place.
After giving up on his motor racing dream,
Hugh spent most of his life in London working for Microsoft.
He married twice and divorced twice and has three children,
two daughters and a son, James.
Hugh was born in 1950 to Auriol and David Allen.
After leaving in 1967, he only returned to Cresselly 10 years ago following the death of his mother.
Despite it being one of the biggest private
estates in Pembrokeshire, Hugh lives in this 12-bedroomed mansion alone.
Might be a little bit dusty up here.
Oh, don't worry, I'm quite resilient. And we could always Hoover me.
Today, the heir apparent is 22-year-old James Harrison Allen, who,
just like his father, left Cresselly and moved to London to get more life experience away from the estate.
-Sure you haven't had a team of stylists from the World Of Interiors in to style it?
Some of it has been cleared out, we had a big clear out here years ago.
Somewhere here, there's my fossil collection, I think!
Is there?! Do you ever come up here on one of those rocking horses that just swing backwards and forwards?
And weird dolls sitting on the side, following you round the room!
Do you consider yourself to be a country boy or a town boy?
I'd rather be seen as a country boy but I've got elements of both, to be honest.
I grew up in the country but I'm used to London life now and city life.
Because that's kind of what your father did as well, isn't it?
There seems to be something about your family in particular that there
is a Georgian idea that you want to spend some time in your 20s and 30s doing what you need to do.
-Sowing your wild oats.
-At the moment, I don't see it as a huge weight on my shoulders.
I see it as my life is slightly separate to this, at the same time I can go back and forth.
I feel a sense of duty that I want to be part of the history down here but I don't feel obliged to do it.
Times have changed and the income from tenant farms
and ancestral wealth, which has supported Cresselly throughout the centuries, is drying up.
Today, an estate of this size needs to diversify to survive.
That task may eventually fall to James, who'll have a harder job than the original Allens.
The first of those Allens came to Wales from Ireland in the middle of the 17th century and didn't waste
any time getting acquainted with the local aristocracy.
In 1732 John Allen married Joan Bartlett,
the wealthy heiress of Cresselly.
Their son John Bartlett Allen
knocked down the previous building and in 1769 erected Cresselly.
It was very different from anything this part of Wales had seen before.
John Bartlett Allen was deliberately trying to make something of a statement in architectural terms.
Absolutely, yeah. It very competitive
when you had money and here he really got ahead of the game.
It would have been completely wondrous to his neighbours, who lived in pretty bog-standard
rectangular boxes, to see this very carefully considered beautiful piece
of brand new architecture suddenly appearing on the Pembrokeshire soil.
It was really a classic piece of one-upmanship.
He was very much at the forefront of fashion.
He was showing that he had links to London and he knew what fashion was all about.
He was very rich and he wanted to show that he was very cultured
and that he was absolutely the first person with a new idea down here.
It's what we all want to do, isn't it?
And these elegant new ideas
were also used on the interiors of Cresselly.
This is obviously where
the ladies lived, I would imagine.
When was this done?
Well this is a retro design, this is...
Italian plasterers did this Rococo plastering about 1770, but apparently
from a 1750s design so when they did it was fairly retro but,
you know, Pembrokeshire is quite a long way behind the times.
Pembrokeshire does retro very well.
The thing that I just absolutely love about this though is the fact
that you can see, you know, all of this was done on site, wasn't it?
They would have mixed up little tiny blobs of plaster, maybe put
some horse hair in it or something else to give it a bit of strength, and then made all of the leaves.
You know, allowed the strings of foliage to
skittle all over the ceiling.
It's terribly, terribly pretty.
And at odds with the front hall, which is so blokey.
Absolutely different. Different mood altogether, isn't it?
Yeah, but I suppose it goes to show that houses like this had female areas and male areas.
You know, you didn't have that sort of...
-cohabitation in the same way.
-This is the ladies' domain, I think, isn't it? Would you say?
Yeah, definitely. With the view.
The silks are very pretty as well.
Yeah, but work.
There's no doubt this was a wealthy household.
Just look at the quality of the workmanship, which still survives today.
Only the very best would do for Cresselly.
Affording this level of splendour takes dosh. Obviously John Allen
had married an heiress,
but it's obvious there's a lot more money coming in to increase the family coffers.
Where is it coming from? To find out I'm travelling 25 miles to Haverfordwest.
At St Ann's Head, guarding the shipping lanes into one of Britain's
busiest ports, Milford Haven,
stands the latest incarnation of a very important lighthouse.
Historian Tom Lloyd is waiting to tell its story.
Although the view is spectacular and I do love the
outside of lighthouses, what specifically does this lighthouse have to do with the Allens?
Well, the Allens settled on this very tip of Pembrokeshire.
It was very important for ships coming into the Haven to be able to have some sort of guidance.
And, in 1713, Joseph Allen
applied to put a lighthouse here which he would run, and he got a patent out of Trinity House,
they built the lighthouse, and his obligation was to make sure
that there was always a light burning at night to guide the ships in.
So this was of huge commercial importance in the area because
you can see just by the way the sea changes colour that it must be very treacherous out there.
It's very treacherous, as you say, and light was really important here.
So it was a very profitable business because every ship that passed the lighthouse had to pay a toll.
And you had toll collectors in every port that ships were likely to go to.
They made a huge amount of money, that's why Cresselly was built such a lovely house.
Unfortunately for the Allens they only had a 99-year lease, so in 1814 it all came to an end.
This winning of the lottery every year came to an end for them.
For the next 100 years, the Allen men continued to add
to the family fortune by making profitable marriages,
increasing their wealth and estates.
By the time we get to Henry Seymore Allen in the 1880s, it seems they
have so much money they simply don't know what to do with it.
If course, it's very usual to have a shed or a gazebo in your garden - but that's neither.
It's neither a shed nor a gazebo - what is it?
Well, it was a roller-skating rink,
but it's fallen into disrepair.
So who wanted to build a roller-skating rink in the gardens of Cresselly House?
Great-great-uncle Henry, he built it in about 1880 to 1890,
and he did it really, as I said, for his own entertainment.
So one would imagine that there weren't many roller-skating rinks in the area in the 1890s.
I wouldn't think there were any in Wales.
-So he decided to just build one.
-Probably read about it somewhere.
Yeah, because this looks like it's relatively lavish, for the 1890s.
It's got central heating and it's got a tremendous sense of space.
It had a sprung maple floor, which was wonderful.
They had dances in here as well after roller skating.
I have to say, there's a strong strain
-of independent thinking in your family.
-Yes. Yes, extremely.
Is it a sort of just a sense of "I like this so I'm going to do it"
Yes, I think it was quite selfish, he just wanted to do his own thing. He didn't do a huge amount.
His mother was a great benefactor, did a lot for the estate.
Uncle Henry thought he would go and enjoy himself.
Which he did!
So what else did he get up to?
-He climbed to bed on a rope.
which is an odd thing to do.
And yes, you did hear right, old Henry shinned up three floors every evening until the day he died.
But where he put his mug of cocoa is pure conjecture!
To honour Henry's fortitude, we've asked Peter Ward from the Prince's Trust to try and recreate the deed.
See, this is what I love about this place and your family,
-it's a never-ending outward bound course, really, isn't it?
-It is, isn't it!
Oh, you've got to keep it there now.
I think we will.
So do you reckon he just had like a kind of obsession with the idea that if he climbed up the rope every
night rather than using the stairs he'd be, you know, live longer, be fitter, be more glamorous?
Yes, and he didn't have sex.
-Because of the rope? Do you think he had rope burns?
-It might have been burns.
-Because I don't suppose Great-great- uncle Henry ever went down the rope.
-Yeah, he did,
and two of his nephews used to grease the rope after they had a row with him.
Yes, absolutely true.
Now we've got Pete who is going to walk the plank or do the rope.
-Are you confident that that's going to be all right?
-Yeah, it looks OK.
Well it's an absolute first, I think, for Hidden Houses Of Wales.
Let's re-enact Great-great-uncle Henry.
Yes, you see, that is much more like it.
See, that's absolutely wonderful.
That really feels as if Great-great-uncle Henry is back with us.
You are Great-great-uncle Henry, as I live and breathe.
-I can see the appeal of doing it, actually.
Bravo, right you next!
Ah! Just for a second, it felt like Cresselly had returned to its giddy eccentric heyday.
But then everyone's gone and the old girl retreats back into her shell.
100 years ago, she was a gentle, feminine villa barely resting on
the hillside, but, as with so many houses of this age, tastes change,
not necessarily for the better.
This is all real Georgian gentleman textbook stuff.
You've got the text book landscape so you need the text book house.
-And that's small but perfectly formed, this villa that's quite relaxed. What happens, Tom?
Because look at it now!
Well it was built as an ornament to the landscape, you know, and then it got...
Well, the Victorians have at least been tactful.
I mean, they could have done something enormous and completely squished the original house.
I mean, quite often that did happen. But in this particular case they've used the bay
as the inspiration and put two more three-sided bays on each side.
At least they've been kind to the original house.
It doesn't quite work because it's
too heavy, it compromises the lightness of the touch.
Who put these blobby little wings on?
Well, Lady Catherine Allen built them for her son, the one who climbed the rope,
as a 21st birthday present, at which point he said, "Thanks very much, Mum," and kicked her out!
So, Great-uncle Henry was somewhat ungrateful as well as a bit weird.
And maybe Cresselly reflects his outdoorsy Victorian masculinity.
Of course, you would expect family portraits,
but where are the ladies? There is something terribly "Boys Own" about this.
All these blokes in uniform.
Every corridor, you know, these aren't
just paintings, these aren't just artefacts, they are your ancestors.
Do you ever get the feeling you're surrounded by ghosts?
Yes, it's quite a presence sometimes,
and sometimes very approving and sometimes definitely not approving.
-Which makes it more fun!
-Yes, I can't believe you'd ever be intimidated by the Lady in Grey in the corridor.
I'm really, really struck by Cresselly House
because I think that it does have a personality, and it has a very, very masculine personality.
Where is that femininity? Where's the feminine presence here?
I think the house reflects me, probably, at the moment, but, you know, you go through
different life changes, don't you, and sometimes it can seem quite feminine, depending on who's about.
I think there's quite a strong sense about the entire place of it being
quite a boy zone, naughty boys hanging out in a big house.
I think that's mainly for the last five to 10 years or so because he's been living here
without his wife, so it's become more that way, it's become more a sort of...
I wouldn't say bachelor pad, but more bachelor-ish because of that.
We are a long way away from most things here, it is reasonably remote.
Your father must enjoy his own company a lot, I would have thought?
Also he's got a very, very strong local community here.
-If you go down to The Quay, which is our local pub, there is no other place like it.
It's got such a strong bond between the people there.
Do you miss the fact that you don't know your neighbours in town?
I do, actually. It is...
Everyone down here is a lot more sort of warm and friendly, but that is always the way in a small community.
And Cresselly's links to that community stretch well beyond its walls and fields.
Outside Cresselly's local, it's like olde worlde pub wallpaper...for real.
The Pembrokeshire hunt dates from the 18th century, and for almost all of the last 200 years
it has been based at Cresselly.
-Are you having a quick fondle?
-Indeed we are.
It probably wouldn't be the first time, would it?
I can honestly say, this is one of the best turned-out hunts I have ever seen.
-Yeah, look's brilliant! Lady over there with side saddle.
-She'll be very flattered.
-She looks brilliant.
-She does look elegant.
But it's such a lovely location as well.
These days, they're not after the fox.
It's more to do with hunting down the latest gossip
before charging through the countryside looking, well, fab.
People that live in towns don't understand things like this
-and fear things like this because it sort of, you know...
-They misunderstand it.
-That's the issue.
-But you can tell from this, this is an entire community.
If you look around, it's everyone here.
All the farmers, everyone getting together in the morning to have a meeting and see each other.
Are you are not tempted to do the horse thing?
Not for a while, to be honest.
I had a go when I was younger and fell off a few times, so it's not really for me.
Do it on a quad bike.
That would be a lot more fun. If you had quad bikes and trail bikes I'd definitely be up for it.
An experience like this must bring...
Must make you feel a part of quite a long history.
I mean, this is something that hasn't changed for 200 years.
It's a huge continuity.
-Sounds really pompous, but the continuity...
-No, no, I can see that.
-It's a complete community.
If you want to know when somebody's funeral is then you come to the pub.
If you want some cash, you don't go to the hole in the wall, you cash a cheque here.
So it's, you know, very special and everyone knows everybody.
Thank you very much. We'll be hacking up towards the big wood. Thank you.
It is actually just like watching a table mat suddenly come to life.
-Talking of table mats, shall we go into the pub?
-Sounds great. I think it's your round, isn't it?
Cresselly. Built, owned and lived-in by the same dynasty.
Let's face it, it's rare to find such a survival, but that is the continuing challenge for the Allens.
It's very easy to dismiss a house like this and an estate
and a situation like this as being an anachronism.
But actually it doesn't have to be, does it?
It can be something that moves with the times and that re-incarnates.
I think it's got to evolve.
This house couldn't survive purely on farm tenancy, it's just... There's not enough land there.
You've had to guide this place through a very sort of bumpy landscape
in a way that your grandparents, your great-grandparents, possibly parents, didn't.
Yes, it's a model for change.
My grandparents wouldn't have dreamt... And they didn't need to change anything.
But we have to change everything now. And it's fun doing it.
The responsibility to keep it in the Allen family
and to ensure its future rests not really with Hugh but with his son, James.
And he's got big ideas for Cresselly to become a luxury B&B and wedding venue.
All this is the Georgian part, none of it is the Victorian wing.
This is all the oldest part of the house up here.
I see what you mean, though. These would make really, really good guest rooms.
Yeah. Well, they've got the light, they've got the windows.
Each generation adds something to the house and that continues.
Your father has done an enormous amount of work in the grounds,
-is there something you would really like to do?
-I'm not sure.
The attic, it would be quite nice to make it more up to date
because at the moment none of it has been used for decades.
If you look at many country houses nowadays, many of them have diversified.
Some have turned into restaurants, hotels or started selling things.
They've all moved into an industry or market place.
I think it's important to find that niche or market place which Cresselly can then do.
But I think giving a useful purpose to the house would be a nice thing to have, so Cresselly can be protected
for future generations and everyone else can have the benefits and pleasures of using this house.
So it seems that James' time away from Cresselly is having
the same effect on him as it did on his father.
He's been in London for some time working,
and he's appreciated Cresselly now he is not here so much.
And he would really love to come back and run things,
and so he must in about 10 years' time, when he is ready to do it.
But also he'll have a completely different way of looking at it.
He will put his own identity on it.
-Some of his ideas are quite commercial, which I think is quite amusing.
-Yeah, that's right.
You know, the house making money for itself.
And I was always brought up not to talk about commerce or making money.
-Yeah, but even the Queen has got a chain of shops now, it's fine.
I can't decide whether this house has moulded his inhabitants or whether it's the other way round.
Certainly, Cresselly is somewhere where the clocks have stopped.
There was a point when it flirted with the 20th century
and decided that although it's a nice place to visit, it's not the kind of place you want to live.
Now, nowadays I think it's content in its rugged handsomeness
and blokeish charm to simply keep its own company.
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In this series, Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen visits some of the finest houses in Wales, stepping back in time to uncover their hidden stories.
Today he's at Cresselly - a huge Georgian mansion in Pembrokeshire in which the Allen family have lived for the past 300 years. Laurence discovers the house was built with proceeds of St Anne's lighthouse and where a former resident would climb a rope to reach his bedroom every night.