Soughton House Hidden Houses of Wales


Soughton House

Series discovering some of Wales's finest houses. Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen visits Soughton House in Mold, and learns of the rags-to-riches story of its current owner.


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Transcript


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If you turn your back on the town, take the village track,

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follow the unmade road, you'll find something absolutely extraordinary -

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the hidden houses of Wales.

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In this series, I'll be turning back the clock.

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I'll be stepping over the threshold of some incredible places,

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seeking out scandal-packed histories.

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Bricks and mortar? They're never going to be the same again.

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In this episode, we'll be visiting a house

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that symbolises the rags-to-riches story of a local Welsh boy done good.

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It's somewhere where you go, and your family are around you. It's a sanctuary, isn't it?

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'A house that's been put back together in the wrong way...'

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200 years ago, when you come back from the supermarket, that's what would have faced you.

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'..and is now a haven after a storm of adversity.'

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I believe that I helped him through

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because he knew that I was there for him, and that he wasn't alone.

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-GEARS CRUNCH

-Argh!

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So, here I am back in the Morris Minor

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and travelling round a part of Wales I actually don't know well at all.

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Flintshire is the border country between North Wales and England.

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And in fact, you look around now

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and it's home to more than a handful of perma-tanned Premier League footballers.

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But, go back 200, 300 years...

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and this place was very much THE place to be.

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Shall I risk third?

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Third. Yes!

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Soughton House dates from the 18th century,

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and is magnificently placed on the hills

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overlooking the Dee Estuary, about five Welsh miles away from Chester.

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Dramatically structurally refurbished ten years ago,

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Soughton House is now the home of David McLean and his second wife, Ruth.

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David McLean's is a household name as he used to own and run

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one of the biggest construction companies in Wales.

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Gosh. Little bit Southfork, dare I say it.

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There's something a bit flat and a bit American to that entrance.

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But it's difficult in this day and age, I think.

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200 years ago, you'd have had a football team of under gardeners

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who could rake the gravel and lick the grass.

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Ooh, look at that! Blimey!

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Now, I am actually momentarily blinded by the car rather than the house,

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because the house is something of a patchwork.

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Look at me, arriving not in a blaze of glory but a blaze of gravel!

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-I know, we could hear you coming!

-I bet you could!

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I'm very, very pleased to find I've actually managed to stop in front of your incredibly beautiful car.

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Don't fancy doing a swap, do you? Like for like.

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-It is quite nice, but...

-Almost identical.

-Almost! I don't think so.

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But it is... I mean, that's such a stunner

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you forget to look at the house, but the house is extremely interesting.

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But it's not giving much away, is it?

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So there's a sense that the house is sort of holding its cards very closely.

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-What about inside? Is that where the history starts to unfold?

-I think that's where you'll understand it.

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It is absolutely fascinating! So, how old is the...

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Oh, does that explain it, 1685? Are we looking at 1685?

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Do you know, we're curious, we don't know.

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-It was here when we came.

-It was here when we came.

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But this is a very interesting space. It doesn't feel terribly old.

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We've traced the house back to the 17th century,

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and we thought, "Well, this fireplace perhaps didn't belong to this house

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"and that's come later or somebody's put it in."

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It would be nice to know more about it, and you're here, so you must know more about it!

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I'm here. Definitely, I want to start getting under the skin of it,

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cos I think the other thing, as well, is it's a house that has obviously continued to be in use,

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and every person in it has done something different to it.

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-I mean, things like the staircase. Was the staircase always there?

-No.

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It wasn't?

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The staircase has been cut. You can see the markers where there have been rails. We suspect it's smaller.

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Yeah. Meanwhile, of course, the current lord of the manor is there enshrined.

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I assume that's you? It's not YOU!

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If it is you, I'd sue.

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-It doesn't look anything like you.

-It was bought.

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-For my birthday.

-A special birthday. And he wore his favourite shirt.

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That shirt, I still have it, and it's gotta be 20 years old!

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What is really nice is the fact that it's a historical thing to do,

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but it's not, cos it's actually...

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You look very modern, you look very welcoming,

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you're looking straight at the door and kind of saying,

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"Welcome and come in," and that's the sense I get from this house -

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that it's got a lot of very, very fascinating history that we need to unpick.

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Soughton House is David's reward for years of hard work.

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Brought up by his grandmother

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in a village just two miles down the road,

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his is a success story of a local boy done good.

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It was Jane, my eldest daughter, who said, "Have you had a look at this?"

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And I said, "No, not really," and she said, "Time you moved on from where you are," and...

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So one day I was driving back from work

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and I just decided to pull in, and it was one of those places.

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You must have seen it...

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I've seen it many times, where you go somewhere

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and you have a feeling for a place. It just feels like home.

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Because your story is quite romantic in a way - it almost reads a bit like a Victorian novel.

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You start with very little, you work very hard as a bricklayer.

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You build a big company and you buy somewhere like this.

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It's a very rags-to-riches story.

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Yes, something very satisfying about actually building something.

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Because it's there, for ever.

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One thing I'm wondering is

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whether you ever felt that you were saving this place.

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Well, saved it, maybe that is the right word.

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I've never looked at it as being saving it.

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I think for anybody else to have done it at the time,

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maybe the cost would have been prohibitive.

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The thrill is finding something that has been undisturbed and then almost bringing it back to life.

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It's almost that Sleeping Beauty moment.

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Are you the Prince Charming that kissed the Sleeping Beauty awake again?

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It is a fantastic house. It's a lovely house to live in.

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At the end of the day,

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if you look at what it was and what it's turned out to be,

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I think I've done a nice job on it,

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within the very...kind of budget that I have.

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Today, Soughton House sits in 70 acres of lush pasture,

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but its exact origins are difficult to determine.

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The date 1695 has been found on a stone in the wall of one of the out buildings.

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The sacred heart hinting at a Roman Catholic past.

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But after David's huge renovation,

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it's difficult to know what's original and what's not.

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It's an historical conundrum.

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OK. So what's so intriguing up here?

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I mean, it's only when we stripped the roof that we found...

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-Ah! Look at that!

-This is where we found this coving.

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Obviously, we've taken it off cos we had to take the roof off totally.

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Now, that is amazing.

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There's actually a cornice, a dentil cornice,

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so it's a cornice with little blocks on it that look like teeth.

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And then, this triangular shape with the panelling in it.

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The whole thing would have curved very elegantly up to an apex.

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-Did the staircase actually come up here?

-I think it did.

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This is the first time I feel I've met the original house completely,

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because everything else has been behind so many different layers,

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but you've even got the original paintwork colour there.

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That's absolutely typical for the 18th century. How incredibly fascinating.

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-Right, let's go.

-I feel terribly excited by this!

-Do you want to go down first?

-What's at the bottom?

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-Nothing.

-Shall I take the first bullet?

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So, this house was originally built in the Georgian era, probably around 1720.

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But we do know Welsh families had been living here way before then,

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because this was medieval prime real estate,

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close to a major shipping port

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and situated a few miles away from Chester.

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Very sought-after, very peaceful.

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But, all of that was about to change,

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because in 1277,

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Edward I invaded and conquered Wales.

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Which meant, of course, suddenly Wales was under English control,

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but it also meant, suddenly the floodgates were open

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and virile, young English blades

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could take a crack at those wealthy Welsh heiresses.

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First across the border were the Conwys,

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Englishmen descended from Sir William Coniers,

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the high constable of England.

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The Conwys wanted to get seriously integrated with Welsh polite society

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and what better way than by luring some seriously loaded heiresses up the aisle?

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Good plan!

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So, the Conwy stallions galloped all over North Wales,

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with one of them ending up here at Soughton.

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And his name? James Conwy.

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And so began the Conwys' reign at Soughton House,

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which would last for over three centuries.

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James Conwy had married its sole heiress.

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Guess what? The lad did rather well.

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There's probably always been a grand house here,

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but by the time David and Ruth arrived,

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the current house built in the splendour of the Georgian period

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had fallen on hard times.

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This wasn't so much a renovation as a total rebuild.

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David had to start almost from scratch.

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His only guide was the house's original foundations.

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I can imagine that this is the one and only time in this house's history

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it's ever had a yoga room!

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Yeah, but I think the house has got a feeling to it

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and this room is quite spiritual, I think.

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Does David do this?

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No. I have actually persuaded him to try meditation,

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and he has meditated, which is a miracle!

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How did you two meet?

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I ended up going to work in David's business, and that's how we met.

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-And that was how long ago?

-Oh, gosh, we've been together for 13 years.

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-Cos what's the age difference between you?

-21 years.

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-So that's quite...

-My daughters, or step-daughters, are my age.

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-That's cool, though.

-Yeah!

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-That means you can kind of swap clothes.

-I'm the trendy grandma.

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Wow! That's cool, being a trendy grandma.

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One of the things which I think is extraordinary about David's story and your story here

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is the fact that he has physically built so much of this.

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He's driven, he's proud of what he does, and the house is our home,

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and I think because he's put so much into it personally, that...

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it would make it difficult for us to move on, anyway!

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Quietly every now and again, he does admit to the fact that you are very important -

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actually, I'm beginning to suspect - quite dominant in certain areas of the way the house feels.

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Yeah. I mean, that is one thing that he's always said that, you know,

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I've made our house a home.

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So, how come your portrait's not in the hall?

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My portrait is hidden somewhere else!

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Oh, I see, so it's your portrait getting old?

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-Up in the attic?

-It's not quite a portrait!

-Oh, I see!

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Well, the only candidates are this or, I suppose, this.

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I feel slightly indecent loafing around their art collection trying to figure it out,

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so back to architecture.

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We've already established that this house has been changed beyond recognition,

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but I'm intrigued and want to work out what's new and what's old.

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-But that wall there is what happens to the wall up in the attic with the panelling.

-Yes.

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That comes down there,

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so that wall will have had some kind of panelling to match what's up there.

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Originally, there would have been four of these, completely open.

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And they would have looked down in to... Down on to the staircase.

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It would've been very grand.

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And that wasn't there. We found that in the attic.

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So that was up in the attic, I think, on the wall.

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It fits almost perfectly.

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Because it's a hallway, there'd be a series of symbols

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that will actually be welcoming people to your home,

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but in a very clever, Roman, Greek neo-classical language

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to show off how cultivated and how civilised and how intellectual you were.

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Let me find a piece of paper. I want to show you what I mean, cos I think it's fascinating.

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So, since I have an idea of how the house might have looked,

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I felt an artist's impression coming on.

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Ah!

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This is what I reckon

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that that little bedroom at the bottom of the stairs

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where we came down from the attic would look like.

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What I've done here is show what the arcade would look like open.

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Up here you've got a plaque showing a classical goddess

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that's particularly associated with one of the pursuits the family did a lot.

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If they hunted a lot it would be Diana.

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If they drank a lot... it might be Bacchus.

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-That, Lady Ruth...

-Wow!

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When you come back from the supermarket with a boot full of provisions,

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200 years ago, that's what would have faced you.

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You should not have drawn it.

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I can see David knocking down and starting again!

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No, no, no, no, definitely not!

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I have a horrible feeling I may have started something!

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So this really was a spectacular house.

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Back then, it was all about having a jaw-dropping entrance.

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Today, convenience is queen of the castle

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and most female visitors to Soughton wouldn't give the columns a second glance,

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but check out this walk-in wardrobe.

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-Ooh! Look at this! The inner sanctum!

-Yes, this is the inner sanctum indeed!

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So if you're not in the yoga room, you're in here being Carrie Bradshaw?!

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Yeah, I do get told off for spending a lot of time in here.

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-You are well-organised, though.

-Yes, I like to display them, because I love them!

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When you travel, does David take his evening bag collection with him?

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Not allowed, no, we travel with one little suitcase each,

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and I'm not allowed to bring back an extra bag.

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I love the idea of me trying to dictate to Mrs Llewelyn-Bowen

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she could only bring one suitcase

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when she's normally got 12 steamer trunks and we're just staying the night!

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-Well, I do send things home.

-Very good!

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What was this space originally?

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I think this was a dressing room,

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because there was a door there, there was a fireplace here,

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and its proximity to the master bedroom.

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What you've done here is you've revived the way

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that this little corner of the house was used in 1810, 1820.

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It would have been quite glamour puss, I think!

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What I am slightly intrigued about is, where is the famous T-shirt?

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-Which famous T-shirt? Oh!

-From the portrait!

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Oh, it's not here, this is shirt shirts.

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-This dressing room is my dressing room.

-What's this, then?!

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-David is allowed...that bit.

-That. You're spoiling that man!

-I am!

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-We'll never be able to release him into the wild!

-He's not self-sufficient!

-No!

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Enough about the shoes and the clothes.

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Back to the history.

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By 1720, the latest Conwy, Edward,

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was a high-flying legal eagle in London.

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Basically, Soughton is his country pile and back then, big was most decidedly beautiful.

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Whether it was your country pile or your carriage or your wig, you wanted it enormous.

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And Edward wants to increase what he's got.

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So, he decides to buy back his grandmother's estate next door,

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which had been mortgaged to a wealthy neighbour.

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Just one problem - the neighbour doesn't want to sell it back.

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So, Edward decides to take him to court.

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Edward is the legal brain. What could possibly go wrong for Edward?

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What's he actually risking - is he risking money or is he risking prestige?

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He's risking prestige through risking his estate.

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The key thing here is that

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money is important, but the basis of wealth is land.

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Would it have been a real local war?

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Are we looking at something that was quite aggressive and violent,

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or did they have to get on with life? Was this a common thing to happen?

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This was a common thing to happen and there were really two great popular strategies

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in the early 18th century for extending your estate.

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There was strategic alliance and there was aggressive litigation,

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so you could take a wealthy heiress to church or you could take her father to court.

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After ten years of expensive High Court wrangling, Edward lost the case

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and, in order to cover the costs, was forced to sell most of his estate,

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but he just about managed to hang onto Soughton House.

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Nearly 300 years later, history was to repeat itself.

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The Flintshire-based house builder David McLean Holdings

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could have debts reaching around £100 million.

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In October 2008,

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David's massively successful business went to the wall

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and over 200 people lost their jobs.

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Overnight, house sales just dried up.

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The banks took fright and refused to lend any more money.

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The now infamous credit crunch had claimed one of its biggest victims in Wales.

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History is around us. History is always around us.

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How did that feel, that point when all of that suddenly evaporated?

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It's one you can't really explain - how do you feel?

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I think your mind is in turmoil to start with.

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Nobody tells you. You've got people who work for you who, all of a sudden, are working for the bank.

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And they don't know what to say to you,

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you don't know what to say to them,

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and then after a small period of time someone just said,

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"Well, you might as well go home."

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Going back to the fateful night,

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you're the only one that can really help him - what on Earth do you say?

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Yeah. Well, I think, it was a very difficult year

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and in the midst of it, we actually got married at the end of July.

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So that, for us, was like a reinforcement of our relationship.

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But when it actually happened, I was just there

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and I believe that I helped him through,

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because he knew I was there for him and that he wasn't alone.

0:21:210:21:25

And, uh, he had so many letters and phone calls.

0:21:250:21:32

People were thinking of him

0:21:320:21:34

and not just thinking that he had,

0:21:340:21:37

you know, taken his business down on purpose

0:21:370:21:41

and taken his money and run away with it.

0:21:410:21:43

Surely, at that point, you suddenly realise how important it is that at least you've still got this place.

0:21:470:21:54

Did you look at the house and think, "At least I've got this. This is a safe haven"?

0:21:540:21:58

Yes, I was glad I'd paid my mortgage off, as people do.

0:21:580:22:04

It's somewhere where you go, and your family are around you,

0:22:040:22:08

you know, it's a sanctuary, isn't it?

0:22:080:22:11

You see front doors.

0:22:110:22:12

I mean, that door's been there for a long, long time.

0:22:120:22:16

It leaks, but not a lot, but it's stood the test of time.

0:22:160:22:22

Well, if only history could say the same about us -

0:22:220:22:25

we've stood the test of time, we leak,

0:22:250:22:27

-but, you know, we deserve to be there.

-You've got it! You've got it!

0:22:270:22:31

-It's like an assault course!

-Yes.

0:22:330:22:35

'They do say that out of adversity comes opportunity.

0:22:350:22:39

'The credit crunch may have claimed David's business,

0:22:390:22:41

'but it's also driven him to think creatively

0:22:410:22:45

'about how he runs Soughton House.'

0:22:450:22:47

And then this is the walled garden.

0:22:480:22:51

What's nice, of course, is you obviously keep a large gardening staff.

0:22:520:22:56

Look at this! You've got half a dozen gardeners at your beck and call!

0:22:560:23:00

We've talked about what happened to my business,

0:23:000:23:03

and obviously we used to have some part-time gardeners, and things change.

0:23:030:23:07

We've always had a full-time gardener.

0:23:070:23:09

And then I saw this article in the paper,

0:23:090:23:11

"Desperate shortage of allotments."

0:23:110:23:14

So we turned it into allotments.

0:23:140:23:16

To actually encourage the community into it is a very, very good idea,

0:23:210:23:26

-cos otherwise this would turn ruinous. Absolutely ruinous.

-Very quickly, as well.

-Yeah.

0:23:260:23:30

I was just saying what a pretty allotment you've got!

0:23:340:23:37

-Very lucky, aren't we?

-You are very, very lucky.

0:23:370:23:39

We'll forgive you your Wellingtons. You know you're the wrong side of the border here?!

0:23:390:23:44

-I know, but you've got to support them, haven't you?

-Yes, poor...

0:23:440:23:48

Let's support the poor old English, bless them, they can't help it!

0:23:480:23:52

By 1780, the Conwys' lack of a male heir

0:23:570:24:00

meant that this prime piece of real estate was ripe for a new owner.

0:24:000:24:05

This time the owner came from a rather unlikely background.

0:24:060:24:11

Just like David McLean, the Howards had risen from next to nothing.

0:24:110:24:17

They'd started off life as innkeepers,

0:24:170:24:19

but had made so much money they were able to buy their way into the Soughton dynasty,

0:24:190:24:24

which might go some way to explain the errant fireplace.

0:24:240:24:29

This over mantle was never here. This was brought in.

0:24:290:24:33

As far as the Howards are concerned, it's another way of making them feel basically a little bit posher,

0:24:330:24:39

cos they've got no... They've got no history, have they?

0:24:390:24:42

They start off in trade, they accumulate capital, then they buy land.

0:24:420:24:46

The end of the 18th century is what we now call the Industrial Revolution.

0:24:460:24:50

We have to presume that they're speculating,

0:24:500:24:53

putting money into ventures that produce more money.

0:24:530:24:56

That immediately goes into land and then they're trying to buy the kind of heritage,

0:24:560:25:01

the prestige that something like this would say to the world.

0:25:010:25:04

It's really all about buying dead men's shoes, isn't it?

0:25:040:25:07

-Dead men's over mantles!

-Yes!

0:25:070:25:09

The Howards sell up in 1916,

0:25:120:25:15

a date that signals the sad demise of this once-great house.

0:25:150:25:20

By 1999, it's a mere shadow of its former self.

0:25:200:25:25

-Come down!

-Look at this! This is very lux!

0:25:270:25:30

Had it not been for David and Ruth,

0:25:300:25:33

it probably would have gone to rack and ruin, but just look at it now.

0:25:330:25:38

It's very, very grand and spoiling!

0:25:380:25:42

-Is this your own work?

-If only!

0:25:420:25:45

Why A Midsummer Night's Dream?

0:25:450:25:47

We just wanted something totally different.

0:25:470:25:50

And it just is lovely to have a flowing story, I think.

0:25:500:25:54

Kind of a narrative.

0:25:540:25:56

You've built all this, but this is actually to replace...

0:25:560:26:00

-The existing house.

-Because there was a bit this big...

0:26:000:26:03

The house... Those walls are exactly where the foundations are,

0:26:030:26:07

because I built from the existing foundations back up again.

0:26:070:26:11

We literally drew it as we were going and that's how... This is how it's turned out.

0:26:110:26:16

You feel like you're outside even though it's an indoor pool.

0:26:160:26:19

Again, there's another portrait of you!

0:26:190:26:22

-I'm standing here and looking behind...

-And there you are!

0:26:220:26:25

-Do you swim?

-Unfortunately, I haven't brought my kecks with me.

0:26:250:26:29

-You don't want to swim?

-Well, we have got a steam room.

-No.

0:26:290:26:32

I'm not doing skinny dipping either, that's for sure!

0:26:320:26:35

Having got to know this house, I think it has a very strong character to it.

0:26:500:26:54

It's almost like another member of the family.

0:26:540:26:57

Do you feel proud of what you've done?

0:26:570:26:59

We are custodians of the house, really,

0:26:590:27:01

and to have come and spent time here and lived here and left our mark,

0:27:010:27:06

I think that's quite important.

0:27:060:27:08

Are you going to be here in five years?

0:27:080:27:10

I mean, is it time for you two to make a change?

0:27:100:27:13

We will ultimately move on.

0:27:130:27:16

It's a home for a family, really.

0:27:160:27:20

Do you think you'll want to then come back, once someone else has been tinkering around with it?

0:27:200:27:26

-We have to leave the portrait!

-You could have that portrait.

-Shall we leave it?

0:27:260:27:30

That portrait is not moving, it so sits here!

0:27:300:27:33

In the long history of Soughton House,

0:27:470:27:49

in the first decade of the 21st century, I reckon

0:27:490:27:52

it's going to be known as the house that Dave built,

0:27:520:27:55

or at least the house that Dave saved,

0:27:550:27:57

that Dave restored, that Dave revivified with his own hands.

0:27:570:28:02

And his portrait, albeit in that particularly jaunty striped T-shirt,

0:28:020:28:07

will be part of the picture gallery of personalities that have built Soughton House.

0:28:070:28:13

All of them creating their own fortunes,

0:28:130:28:16

whether it's by business,

0:28:160:28:19

by land, by marriage or, in David's case, by brick.

0:28:190:28:23

But the critical thing is that all of them have seen that place as home.

0:28:230:28:29

Which makes me think that in many ways, this is kind of a shrine

0:28:290:28:34

to that energy that drives someone to become a self-made man.

0:28:340:28:39

Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd

0:28:490:28:52

E-mail [email protected]

0:28:520:28:56

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 turns his attention to Soughton House - a completely renovated Georgian mansion on the outskirts of Mold in North East Wales. Laurence discovers how the rags-to-riches story of its current owner, former brickie and building magnate David McLean, has copied the history of its previous owner.


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