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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If you turn your back on the town, take the village track,
follow the unmade road, you'll find something absolutely extraordinary -
the hidden houses of Wales.
In this series, I'll be turning back the clock.
I'll be stepping over the threshold of some incredible places,
seeking out scandal-packed histories.
Bricks and mortar? They're never going to be the same again.
In this episode, we'll be visiting a house
that symbolises the rags-to-riches story of a local Welsh boy done good.
It's somewhere where you go, and your family are around you. It's a sanctuary, isn't it?
'A house that's been put back together in the wrong way...'
200 years ago, when you come back from the supermarket, that's what would have faced you.
'..and is now a haven after a storm of adversity.'
I believe that I helped him through
because he knew that I was there for him, and that he wasn't alone.
So, here I am back in the Morris Minor
and travelling round a part of Wales I actually don't know well at all.
Flintshire is the border country between North Wales and England.
And in fact, you look around now
and it's home to more than a handful of perma-tanned Premier League footballers.
But, go back 200, 300 years...
and this place was very much THE place to be.
Shall I risk third?
Soughton House dates from the 18th century,
and is magnificently placed on the hills
overlooking the Dee Estuary, about five Welsh miles away from Chester.
Dramatically structurally refurbished ten years ago,
Soughton House is now the home of David McLean and his second wife, Ruth.
David McLean's is a household name as he used to own and run
one of the biggest construction companies in Wales.
Gosh. Little bit Southfork, dare I say it.
There's something a bit flat and a bit American to that entrance.
But it's difficult in this day and age, I think.
200 years ago, you'd have had a football team of under gardeners
who could rake the gravel and lick the grass.
Ooh, look at that! Blimey!
Now, I am actually momentarily blinded by the car rather than the house,
because the house is something of a patchwork.
Look at me, arriving not in a blaze of glory but a blaze of gravel!
-I know, we could hear you coming!
-I bet you could!
I'm very, very pleased to find I've actually managed to stop in front of your incredibly beautiful car.
Don't fancy doing a swap, do you? Like for like.
-It is quite nice, but...
-Almost! I don't think so.
But it is... I mean, that's such a stunner
you forget to look at the house, but the house is extremely interesting.
But it's not giving much away, is it?
So there's a sense that the house is sort of holding its cards very closely.
-What about inside? Is that where the history starts to unfold?
-I think that's where you'll understand it.
It is absolutely fascinating! So, how old is the...
Oh, does that explain it, 1685? Are we looking at 1685?
Do you know, we're curious, we don't know.
-It was here when we came.
-It was here when we came.
But this is a very interesting space. It doesn't feel terribly old.
We've traced the house back to the 17th century,
and we thought, "Well, this fireplace perhaps didn't belong to this house
"and that's come later or somebody's put it in."
It would be nice to know more about it, and you're here, so you must know more about it!
I'm here. Definitely, I want to start getting under the skin of it,
cos I think the other thing, as well, is it's a house that has obviously continued to be in use,
and every person in it has done something different to it.
-I mean, things like the staircase. Was the staircase always there?
The staircase has been cut. You can see the markers where there have been rails. We suspect it's smaller.
Yeah. Meanwhile, of course, the current lord of the manor is there enshrined.
I assume that's you? It's not YOU!
If it is you, I'd sue.
-It doesn't look anything like you.
-It was bought.
-For my birthday.
-A special birthday. And he wore his favourite shirt.
That shirt, I still have it, and it's gotta be 20 years old!
What is really nice is the fact that it's a historical thing to do,
but it's not, cos it's actually...
You look very modern, you look very welcoming,
you're looking straight at the door and kind of saying,
"Welcome and come in," and that's the sense I get from this house -
that it's got a lot of very, very fascinating history that we need to unpick.
Soughton House is David's reward for years of hard work.
Brought up by his grandmother
in a village just two miles down the road,
his is a success story of a local boy done good.
It was Jane, my eldest daughter, who said, "Have you had a look at this?"
And I said, "No, not really," and she said, "Time you moved on from where you are," and...
So one day I was driving back from work
and I just decided to pull in, and it was one of those places.
You must have seen it...
I've seen it many times, where you go somewhere
and you have a feeling for a place. It just feels like home.
Because your story is quite romantic in a way - it almost reads a bit like a Victorian novel.
You start with very little, you work very hard as a bricklayer.
You build a big company and you buy somewhere like this.
It's a very rags-to-riches story.
Yes, something very satisfying about actually building something.
Because it's there, for ever.
One thing I'm wondering is
whether you ever felt that you were saving this place.
Well, saved it, maybe that is the right word.
I've never looked at it as being saving it.
I think for anybody else to have done it at the time,
maybe the cost would have been prohibitive.
The thrill is finding something that has been undisturbed and then almost bringing it back to life.
It's almost that Sleeping Beauty moment.
Are you the Prince Charming that kissed the Sleeping Beauty awake again?
It is a fantastic house. It's a lovely house to live in.
At the end of the day,
if you look at what it was and what it's turned out to be,
I think I've done a nice job on it,
within the very...kind of budget that I have.
Today, Soughton House sits in 70 acres of lush pasture,
but its exact origins are difficult to determine.
The date 1695 has been found on a stone in the wall of one of the out buildings.
The sacred heart hinting at a Roman Catholic past.
But after David's huge renovation,
it's difficult to know what's original and what's not.
It's an historical conundrum.
OK. So what's so intriguing up here?
I mean, it's only when we stripped the roof that we found...
-Ah! Look at that!
-This is where we found this coving.
Obviously, we've taken it off cos we had to take the roof off totally.
Now, that is amazing.
There's actually a cornice, a dentil cornice,
so it's a cornice with little blocks on it that look like teeth.
And then, this triangular shape with the panelling in it.
The whole thing would have curved very elegantly up to an apex.
-Did the staircase actually come up here?
-I think it did.
This is the first time I feel I've met the original house completely,
because everything else has been behind so many different layers,
but you've even got the original paintwork colour there.
That's absolutely typical for the 18th century. How incredibly fascinating.
-Right, let's go.
-I feel terribly excited by this!
-Do you want to go down first?
-What's at the bottom?
-Shall I take the first bullet?
So, this house was originally built in the Georgian era, probably around 1720.
But we do know Welsh families had been living here way before then,
because this was medieval prime real estate,
close to a major shipping port
and situated a few miles away from Chester.
Very sought-after, very peaceful.
But, all of that was about to change,
because in 1277,
Edward I invaded and conquered Wales.
Which meant, of course, suddenly Wales was under English control,
but it also meant, suddenly the floodgates were open
and virile, young English blades
could take a crack at those wealthy Welsh heiresses.
First across the border were the Conwys,
Englishmen descended from Sir William Coniers,
the high constable of England.
The Conwys wanted to get seriously integrated with Welsh polite society
and what better way than by luring some seriously loaded heiresses up the aisle?
So, the Conwy stallions galloped all over North Wales,
with one of them ending up here at Soughton.
And his name? James Conwy.
And so began the Conwys' reign at Soughton House,
which would last for over three centuries.
James Conwy had married its sole heiress.
Guess what? The lad did rather well.
There's probably always been a grand house here,
but by the time David and Ruth arrived,
the current house built in the splendour of the Georgian period
had fallen on hard times.
This wasn't so much a renovation as a total rebuild.
David had to start almost from scratch.
His only guide was the house's original foundations.
I can imagine that this is the one and only time in this house's history
it's ever had a yoga room!
Yeah, but I think the house has got a feeling to it
and this room is quite spiritual, I think.
Does David do this?
No. I have actually persuaded him to try meditation,
and he has meditated, which is a miracle!
How did you two meet?
I ended up going to work in David's business, and that's how we met.
-And that was how long ago?
-Oh, gosh, we've been together for 13 years.
-Cos what's the age difference between you?
-So that's quite...
-My daughters, or step-daughters, are my age.
-That's cool, though.
-That means you can kind of swap clothes.
-I'm the trendy grandma.
Wow! That's cool, being a trendy grandma.
One of the things which I think is extraordinary about David's story and your story here
is the fact that he has physically built so much of this.
He's driven, he's proud of what he does, and the house is our home,
and I think because he's put so much into it personally, that...
it would make it difficult for us to move on, anyway!
Quietly every now and again, he does admit to the fact that you are very important -
actually, I'm beginning to suspect - quite dominant in certain areas of the way the house feels.
Yeah. I mean, that is one thing that he's always said that, you know,
I've made our house a home.
So, how come your portrait's not in the hall?
My portrait is hidden somewhere else!
Oh, I see, so it's your portrait getting old?
-Up in the attic?
-It's not quite a portrait!
-Oh, I see!
Well, the only candidates are this or, I suppose, this.
I feel slightly indecent loafing around their art collection trying to figure it out,
so back to architecture.
We've already established that this house has been changed beyond recognition,
but I'm intrigued and want to work out what's new and what's old.
-But that wall there is what happens to the wall up in the attic with the panelling.
That comes down there,
so that wall will have had some kind of panelling to match what's up there.
Originally, there would have been four of these, completely open.
And they would have looked down in to... Down on to the staircase.
It would've been very grand.
And that wasn't there. We found that in the attic.
So that was up in the attic, I think, on the wall.
It fits almost perfectly.
Because it's a hallway, there'd be a series of symbols
that will actually be welcoming people to your home,
but in a very clever, Roman, Greek neo-classical language
to show off how cultivated and how civilised and how intellectual you were.
Let me find a piece of paper. I want to show you what I mean, cos I think it's fascinating.
So, since I have an idea of how the house might have looked,
I felt an artist's impression coming on.
This is what I reckon
that that little bedroom at the bottom of the stairs
where we came down from the attic would look like.
What I've done here is show what the arcade would look like open.
Up here you've got a plaque showing a classical goddess
that's particularly associated with one of the pursuits the family did a lot.
If they hunted a lot it would be Diana.
If they drank a lot... it might be Bacchus.
-That, Lady Ruth...
When you come back from the supermarket with a boot full of provisions,
200 years ago, that's what would have faced you.
You should not have drawn it.
I can see David knocking down and starting again!
No, no, no, no, definitely not!
I have a horrible feeling I may have started something!
So this really was a spectacular house.
Back then, it was all about having a jaw-dropping entrance.
Today, convenience is queen of the castle
and most female visitors to Soughton wouldn't give the columns a second glance,
but check out this walk-in wardrobe.
-Ooh! Look at this! The inner sanctum!
-Yes, this is the inner sanctum indeed!
So if you're not in the yoga room, you're in here being Carrie Bradshaw?!
Yeah, I do get told off for spending a lot of time in here.
-You are well-organised, though.
-Yes, I like to display them, because I love them!
When you travel, does David take his evening bag collection with him?
Not allowed, no, we travel with one little suitcase each,
and I'm not allowed to bring back an extra bag.
I love the idea of me trying to dictate to Mrs Llewelyn-Bowen
she could only bring one suitcase
when she's normally got 12 steamer trunks and we're just staying the night!
-Well, I do send things home.
What was this space originally?
I think this was a dressing room,
because there was a door there, there was a fireplace here,
and its proximity to the master bedroom.
What you've done here is you've revived the way
that this little corner of the house was used in 1810, 1820.
It would have been quite glamour puss, I think!
What I am slightly intrigued about is, where is the famous T-shirt?
-Which famous T-shirt? Oh!
-From the portrait!
Oh, it's not here, this is shirt shirts.
-This dressing room is my dressing room.
-What's this, then?!
-David is allowed...that bit.
-That. You're spoiling that man!
-We'll never be able to release him into the wild!
-He's not self-sufficient!
Enough about the shoes and the clothes.
Back to the history.
By 1720, the latest Conwy, Edward,
was a high-flying legal eagle in London.
Basically, Soughton is his country pile and back then, big was most decidedly beautiful.
Whether it was your country pile or your carriage or your wig, you wanted it enormous.
And Edward wants to increase what he's got.
So, he decides to buy back his grandmother's estate next door,
which had been mortgaged to a wealthy neighbour.
Just one problem - the neighbour doesn't want to sell it back.
So, Edward decides to take him to court.
Edward is the legal brain. What could possibly go wrong for Edward?
What's he actually risking - is he risking money or is he risking prestige?
He's risking prestige through risking his estate.
The key thing here is that
money is important, but the basis of wealth is land.
Would it have been a real local war?
Are we looking at something that was quite aggressive and violent,
or did they have to get on with life? Was this a common thing to happen?
This was a common thing to happen and there were really two great popular strategies
in the early 18th century for extending your estate.
There was strategic alliance and there was aggressive litigation,
so you could take a wealthy heiress to church or you could take her father to court.
After ten years of expensive High Court wrangling, Edward lost the case
and, in order to cover the costs, was forced to sell most of his estate,
but he just about managed to hang onto Soughton House.
Nearly 300 years later, history was to repeat itself.
The Flintshire-based house builder David McLean Holdings
could have debts reaching around £100 million.
In October 2008,
David's massively successful business went to the wall
and over 200 people lost their jobs.
Overnight, house sales just dried up.
The banks took fright and refused to lend any more money.
The now infamous credit crunch had claimed one of its biggest victims in Wales.
History is around us. History is always around us.
How did that feel, that point when all of that suddenly evaporated?
It's one you can't really explain - how do you feel?
I think your mind is in turmoil to start with.
Nobody tells you. You've got people who work for you who, all of a sudden, are working for the bank.
And they don't know what to say to you,
you don't know what to say to them,
and then after a small period of time someone just said,
"Well, you might as well go home."
Going back to the fateful night,
you're the only one that can really help him - what on Earth do you say?
Yeah. Well, I think, it was a very difficult year
and in the midst of it, we actually got married at the end of July.
So that, for us, was like a reinforcement of our relationship.
But when it actually happened, I was just there
and I believe that I helped him through,
because he knew I was there for him and that he wasn't alone.
And, uh, he had so many letters and phone calls.
People were thinking of him
and not just thinking that he had,
you know, taken his business down on purpose
and taken his money and run away with it.
Surely, at that point, you suddenly realise how important it is that at least you've still got this place.
Did you look at the house and think, "At least I've got this. This is a safe haven"?
Yes, I was glad I'd paid my mortgage off, as people do.
It's somewhere where you go, and your family are around you,
you know, it's a sanctuary, isn't it?
You see front doors.
I mean, that door's been there for a long, long time.
It leaks, but not a lot, but it's stood the test of time.
Well, if only history could say the same about us -
we've stood the test of time, we leak,
-but, you know, we deserve to be there.
-You've got it! You've got it!
-It's like an assault course!
'They do say that out of adversity comes opportunity.
'The credit crunch may have claimed David's business,
'but it's also driven him to think creatively
'about how he runs Soughton House.'
And then this is the walled garden.
What's nice, of course, is you obviously keep a large gardening staff.
Look at this! You've got half a dozen gardeners at your beck and call!
We've talked about what happened to my business,
and obviously we used to have some part-time gardeners, and things change.
We've always had a full-time gardener.
And then I saw this article in the paper,
"Desperate shortage of allotments."
So we turned it into allotments.
To actually encourage the community into it is a very, very good idea,
-cos otherwise this would turn ruinous. Absolutely ruinous.
-Very quickly, as well.
I was just saying what a pretty allotment you've got!
-Very lucky, aren't we?
-You are very, very lucky.
We'll forgive you your Wellingtons. You know you're the wrong side of the border here?!
-I know, but you've got to support them, haven't you?
Let's support the poor old English, bless them, they can't help it!
By 1780, the Conwys' lack of a male heir
meant that this prime piece of real estate was ripe for a new owner.
This time the owner came from a rather unlikely background.
Just like David McLean, the Howards had risen from next to nothing.
They'd started off life as innkeepers,
but had made so much money they were able to buy their way into the Soughton dynasty,
which might go some way to explain the errant fireplace.
This over mantle was never here. This was brought in.
As far as the Howards are concerned, it's another way of making them feel basically a little bit posher,
cos they've got no... They've got no history, have they?
They start off in trade, they accumulate capital, then they buy land.
The end of the 18th century is what we now call the Industrial Revolution.
We have to presume that they're speculating,
putting money into ventures that produce more money.
That immediately goes into land and then they're trying to buy the kind of heritage,
the prestige that something like this would say to the world.
It's really all about buying dead men's shoes, isn't it?
-Dead men's over mantles!
The Howards sell up in 1916,
a date that signals the sad demise of this once-great house.
By 1999, it's a mere shadow of its former self.
-Look at this! This is very lux!
Had it not been for David and Ruth,
it probably would have gone to rack and ruin, but just look at it now.
It's very, very grand and spoiling!
-Is this your own work?
Why A Midsummer Night's Dream?
We just wanted something totally different.
And it just is lovely to have a flowing story, I think.
Kind of a narrative.
You've built all this, but this is actually to replace...
-The existing house.
-Because there was a bit this big...
The house... Those walls are exactly where the foundations are,
because I built from the existing foundations back up again.
We literally drew it as we were going and that's how... This is how it's turned out.
You feel like you're outside even though it's an indoor pool.
Again, there's another portrait of you!
-I'm standing here and looking behind...
-And there you are!
-Do you swim?
-Unfortunately, I haven't brought my kecks with me.
-You don't want to swim?
-Well, we have got a steam room.
I'm not doing skinny dipping either, that's for sure!
Having got to know this house, I think it has a very strong character to it.
It's almost like another member of the family.
Do you feel proud of what you've done?
We are custodians of the house, really,
and to have come and spent time here and lived here and left our mark,
I think that's quite important.
Are you going to be here in five years?
I mean, is it time for you two to make a change?
We will ultimately move on.
It's a home for a family, really.
Do you think you'll want to then come back, once someone else has been tinkering around with it?
-We have to leave the portrait!
-You could have that portrait.
-Shall we leave it?
That portrait is not moving, it so sits here!
In the long history of Soughton House,
in the first decade of the 21st century, I reckon
it's going to be known as the house that Dave built,
or at least the house that Dave saved,
that Dave restored, that Dave revivified with his own hands.
And his portrait, albeit in that particularly jaunty striped T-shirt,
will be part of the picture gallery of personalities that have built Soughton House.
All of them creating their own fortunes,
whether it's by business,
by land, by marriage or, in David's case, by brick.
But the critical thing is that all of them have seen that place as home.
Which makes me think that in many ways, this is kind of a shrine
to that energy that drives someone to become a self-made man.
Subtitles by Red Bee Media Ltd
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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 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.