A high-flying couple quit a life in central London in 2017 to embark on an ambitious project to convert a neglected 500-year-old mansion house built from the ruins of Caerphilly castle into a luxurious year-round B&B.
Christine Tallon was a partner in a central London law firm, and her partner, Adrian was finance director. After spending much of her adult life around Cardiff Christine had moved Cardiff to London in 2005, “in something of a now-or-never move,” she says.
Two years ago, the couple decided they had had enough of “the rat race” as Christine puts it, and they decided to take on a project to overhaul the habitable but neglected seven-bedroom mansion house.
“We clearly recall arriving on that March evening to horizontal rain, in the dark having spent several hours on the M25 and M4 from London, unable to find light switches, looking at the state of it and thinking that it was like arriving in the Adams family house!! But it was ours and the start of a new adventure,” she says.
“Although we have both renovated houses previously, those were nothing in comparison to the scale of Van Mansion, and the term ‘DIY’ doesn’t really express the enormity of this renovation. It has been a complete lifestyle change, a challenge and a massive learning curve, but it’s an exciting prospect for us after living in the rat race in London,” she says. As far as lifestyle changes go, she adds: “Adrian is a true Londoner, so the change of scene to here has been a lot more dramatic for him. Having spent more of my adult life in Wales, the move to Caerphilly felt like a move ‘home’”
They both knew the project would involve a steep learning curve, and quite how steep became apparent when they began to confront the technicalities that arise from the fact that the property is grade II-listed. Fortunately, good planning means that while they have a full-time project manager in the form of Adrian, Christine is still earning a freelance income as a legal risk and compliance consultant and assessor. Co-ordinating the different trades and getting the timings right is frequently a logistical nightmare, she says. “Days just vanish and the ‘to do’ list just seems to get longer rather than shorter!”
Their first shock was the property survey report, she says. “It came back the size of a book, and its concluding sentence was: ‘This is not a project for the faint-hearted’,” she recalls. “I do like a challenge, but before long it ended up being far more dramatic than the survey had suggested.”
Even at such a detailed level, it did not convey the full extent of the restoration that was necessary, she says. “We have had to take down all the internal walls and rip out every floor and ceiling, to replace everything with soundproof materials. Removing showers revealed rotting floors underneath.”
Another treat in store was the discovery that the original stone walls had been covered by concrete render – entirely the wrong product for a 500-year-old stone building, as concrete doesn’t breathe, explain Adrian and Christine. “We have hacked off all the concrete render both inside and out. All the internal stone walls are now being re-rendered in lime, so we are using the correct product. It means the building will dry out and breathe. You can almost hear the building breathing a sigh of relief!” she says.
Meanwhile, she says, they will have to wait a year or two for the outside to dry out before re-rendering, although many people have commented on the fact that they feel it looks far nicer now than it did with the render.
It does seem manifestly unfair that, having meticulously followed all the correct channels to obtain the property and to seek all planning permission, the couple are now finding various regulatory authorities to be suddenly taking an interest in the former mansion where in fact no attention had been paid to what was happening to it for the last 25 years whilst it was inhabited by previous owners. “We are doing everything by the book, researching products and materials carefully and engaging with the authorities but it does sometimes feel as though hurdles are being placed in the way unnecessarily – particularly given the lack of interest in it previously” she says.
Partially built from the stone from Caerphilly castle under licence from Henry VIII, most of the building had been a ruin for 200 years before it was taken over by the previous owners, she explains.
“The last owners of the property had no real interest in the character or history of the building. They just wanted to live in a castle and be lord of the manor,” says Christine. “All of the work that they undertook was done badly and wrongly, with no reference to the Welsh government’s protected sites authority, CADW, which in turn had paid no interest in the building while it had been under the custodianship of the previous owners.”
When she and Adrian came to buy the property, they went through the proper channels, employing a historic architect specialising in old buildings and cathedrals. Although it took them 10 months to get planning approval, they were awarded it on their first official attempt – but with no fewer than 23 conditions attached. “Eight of these were ecological conditions, including consideration for bats which was has probably been the most onerous and frequently illogical part of it,” she says.
The conflict between ecological regulation and listed building status is great, the couple have learned. For example, Christine says: “Getting a licence to fell self-seeded and non-indigenous sycamore trees growing on top of a listed wall is an ongoing nightmare, because the two corresponding planning departments do not speak to each other. On the one hand, we need to preserve the 500-year-old listed wall in the back garden, and on the other hand, the trees are under a general TPO. The two are not compatible as the trees are damaging the wall and at some point the trees will fall anyway bringing the wall with them.”
She adds: “The planned public terrace where we had hoped to be serving afternoon teas or tapas on the terrace has had to take a back step until next year as the budget has been completely blown out of the window. We simply have to focus on getting the actual house up and running and getting the front of it looking nice.”
Even without regulatory intervention, the very nature of restoring the 500-year-old building means many of the costs have been higher than they were expecting. For instance, she says: “We have truly beautiful bespoke-made doors in much of the property now, made by a joinery in South Wales. Because of the sizes of things like doorways, nothing is off-the-shelf. We find ourselves constantly having to look at things that are slightly more unusual and specialist.”
Christine and Adrian had originally been planning to open their doors this summer. This has been pushed back to a later date of December this year, a target that may yet slip on to January. All the guest bedrooms will have ensuite bathrooms, three of which will have a bath and shower and the other three of which will be walk-in shower only. “They are well-proportioned bedrooms and bathrooms,” says Christine. “We have made sure we have used high-quality products that look luxurious, and the rooms will all be tastefully decorated. We have tried to keep colours in keeping with historic colours, and we have used specialist breathable natural mineral paints.”
Every one of the guest rooms is of good double size, she says. Two will have four-poster beds in them with en suite bath and shower – the third of these is their own – while the other rooms have king-sized beds, and one room has two large single beds that can be put together to make a super king-sized bed.
“They are all brand new beds, and we will have new carpets throughout the property – with the amount of dust that the renovation has generated and the poor state of the carpets in any event they would not have been reusable,” she says. “It is our intention to be as green as we feasibly can. Although we will be providing toiletries in the rooms, our intention is to steer clear of plastic bottles, because that results in an awful lot of plastic wastage. We will source that sort of product in an ecologically sound form and will put notices in the rooms suggesting guests save water and energy on washing towels.”
And when it comes to breakfasts, the plan is to serve local produce, she says.
“Our intention is to source local Welsh products including bacon, sausages, black pudding, eggs. And we plan to work with and refer guests to other local businesses within the county borough, whether that is local restaurants or places of interest, riding activities, climbing centres, mountain-biking etc to help encourage tourism to Wales and all it has to offer,” she adds.
Christine and Adrian will be applying for an alcohol licence to serve guests so that they can enjoy a glass of wine in a cosy environment in front of the woodburner.
Location location location
Guests will walk out of the B&B’s doorstep to find themselves on the edge of Gwern y Domen, which forms part of the mere three percent ancient meadowland that remains in the UK.
For those arriving by train, the station at Caerphilly is just at the bottom of the hill, about a 15-minute walk, and it takes 15 minutes by train into Cardiff – “it’s quicker to get a train than it is to drive,” says Christine. “Guests can get to events such as the big concerts or rugby matches in Cardiff whilst staying out in the country being able to go for a walk in the morning before or after breakfast. We are just outside Caerphilly town but are within easy walking distance. And yet when you are up here at night it is silent but for the sounds of the owls.”
When the regulatory authorities are giving the couple a hard time over a couple of trees, it seems a bit rich that they have been considering approval of the building of 650 homes on Gwern-y-Domen itself. Christine and Adrian have both been actively involved in the objection for the houses on what is left of such rare ancient meadowland. “We have just won the first stage of a fight against the local authority but the war is not over yet. This beautiful countryside needs to be saved from the greedy developers,” she says.
Lie of the land
At the front of the B&B is a car park, which will offer a charging point for electric cars, and a courtyard leading to the turret entrance, while a good-sized back garden leads to a higher level garden that in due course will become a terrace overlooking the castle, the town and the valleys. “The intention is this will be open to dog walkers and horse riders who can stop to have a drink or an afternoon tea. But that has to wait till next year due to budget,” Christine says.
The B&B won’t be a dog friendly hotel, but the longer-term plan is to convert the top floor of the attached barn and convert that into a dog-friendly self-catering apartment.
There has been huge local support for the new B&B, she says. “Everyone who walks past asks how we are getting on and when we are going to be open. It really is interesting when people who know it is going to be a B&B walk past wanting to know when it is going to be open because they have a birthday for example, and they need somewhere for people to stay.”
She says: “We are anticipating a fairly even all-year-round attraction because Caerphilly has several business parks, and a lot of people travel to south Wales for business meetings. We will have Wi-Fi throughout to ensure that guests are able to work if necessary. We are hoping that whilst we will attract businessmen during the week, they may then want to come back with their families one weekend.”
Although they have not yet opened, Christine says she is aware of the “astronomical fees” that the online travel agents charge. But she says she is confident of achieving decent footfall. “We already have our own website, although it is not yet live, and we are already featured in the Caerphilly visitors’ guide for this year which went out in January when we were a bit more optimistic about opening by the summer,” she says. “We anticipate that business will be generated by of word of mouth, and we will have Facebook, Instagram and Twitter accounts. We have family and friends across Europe and further afield, and we are hoping that will generate interest as well, which is effectively free marketing.”
Sje adds: “We are hoping to attract solicitors and barristers from London through our network of contacts, visiting local judges judging at local events. The Big Cheese Festival which takes place in July in Caerphilly each year attracts thousands of visitors – often from further afield.”
Looking back at the original idea she says it was not spontaneous. “We had toyed with the idea when asking ourselves if they really wanted to carry on working in the fiercely competitive environment of London for the rest of our lives,” she says. “We reached a point where we were working massively long hours and we both wanted a better work-life balance.” Although the restoration has been and continues to be hard work with much of the labouring, painting etc done by us to save on cost, we are now out in the country and it is a completely different lifestyle,” she concludes.
A house on the site of the Van is first mentioned in 1529 when it was purchased by Edward Lewis, a sheriff of Glamorgan, and was mentioned by John Leland a decade later. This probably consisted of a ground-floor hall with storeyed porch, which survive partially as the present porch and the N and E walls of the main range. A 2-storey kitchen wing was added behind in the mid C16. In 1583 Edward Lewisson Thomas obtained the lease of Caerphilly Castle and used dressed stone from there to rebuild Van House with a new stair block on the E (rear) side and a gatehouse and walled court to the W overlooking the valley and Caerphilly Castle. The house had a first-floor and an unheated ground-floor hall. In 1616 Sir Edward Lewis transferred his seat to St Fagans Castle and after 1628, when the main line of the family was no longer settled in Glamorgan, Van House became relatively insignificant. In the early C17 the kitchen wing was extended by a further unit and became a separate farmhouse. The remainder of the house may have been largely dismantled after 1736 when the Lewis estates were inherited by the Earl of Plymouth. The stair block also became part of the farmhouse and its stair was removed probably C19. In the late C18 or early C19 the farmhouse was extended again by the addition of a cart shed. Van House remained part of the Plymouth Estate to 1991, by which time the lower storey windows had been robbed from the main range and nothing more than the bases had survived of its attic windows.