Penybont and District Local History Group 5th December 2016 Main Topic: Penybont Hall and Extreme Weather Conditions

Geraint opened the meeting which was held in the Billiard Room at Penybont Hall. Richard and Marilyn Morgan welcomed us to the Hall which has been their family home since 1984, 34 years. Richard was a local boy with family connections in Llandrindod, but when he and Marilyn first saw the Hall their first impression was that it was too big. Their desire to move from Carmarthen was completed however when they decided to buy it. It was structurally sound, albeit in a very poor condition inside. Richard was offered an old, worn, large carpet which he decided was too large. The carpet was then sold for at auction for £1000! Richard and Marilyn feel that the Hall is very special place, with a special history, and that they are just caretakers for now, and for its future.

Marilyn then gave us a short history of the Hall.

It was our ‘old friend’ John Price who build the Hall in 1755. While there is some uncertainty about this date, as the Stone which was found at the Hall with the date on it, could equally have been from the New Inn that he also built at about the same time. The stone is now used as a door stop! The general view is that they were both built at the same time. John, took over the shop in Penybont, established in 1730 by his father Edward Price, in 1734 after his father died. He was just 11 years of age but his entrepreneurial flair became evident quite soon and he went on to be a publican in 1755, and then became one of the first Bankers in Wales in 1772 (Another date with some uncertainty). He never married, but when he died in 1798 his substantial estate was left to his daughter, Mary Ann, who was just 6 years old. Mary Ann’s mother was rather dismissed with a small inheritance when John died and Mary Ann’s upbringing became the responsibility of Guardians appointed by John. At the age of 18 years a wealthy gentleman Barrister, John Cheesement Severn spotted Mary Ann in a carriage when he was passing through the village in another carriage. After a ‘whirlwind’ romance the couple were married. It is said that an Ox was roasted to celebrate Mary Ann’s coming of age. Mary Ann had 4 children, who were all brought up in the Hall and stayed on as adults. None of them Married! There were 3 girls and 1 boy. For fuller details of the Severn Family see our Notes of 9th May 2016 when Mary Davies gave us some excellent insights into this family and how the Hall had such an impact on village life here in Penybont, but also how they and the Hall subsequently became an inspiration for the series Downton Abbey.

John Cheesement and his son, John Percy, invested significantly in the rebuilding and development of the Hall. Richard and Marilyn have architectural drawings on the wall of the Billiard Room, previously the Breakfast Room, showing the grandeur of the Hall at that time. The drawings of the subsequent ‘downsizing’ that took place in the 1930’s, when Lord Ormathwaite (6th Earl) purchased and became the 6th Squire at the Hall, are also on display. The original building, as well as being about a third larger than the current building, had two Follies, a square and a circular tower. The square tower still stands but the circular one became unstable and has been lost.  Richard and Marilyn’s teenage grandchildren delight in parties and sleeping at the top of the tower. The House has significant cellars under the building that provided cheese and wine parlours. The cellars are supported by some very large timbers.

Within the grounds there is a large lake which was celebrated for its salmon, and the largest Heronry in Radnorshire. We visited the Heronry earlier in the year during July, see our Notes:

Neil has a picture of frogmen searching the lake in 1984. A large sale of items from the house was conducted from a marquee. Security was put in the hands of some young lads who subsequently got drunk and many items were lost, probably to USA. The Police searched the Lake to try to find some of the items. Geraint subsequently had a go with his metal detector in the area near the Lake, but found nothing!

With the days of horse drawn coaches being long gone, Richard and Marilyn have converted what was the extensive Coach House into accommodation but tried to retain the relationship to their history.

Marilyn then turned her attention to the more recent interest in Penybont Hall and its relationship to the Television series Downton Abbey. This has been referred to in earlier Notes, but Julian Fellows has acknowledged that his Great Grandfather was Patrick MacIntosh who came down from Scotland to become a General Manager of the Severn Estate. He and his family lived at Bailey Mawr. Julian Fellows, who is now seen as a chronicler of the ‘aristocracy’, came from ‘lowly stock but through successive ‘good marriages’, and acquiring a title, is now himself seen as a well-established member of the aristocratic classes.  It was an aunt of Julian’s that regaled him with stories of the goings on at Penybont Hall and the lifestyle of John Percy Severn. This connection does draw people from all over the world, particularly the USA, to Penybont Hall, and Richard frequently has people ‘knocking on the door’ for information.

The Severn’s exerted quite a lot of influence on the development of roads and rail in the area. Originally the road to the village from Llanbadarn Fawr followed the driveway through the Hall grounds and very close to the Hall itself. Through their involvement within the Radnorshire Turnpike Trust they had the road moved to its current location. This became known as the ‘Squire’s Pitch’ and was a very significant change to the approach into the village. A proposed rail link to New Radnor was aborted as a result of their intervention. Near Neil’s house, and farm, there is a ‘station field’ which had been part of this proposal.

Turning to ‘wildlife’ there are 90 to 100 bats living between the house and the Folly. John Messenger recorded the first sighting in Wales of a rare bat. Where there are bats there could of course be ghosts. Marilyn’s sister is convinced that she had encountered a ghost in the attic! Richard and Marilyn are not so sure!

One of the features of the Hall is its magnificent chimney pots. Some, about 12, have had to be taken down. They are 15ft tall, and metal plates have had to be inserted to stop birds nesting in them. Jackdaws still manage to get in! Richard remembers the first time he had a Chimney Sweep. He told the Sweep that he would need rods that were 51 feet long. The Sweep was not amused as he had no boys to travel up and down the chimneys to clean them!

Fir Tree Cottage had been the Gamekeeper’s Cottage originally. Bill Miles the gardener lived there more recently. Members remembered the long greenhouse where peaches were grown. The number of staff involved on the estate was in double figures. These included the Blacksmith, Carpenter, Estate Agent , as well as the staff in the house, manning the grounds, and being responsible for the animals and coaches. They made up a significant ‘community’ in their own right.

Richard and Marilyn then guided the group into a tour of the ground floor of the Hall. They explained that the building was dark, with a dominant coat of battleship green paint, when they bought it. One side of the building had no windows and so there was an impression of a very dark and somewhat foreboding interior. In the Hall they introduced a ‘sun tunnel’ which has made a vast difference to the entrance which is dominated by a huge front door. They spent several years renovating tackling one room at a time. They have been able to introduce double glazing as there was a period when the building was not Listed, as it is now. Otherwise they have tried to restore or reuse the features within the original structure. They have done a beautiful job in restoring the roses around the light fittings and the trim cornice around the rooms. The Living Room, previously the Lounge, has a comfortable woodburner.  They have reused the old cast-iron radiators wherever possible.

Taking on a building like this imparts a huge responsibility but also the necessity to manage it. The 18 acres of woodland and the gardens are managed in a way that demands a minimum of maintenance while at the same time trying to ensure that the historic features and planting are maintained.  The site is in a bowl and well sheltered from the wind. This allowed John Percy to incorporate some exotic features and trees into the woodland.

Main Topic – Extreme Weather Events

  1. Earthquakes

Much in the news this year, Neil remembered the great earthquake of the late eighties when everything ‘shook’ . There were no casualties – ‘shaken not stirred’. Mary reminded us that there are no nuclear bunkers in the area where people might take shelter!

  1. Floods

Well there are almost too many to mention. They were a feature every year. Members remembered the water rising 2 or 3 steps up the stairs.  Some seasons there could be more than one flood in a week. In mid-winter there were occasions when icebergs were seen floating down stream. Buses would often be cancelled, much to the delight of young people who would have a day off school. Mrs Bufton’s tea service went flying on one occasion when the bus was forced to stop suddenly.

Richard showed a picture of Miss Freda Thomas standing in the kitchen at Maesyfed in her Wellington Boots and cooking on an electric stove that had been raised on bricks.

The building of the Weir in the late 60’s made all the difference. John worked on building it.  A lot of trees had to be cut down.

  • Lightening

A tragic incident occurred when a  Vicar’s son was killed by a flash of lightening. It struck the fishing rods he was carrying.

  1. ICE

In 1961/2 the Ithon froze over with big lumps of ice.

  1. SNOW

In 1940 there was an ice storm and a number of trees simply cracked. There was also the story of the Mail Guard who had to stay for a time at the Forest Inn to recover from exhaustion. He ploughed on for another 5 hrs to get over the top where he met another Guard who took the mail on further.  From Penybont he had to press on, on foot, to eventually get to Llangurrig. He could not get to Llanidloes on foot so he hired a car. Finally he was then put to bed for 50 hours and rubbed to get him warm again before setting off again in the freezing wind by Plynlimon. He was commended by the Postmaster General for his efforts.

Neil passed around some of his wonderful set of photographs that record many of the snow bound times in the area.

Geraint thanked Richard and Marilyn for their wonderful hospitality. The programme for Next  Year was circulated.

1947 was a very hard winter, so hard that farmers were reluctant to take the collies out. Prisoners of war were deployed to dig out the snow. Some made igloos for the children.

In 1948 the Vicar wrote of the terrible times that included the snow of ‘47 followed by foot and mouth, and then more snow. Times were very hard.

Geraint thanked Richard and Marilyn for their hospitality, and members for their contributions to the discussion. He reminded members that the next meeting will start the New Year in February with: “A History of Llandegley School” led by the ‘effervescent’ Geraint! (6th February 2017 at the Thomas Shop, 10.30 a.m.)