Big House Landshipping

Personal Reflections on the Big House Landshipping Pembrokeshire Restoration Project

 10 years in 10 minutes: This personal journey begins at the gates of one particular ruined big house (Ty Mawr) down a dead end road in a sleepy hamlet on the upper reaches of the tidal Milford (Aberdaugleddau) estuary, in Pembrokeshire. west Wales, UK. 

It's a sad and secret place, on a secret waterway, that has witnessed the decline of the coal-mining and fishing industry in west and south Wales. For many years the house was left to fall down. In 2011, one wing of the shell of the house was being made watertight with the installation of a flat roof and windows. It was supposed to be a dream project to create a family home to raise our children in. 

In August 2011 this rather grim looking derelict property featured on BBC TV, in series 1 of  'Restoration Home' presented by Caroline Quentin. (the project was revisited, the series exec producer Annette Clarke tells me, in September 2012, in a programme called 'Restoration Home One Year On'). 'What we did not know at the start was that the shows themselves would become unscripted and compelling mini-dramas'  Annette said of the original series. 

I worked for the BBC for about 10 years. As a result of a chance meeting while doing some reporting for the BBC in Pembrokeshire, I ended up considering Landshipping's Big House ruin my home for the best part of a decade. With my former partner, Pembrokeshire fisherman Alun Lewis, and our friends, we began to try to bring the place back to life as a home and business. In what started rather like an episode of 'Grand Designs' we took on the planning department of the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority in what became a five year saga to even start building - while living in basic conditions behind the house with our two babies in a caravan.  

Our project and growing family was first featured in the BBC network TV series 'This Land' (2002) as we moved in - and where we also ran a boat charter operation we'd set up together, working long hours to fund the project. The house was also featured in the BBC's 'Magic Harbours' programme. 

In August 2011 the project was the focus of a follow-up programme and I found that this homemade website was attracting thousands of hits from the UK and around the world- including about 600 visitors from Australia when the programme was transmitted there. This was a complete surprise - but caused me to revisit my experiences - full of Pembrokeshire Promise; reflecting on how things worked out, since the beginning of the project until the children and I finally lost our home there in 2010.  

I first saw the ruin in 1999 when we were out fishing. Alun talked to me about us buying it because he loved the idea of living away from it all, on the river, where he would be free to pursue his countryside pursuits. Alun said in a programme I made for BBC Wales about life in Pembrokeshire that he liked to be able to 'grab a gun and a dog' and wander unchallenged in the fields and along the river, hunting, shooting, fishing. This seemed to bring alive the way life was lived in rural Wales in the past and was something I'd sought to capture in the programmes I'd made for the BBC.

Our long-term ambition was to sail the world - starting from and returning to the Daugleddau estuary. We decided to establish a business we could pass to our children as they grew up, before heading off into the sunset, safe in the knowledge we would sail back home one day. Rather rashly,we convinced ourselves this project could provide an income and a home.
In November 2001, we moved in with our collection of children, dogs, chickens, ducks, geese, ferrets and a pony and established a 'temporary' home for  made from two large old caravans I'd purchased that we linked with an interconnecting room and veranda, (that can be seen next to the Big House, to the rear) and began what was planned to be a 10 year restoration project to develop the entire site. I gave up my career to work full-time on the project. Alun's parents said we were 'completely mad'. 

The strategy was to build two new cottages behind the house and renovate the two little cottages that were already there, rent them out to generate an income. Once the cottages were restored, the income generated from renting them out would pay to restore the old house. How we were going to fund the project was the main sticking point, along with caring for our young family.

We had moved in back in November 2001, but the deeds were lost and the property sale didn't go through until 2003, meaning we had to sit tight and wait. The National Park planners were breathing down our necks because with no building works taking place, it transpired that we had no right to live on the site in a caravan and didn't have planning permission either. By then I was pregnant with our second child and caring for our disabled son and the rest of our combined family of four children, from our caravan base. I can remember us ruefully talking about about the possibility that we could all end up in a tent on the lawn if we didn't get things sorted out. 

From our caravan we also ran a boat charter operation together. Alun was the skipper - I did the marketing. It was one of the first businesses that I marketed from scratch. It was a steep learning curve. 

Before I met Alun, I'd lived on the Red Sea for a few years and had qualified as a SCUBA diver. This experience proved useful for setting up a business to take holidaymakers out on diving and fishing trips. Having managed to get the boat business listed on many websites, we were lucky enough to secure some TV coverage from my media contacts which attracted bookings because we didn't have an advertising budget. We sold eggs from the gate and when I found myself at home with the little ones, we spent hours every day outside where we grew mountains of veg in the walled garden and tended a flock of chickens, geese and ducks. 

We created an image of ourselves living off the land and the river, with wildfowl, fish and freshly-shot squirrel for the pot and blackberries we spent night after night picking for home-made pies and jams. The idea was to attract potential holidaymakers to stay and experience that sort of life too. But with no accommodation available for people to stay in, and the project no more than a building site by a tidal estuary, reality was endless trips up and down to town for access to supermarkets, fast-food outlets and schools to provide the real things children needed - like clothes, breakfast cereals, nappies and an education away from the remote caravan where we were sleeping each night. 

Despite our humble living quarters, we held seven family Christmases at the Big House, often with extended family brave enough to come to west Wales to 'rough it' with us.

We took on the planners - and eventually we did get the crucial planning permission for the new builds - but sadly things didn't work out and the children and I were eventually left with no option but to leave - so I had mixed feelings when I became aware that the BBC were revisiting the project on what is the 10th anniversary. The children are 10 and 12 now, and take up all my energy, resources and time. Despite the hardship we experienced, it would be nice to think that the old place will eventually be finished one day, even if it means waiting for the next generation to do it. 

How did it all start?

Alun and I first met when I was researching fishing methods in Pembrokeshire in 1996 for a BBC radio series I was producing in Cardiff about Welsh food traditions 'County Fayre'. I came to Pembrokeshire in search of a compass-net fisherman - and found Alun. We kept in touch over the years and eventually we got together as a couple. In a later press article to promote our project I was quoted as saying that Alun charmed me with some spectacular midnight boat trips and that is pretty much what happened. I enjoyed getting out on the water whenever I could, having been bitten by the boating bug when I lived abroad.

crewing on the Cleddau King

Watwick Bay, after arriving by boat

Photo by Watkin Jones 1999 of the Big House

Saving the Big House

This part of Pembrokeshire boasts many beautiful old castles, mansion houses and 'Big' houses (Ty Mawr).

It was the former owners, Watkin Jones - along with Ray Leavesley, (now in his 80s) who saved this one from falling down any further by undertaking massive remedial and reconstruction works on the quay wall and the house - stabilising the main walls . They also obtained planning permission for it to be restored as a seven bedroom private house before putting the property on the market.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park planners had considered it nothing more than an old ruin, (which it was, to be fair) which became, every summer, completely submerged in a huge curtain of ivy and trees. Indeed, for the purposes of officialdom including the Land Registry the property is called 'Big House Cottages' and the 'ruin' was referred to as a good source of building stone when it was put up for sale in the 1920s. They wanted to leave the house shell as it was, for fear of it losing its character by being rebuilt.
Mr Watkin Jones in 2010

However, Ray and Watkin saved what was left of the main walls, and had an engineer report on the structure. The planning department had said it was too far gone for development. Ray and Watkin were unconvinced. They planned to use traditional methods - using the large store of stone already on the site; huge oak beams they'd had cut at Hean Castle near Saundersfoot and a traditional Welsh slate roof. Ray was a property developer and had access to stonemasons and a team of workers. Having won the argument and put plans in place, they put the project on the market due to family reasons when both their wives fell ill. 

Building the gate posts at the Big House site 
(photo by kind permission of the photographer Watkin Jones)

The imposing gated entrance was added in the 1970s, salvaged from a demolition job Ray had in Birmingham. He fitted them (by building two stone gate posts) and created a further level of mystery to the place, with the old house now hidden behind them. 

Ray Leavesley and his daughter Kerry, installing the gates in the 1970s 
(photo by kind permission of Watkin Jones)

Watkin Jones rowing off the quay wall at the Big House in the 1960s

Catching fish for tea on a rare day off

Having set up a boat charter operation in 2000, creating a home on the water was a logical next step for us. Before moving in, we had spoken to the then Wales Tourist Board and were hopeful about securing some grant assistance to develop the holiday lets (though our application was ultimately unsuccessful and the scheme has since closed). Our pitch was to create a private family home for our combined family in the main house while offering low-key holiday-lets in the cottages at the rear of the house.  

We worked day after day clearing vegetation and piles of rubbish from the house while coming up with a business plan to present to the authorities. We struggled on in the caravans while we faced the reality of this huge project and how to fund it. We made some progress, having a steel frame installed with the expert help of Watkin, fitting girders, moulding and fitting concrete lintels for the windows and salvaging a great deal of wood from other projects for flooring. We had together collected furniture earmarked for the house that we were storing on the site but with time marching on it was spoiling growing damp and becoming blackened as it stood unused.

The Big House ruin, barely visible from the river hidden behind a shroud of vegetation and trees

Basecamp as it was in 2009

Highlights of my time living there include watching the barn owls coming and going from their nest in the chimney stack and the rare bats flying round my head at dusk; incredible harvest moon moments; raising a litter of spaniel pups; letting the little ones feed the chickens; welcoming swallows each spring; spotting otters and ospreys and kingfishers and being the first and last to see the tide in and out each day. 

Alun had installed what became known as 'Sarah's Sunset Bench' on the end of the quay wall to keep me focused on our distant plans to sail off on a long trip one day - as well as the enormous task back in Pembrokeshire that we'd set ourselves. On a daily basis I watched Alun leave and return on board the 'Cleddau King' (as well as the regular boat club members) from my vantage point, holding onto the ambition that one day we would step off it and onto our own sailing boat to head off. 

Low moments include removing a dead rat from the excited clutches of my two year old; finding my toddler son dangling by one boot - 20 feet up a ladder; and dealing with the squalid conditions that crept up around us as the years rolled by and I was still a land-lubber! In the summer holidays I enjoyed meeting many people who would come and seek out the place, but that also meant waking up to strangers - and their dogs - poking though the windows or marching up the lawn having unexpectedly arrived by boat. 

The gates can be locked to prevent vehicular access, but we liked to be welcoming and left them open. And of course the river entices many to clamber in to the property. It was a great responsibility, and with Alun away much of the time, one that inevitably fell on my shoulders, along with caring for our very young children and keeping them safe living so close to perilous tidal waters. 

There were many incidences. One night, a group of teenagers congregated and lit a fire by setting light to some old dinghies in the boat pound. They partied by the gates all night, while the children and I stayed in the caravans, listening and hoping we wouldn't be discovered. The next morning the lads foolishly tried out boating - and a couple of the boys ended up in the water, which made the local news after I called in the coastguard to help rescue them. The boys ended up in my caravan, wearing my spare warm clothes and drinking hot chocolate waiting for their parents, after I took them in and made the calls. They were a lot less scary when half-drowned in the light of day.

People would congregate at a public vantage point on the other side looking straight across the water at us.  It left us with little privacy. Every day I spent hours in the car delivering and collecting the kids and supplies; trying to deliver something like a normal life for the family, while holding onto our future dreams. The local pub 'The Stanley Arms' closed down many years ago, and with no shop or any other facilities, the sense of isolation increased as a loaf of bread or pint of beer or milk became a one hour expedition. 

Photo: Sarah Hoss

The boat business proved unprofitable - by the time bad weather, wrong tide and poor sea states were taken into account. I did some number-crunching and discovered this fairly early on. The boat business would work as an extra service once an income from accommodation was created, but the boat business itself was more of a hobby activity - great fun but not financially viable. I took on freelance work - through my old contacts from the BBC - and also took a part-time post as project manager for PembrokeshireTourism. Alun took on freelance truck-driving and also started manufacturing boat moorings, It was a tough time. With so much of his activities keeping Alun busy away from home, I was left holding the fort in Landshipping. In the winter of 2006, Alun went to work at LNG in Milford Haven. The main industry on the waterway is energy - oil and gas - the refineries are significant local employers and punctuate the distant horizon as one approaches the village. I had found two local stonemasons who spent weeks working on the project while Alun was away. Progress was still painfully slow. 

We had exhausted all our media outlets in terms of generating maximum publicity for the project - I felt that what we needed was to undertake and complete the building works in order to have a holiday accommodation business to take to market. Alun asked me to contact Channel 4's 'Grand Designs' but it was becoming clear to me that we could end up looking rather foolish if we continued to publicise our much-loved project but without the 'reveal' of a completed job at the end of it. One thing I have learned in marketing and PR is not to oversell your idea unless you are sure you can deliver. Generating masses of enquiries and emails is no use if there is no product to 'sell' at the end of it and you just end up clogging up your life dealing with people popping in, calling and emailing to see when are you going to finish. TV exposure alone wasn't going to solve our problems, indeed, such coverage can end up magnifying your difficulties. 

Back in Landshipping...Having negotiated a fantastic fee as a workboat skipper, finally, it seemed, regular year-round money was going to reduce the strain and allow us to make some tangible progress towards a solid roof to live under, but that simply didn't happen. Life became very difficult. Eventually me and the kids ended up living in the caravans on our own. It was that, or uproot the children and go back to the city and my previous life and put this Pembrokeshire adventure down to experience. 

Some of our little flock

The children and I found ourselves living full-time on the site on our own for about three years while Alun was away, maintaining our home and caring for the resident animals there until late 2010. Our caravan home and TV ariel can be seen to the left in publicity shots that the BBC took of the project. 

We survived in the caravans through two of the coldest winters the village could remember, becoming snowed in and trapped by record high tides. The south-westerly winds would hammer in, shaking the structure and howling all night. A thin caravan roof and walls lends little protection from stair-rod rain, snow, hail and storms. We experienced Pembrokeshire in all her rib-rattling glory. it was unsustainable.

We found that new people were coming and going; our caravan home would be intruded upon while we were out; and the gates would be unexpectedly locked preventing us from entering (and sometimes leaving our home) by car. Apparently while were struggling round the back of the house, with new difficulties each day that seemed to present themselves, the BBC TV crew was round the front, telling excitedly the story of the history of the house and enthusing about the whole situation and apparently blissfully unaware of my involvement. It was awkward to say the least. I was being told new partners were going to invest in and work on the project. It was a painful time. I just concentrated on keeping the kids safe and hoped things would improve. 

The children and I would come and go from school and work by accessing the site at the rear - down a dark pot-holed lane on foot and through a hole in the hedge. Once I had managed to carry the kids in (often though gushing water discharging from an old flooded mine shaft) I would then light a coal fire to keep us warm. If the fire went out overnight, the water in the taps would freeze and we experienced the pipes bursting once the temperatures rose. 

We had problems with our electricity supply being messed about with - it came from one of the old cottages into our home and although I was paying the bills for the whole site, the cable to our home was being switched off to add to our discomfort. The power supplier sent engineers down to investigate and they offered to fit a cable directly to my home, but without Alun's permission I was stuck. 

Then my land phone line was tampered with and I was unable to obtain a mobile phone signal, making us completely isolated and sometimes rather scared. For as long as I could, I held onto the lifestyle the children had been used to, cared for the animals we had left, coped with the daily hassles, carried on paying the bills and did a lot of thinking.

When we found that parts of our home structure had been removed while we were away in work and school, staying overnight became impossible and the fear of what would happen next became too great to bear. The children and I had lived in the shadow of the house through many difficulties, loyally waiting and believing, but now, with no other option, and with our unofficial access at the back blocked with barbed wire, I arranged to retrieve what we could and agreed to have our caravan home dismantled. The local valuation officer visited our former home and at my request deregistered the entire site as a residency, so that I was no longer liable to pay the council tax on it. And that, as they say, was that. 

Having lived away from the site in a rented cottage in nearby Martletwy village for a couple of years, Alun and a new partner moved onto the site in May 2011 and publicised new plans to develop the house as a B&B; with a published opening date of March 2012.
At time of writing, there are still no toileting, bathroom or kitchen facilities in the house itself. There are two rooms, but there is no plumbing. The cottages are being used as storage barns. A touring caravan has been dragged in place to the side of the structure to provide some basic human facilities. After more than a decade, one still needs to leave the house to go to the toilet. 

It'll be a huge task to ever reach a standard required for commercial or domestic use. Though I'd love to see the placed finished I'm relieved to no longer be carrying the burden of it. Major hurdles need to be tackled, such as handling sewage waste in such a sensitive location on a SSSI. The external walls surrounding the site are in a very poor state and will require sensitive restoration. It is a huge challenge to rebuild old structures without losing the character of the place.

Kids have the fantastic ability to help one prioritise and gain new perspectives. It was a big decision, but I felt I had no choice but to 'move on' and put those long-term dreams on the back-burner in preference for some respite for me and some normality and security for the children. 
I found that the practicalities of life became a lot easier once we left.  I had started a post-graduate course in 2006 to retrain as a teacher to secure a regular, independent income and in 2008 I graduated, which boosted my confidence no end. My children (and dear Watkin - and my old pal Paula, from my Cardiff days - both who had been such a help and such amazing friends through it all) were there to see me doff my cap. The sun shone in Landshipping that day.  


It was time to create a sustainable way forward for me and the kids. From my initial work as a college lecturer and freelance journalist came a role for me in PR and marketing, where I have found myself assisting individuals, businesses and organisations find their authentic voice on social networking sites. Skype allows me to do the occasional BBC broadcast; and I am finding the time to do some of my own writing and artistic pursuits while bringing up my little family. The little bundle in my arms on the homepage in front of the ruin, born prematurely and jaundiced, is now a strapping lad of 12. Caring for him is a constant preoccupation but one that has become much easier now we are able to access facilities and support that he needs.

I wasn't born here, but my kids were. We know we are lucky to be still living in this wonderful National Park  - not on the estuary that had become so familiar to me as the starting place for an adventure before a great adventure, but a few miles away, down on the Pembrokeshire coast. 

We now live in our own old Welsh house - with a roof! We consider ourselves to be very lucky. I've taken the children to a community near a safe, sandy beach and we have easy access to the Pembrokeshire Coast Path, school, work, public transport and facilities, along with the benefits of being part of a thriving village.  

And virtually every night, we venture out of it to see the boats bobbing in and out of an old Welsh fishing harbour - sweet sunset moments, looking out across the sea, moments where I enthuse my children with what lies beyond the dappled horizon. 

View of the slipway during the 2010 Landshipping raft race...the Big House, shrouded by trees (now all cut down) is to the left. 



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