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In Wales, a Family Retreat

In fact, when the couple bought the place in 1965, it was a bare-bones retreat, a touchstone for a growing family as it hopscotched from Singapore to Hong Kong to Australia and, finally, to just south of Fort Worth, Tex., where Tim and Judith Sear now live as naturalized American citizens.
“It’s been a constant for more than 40 years,” said Mrs. Sear, the mother of four and grandmother of five. Even now, all three generations return as often as possible, traveling from their homes in the United States to the town of Builth Wells, about 60 miles north of Cardiff, the Welsh capital.
“We think Nantyfarddu means ‘the stream of the black bard,’ ” Mrs. Sear said, “but we can’t be sure.” The name came with the three acres of land, a “gently crumbling farmhouse” (as eldest son Adam, now 43, described it) and two dilapidated stone barns, all of which date to at least 1810 and embody stone construction traditional to the region.
The farmstead now has two carefully restored and modernized structures. The original main dwelling, Mr. Sear recalled, “was a classic little house with three tiny rooms upstairs.”
“It hadn’t been lived in for 20 to 30 years,” he added. “There was no electricity, no running water, no kitchen; only a salting slab, a bread oven and a big old fireplace. There were also the two stone barns, one of which fell down subsequently.”
For plumbing, the Sears ran a hose from a nearby creek to a 600-gallon concrete tank that they installed in the hillside above the farmhouse. “You’d have to suck on one end of the hose to get the water started,” said Mr. Sear, now retired as chief executive of Alcon Laboratories, an eye-care products company based in Fort Worth. “I tied a tea strainer to the one end to stop the leaves getting in and, once we had the tank filled, we gravity-fed the water into the tap.” A local builder then fashioned a basic bathroom and kitchen.
Over the past 10 years, the Sears converted the remaining barn into their primary living quarters with three bedrooms, two and a half baths, a modern kitchen and spacious family areas. Then they refurbished the farmhouse as a guest cottage, with three bedrooms and one bath. Geoff Jones, a local architect, navigated the strict zoning dictates of the Powys County Council to create designs for both structures, maintaining the regional vernacular and, whenever possible, reusing materials.
“Because planning restrictions in Britain are terribly strict,” Mrs. Sear said, “getting permission to renovate — particularly a traditional barn — is difficult. And rightly so; these buildings really are a part of the landscape.”
Of the barn-cum-house, Mr. Jones said: “Naturally, it was pretty dilapidated. The roof was corrugated metal sheeting that had gone rusty and was leaking.”
Once that was taken off, the beams were raised. “It was very tricky, but it gave us 15 inches more headroom upstairs,” Mrs. Sear said.
Mr. Jones added: “The first thing we did was to stabilize the walls. We kept a lot of the old features, of course. The old timbers, some of them we rebuilt, and others we stabilized with reinforced concrete.
“We put new slates in the roof. Then, the outside has lancet openings, windows used in barns for ventilating the hay, that are only about four inches wide. So we put in new windows that the planners approved.”
Next Mr. Jones tackled the farmhouse renovation, a less complex project.
Now the two homes accommodate all 15 of the Sears’ immediate family and have all the modern amenities: electricity, plumbing and, more recently, a telephone — whose introduction caused spirited family debate. The idea of television at Nantyfarddu is anathema to most of the clan, who spend their time there reading, playing games, hiking the hills or watching local sheepdog trials, often convening in evenings at a pub in a 13th-century building three miles across the fields.
This isolated region has a particular appeal for Mrs. Sear. “I grew up in South Wales, from the age of 7 until the time I was married at 21,” she explained, “so it’s really my home. My parents were English and, after my father died, we moved down there to stay with an aunt. I developed a great love for Wales, so when we had an opportunity to buy something there, we jumped at it.”
But Mrs. Sear laughed in near-embarrassment when she revealed the 1965 cost of Nantyfarddu: 1,200 pounds (about $3,360 at the time).
Today it is virtually impossible to find even a crumbling barn for sale, let alone something so cheap, said Mr. Jones, who has spent his nearly 50-year career in Mid Wales. “These places are disappearing,” he said. “People who live in the cities — in London, in particular — want sort of a second home, and what they’re looking for is remote locations, and Wales is known for that.”
“Just one with a little bit of space around it, maybe an acre, would cost probably 180,000 pounds ($361,500). And that could be a barn that’s falling apart.”
For the Sears, however, no amount of money could buy the peace and quiet of this rustic family retreat.
“Over the years, we have developed very close friendships in the local farming community,” Mr. Sear said. “And they take their vacations in places like Spain, where it’s warm. They’re slightly bemused that we’d want to spend our holiday on a rainy Welsh hillside. But we do.”

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