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Gelli Aur park closure hints at massive renovation bill

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Gelli Aur mansion: Showing the restored roofs

Gelli Aur mansion: Showing the restored roofs

GELLI AUR County Park, near Llandeilo, is currently closed, despite a grant of almost £1 million from the Welsh Government to aid public access and restoration. 

Announcing the grant in September 2015, the Welsh Government said: “The first phase of the work is to enable public access to the historic parkland and gardens with associated amenities such as tea rooms, play area, educational activities and trails. This will create an outdoor attraction based on the landscape and gardens, while plans will be developed to restore and develop the house and courtyards into a destination for art and cultural activities.”

A brown tourist attraction sign on the A483 Llandeilo to Cross Hands road points in the direction of the road to the country park, ‘Gelli Aur’ in Welsh and ‘Golden Grove’ in English, but no sign alerts visitors to the park entrance. The sign which used to be opposite the park entrance has been taken down. A notice on the closed gate, down an unmarked drive, says ‘No Public Access’.

Carmarthenshire County Council, which is responsible for tourism signs on all but trunk roads in the county, said this week that they are looking into the matter.

NO INCOMING CALLS 

Upon ringing the contact telephone number for Gelli Aur listed in the telephone directory, 01558 668885, there is only a recorded message saying: “This number does not receive incoming calls.”

In autumn 2015, the park was open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays, but visits in August 2016 on a Friday and a Sunday found entry barred. Several recent comments on the TripAdvisor website refer to finding the park closed, although occasionally the gate is open.

Heledd Parry at Visit Wales – an arm of the Welsh Government – said that restoration progress at Gelli Aur is being monitored, and Visit Wales is asking the Golden Grove Trust, owners of the park, for an update on public access.

SOLD BY CARMARTHENSHIRE COUNTY COUNCIL 

Carmarthenshire County Council sold the Grade II listed, 59,000 square feet Golden Grove mansion and 100 acres of park and woodland, including a famous arboretum, in 2011. Cllr Meryl Gravell, then, as now, the council’s Executive Board Member for Leisure, said at the time: “With the financial challenges we face as a local authority, we are delighted to have brought our lease to a close with this happy outcome. The authority is grateful to the Trust for having the foresight and ambition to maintain and hopefully improve the public access and public offer at Gelli Aur. We look forward with much anticipation to watching this wonderful facility evolve.”

The park used to feature nature trails, a cafe and a children’s play area, besides the Victorian arboretum. It was a popular venue, much visited by local people. Since vacated by Gelli Aur Agricultural College in 2003, the property deteriorated while plans to renovate it as a hotel, then as flats, and a convalescent home for wounded armed forces veterans, came to nothing. The cost of repairing the vast, sprawling mansion was just too great.

The Golden Grove Trust’s review of activities for 2014-15 revealed that the mansion’s roofs have been made weather-tight, which is arguably the most important conservation emergency. Plans for 2016 included replacing and re-siting the children’s playground, reopening the cafe, and recreating the boating pond, but these works appear to be behind schedule.

FOUR DIRECTORS 

The Trust’s four directors are art historian Richard Christopher Salmon, who lives now in part of the mansion; the architectural historian Thomas Owen Saunders Lloyd OBE, living at Cwrt Henri, author of ‘The Lost Houses of Wales’, Adele Esther Blakeborough of Penarth, director of a training company, and James Ronald Seaton of Llanfynydd, director of the upmarket clothing firm Toast.

Mr Salmon, his telephone number located via the Charity Commission, said that the restoration was progressing ‘very well’ and that the park is normally open on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holiday Mondays. He thought that the gate closure and ‘No Public Access’ sign may be a requirement of their insurance company in bad weather, to limit the risk of visitors tripping or slipping over and injuring themselves.

“We have taken down the children’s playground and removed a building containing asbestos,” he said. “We are in the process of setting up a website.”

He deplored what he felt was negative news coverage in 2015, focusing on deterioration at the park and not on the huge ongoing restoration effort. “We could have made it all private when we bought it, but we decided to keep the country park open,” he said.

RESTORATION CRISIS 

Public access is, though, central to the aims of the Trust, which are to restore the ‘important Regency Hunting Lodge, Golden Grove, to its original architectural condition’ as well as to restore ‘Gelli Park Country Park, the section of the estate for the benefit of public recreation’ and ‘important arboretum, pleasure gardens, deerpark, boating pond, lake, bridge and driveways’ with the ‘restored house and estate for ultimate public benefit as Art Institute’.

The huge costs of renovating a listed historic mansion and its park are, maybe, proving a colossal challenge for the Golden Grove Trust which, according to the Charity Commission, was on August 30 61 days late presenting its accounts for 2014-15. At Companies House, on the other hand, all document filings including the accounts are up to date. The accounts show that Mr Salmon lent the Trust £1,450,756, interest-free, to buy Golden Grove, and guaranteed not to ask for repayment any earlier than November 31 (sic), 2016. For the Trust, repayment would appear to be exceptionally difficult as it has no regular income and depends on grants and rents from two holiday cottages, one of which is under repair.

The restoration crisis at this historically important mansion and park highlights the escalating problems faced by owners of listed buildings and protected landscapes. Without access to a stellar income, even routine maintenance can be a struggle, let alone major rebuilding to the standards required by conservation officers.

Major Francis Jones, in his classic ‘Historic Carmarthenshire Homes and their Families’, called Golden Grove one of the most important of the county’s residences, inhabited by distinguished families – the Vaughans, descended from the Princes of Powys and becoming Earls of Carbery, and then the Campbells, Earls of Cawdor. In 1883, the Earl of Cawdor was one of the 28 British noblemen to own over 100,000 acres, according to the website ‘Welcome to the town of Ammanford’.

Those acres yielded the income to build and maintain huge houses like Golden Grove. Today, the mansion has only 100 acres, capable of providing only a fraction of the money needed.

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Zef Eisenberg breaks records at Pendine

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ZEF EISENBERG raced into the history books at Pendine Sands last Saturday (May 18) achieving six records on his very first pair of runs in his specially built 1200hp Porsche 911 Turbo.
Eisenberg earned: the fastest sand speed record ever achieved by a wheel-powered vehicle at 210.332mph; fastest flying quarter (one way) wheel powered record at 206.492mph; fastest flying mile (one way) wheel powered record at 196.970mph; fastest flying mile (two way) 187.962mph (same measurement as Sir Malcolm Campbell); became the only person in history to have achieved over 200mph on bike and car at Pendine and the only person in history to have achieved a flying mile record in bike and car in Britain.

Zef Eisenberg is the founder of sports nutrition brand MAXImuscle, and holds more than 44 British, World and Guinness speed records. In September 2016, he survived ‘Britain’s fastest-ever motorcycle crash’ at 230mph, on a 560bhp Rolls-Royce jet turbine-powered motorcycle.

He broke 11 bones, was hospitalised for three months, spent a further three months in a wheelchair and had to learn to walk again. He defied doctors by racing exactly one year after the accident, and later became the first person ever to exceed 200mph at Pendine Sands in May 2018. Eisenberg competes for the Guernsey-based MADMAX Race Team, which prides itself on developing and racing the world’s most extreme machines using the best engineers in the industry.

Eisenberg, better known for his motorbike speed record exploits, set a two-way average of 187.962mph in his MADMAX 1200hp road legal Porsche 911 Turbo specially built and prepared by ES Motors and his MADMAX Race Team. The record supersedes actor Idris Elba’s flying mile speed record (180.361mph) set at Pendine in 2015 and emulates his hero – Sir Malcolm Campbell, who first set the record at Pendine Sands in 1927 (174.8mph) in the iconic Blue Bird – a record that stood for nearly 90 years. The racer successfully secured four new records in total, smashing his own top speed of 201.5mph at Pendine in May 2018 and 182.49mph flying mile record set in April 2019 in his supercharged Hayabusa motorbike, making him the only person in history to hold the flying mile and fastest speed records in both bike and car at Pendine.

A jubilant Eisenberg said: “A huge thank you to ES Motors and my own MADMAX Race Team for working tirelessly on the extensive Porsche preparation, engine build and tune, to ensure we had the engineering and power to achieve this very challenging record. An additional thanks to the event organisers; Straightliners and Speed Record Club for finding and setting a two-mile course with difficult sand conditions.

“The Porsche was originally a standard 2014, 550hp 911 Turbo. The MADMAX Race Team built a bespoke 4.1-litre race engine with new internals, gearbox, clutch and drive shafts, along with an upgraded E85 fuel system and sophisticated charge cooling set-up to stop engine detonation.
“A lot of work was done to ensure that the monstrous power would come in as progressively as possible in order to limit wheelspin on the loose sand surface. To cope with such an extreme output, the PDK transmission had to be upgraded, and the suspension lifted to allow adequate ground clearance for the sand.
“Apart from a full FIA roll cage, competition seats and safety harness, the Porsche’s interior is completely standard, as weight is actually your friend on the sand. It’s about stability – putting enough weight on the tyres to increase traction.
“The Porsche behaves very differently on sand than tarmac. The sand creates a lot of resistance and tyre slip. In the end we could only use 850hp (1000hp at the engine) to avoid too much wheel spin, compared to just 550hp (engine) from a factory car.”

Eisenberg was elated to have secured these records at Pendine Sands, adding: “Pendine has such an illustrious history, racers have been flocking here since the 1900s trying to set speed records. The world land speed record heroes of yesteryear like Malcolm Campbell and J.G. Parry-Thomas in the air have all raced here. It really is the holy grail of land speed.”

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RSPCA appeal after birds trapped above town centre

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RSPCA attended scene: One live bird retrieved

THE RSPCA is asking the owner of the Old Post Office in King Street, Carmarthen, to come forward and remove hazardous netting from the property.

Netting placed over the old Crown Post Office in King Street, Carmarthen, has been responsible for the deaths of pigeons, whose bodies were recovered from the site by representatives of the RSPCA and Mid & West Wales Fire and Rescue Service on Monday (May 13).

The building is owned by EMC Developments Ltd of Bronwydd.

Animal welfare bodies were notified of the birds’ corpses tangled in the netting over last weekend after images posted online caused alarm and distress.

The presence of the birds rotting trapped above a thoroughfare into the town and in view of visitors and shoppers caused a particular outcry.

When Herald photographer Darren Harries arrived at the scene, he found a recovery operation underway with a rescue vehicle and RSPCA Inspector.

Rescue Vehicle: Road blocked during inspection and recovery

The use of netting to prevent birds nesting allows developers to get around the law that prevents the removal and damage of birds’ nests, and avoid delays to development caused by the nesting season.

Bird deterrent netting can be an effective means of keeping birds off structures as it can prevent problems without needing to resort to other measures such as killing birds.

However, it’s vitally important that any netting is properly installed and maintained.

Problems arise when netting is incorrectly installed or when it becomes damaged and is not repaired, leaving gaps where birds are able to enter and become trapped. If the netting is not checked or maintained, there is a risk that birds may suffer and die from injury or starvation.

A spokesperson from the RSPCA told The Herald: “RSPCA Cymru worked with a crew from Mid and West Fire and Rescue Service after three feral pigeons were trapped in netting on the side of the old post office building on King Street in Carmarthen.

“Sadly only one bird was alive, with the other two appearing to have been dead for some time. This pigeon had some feather damage and was hungry and has been taken to a wildlife centre for rehabilitation with the aim of being released back into the wild once fit and ready.

“This property is currently empty but enquiries have been made to contact the owners of the building to ensure this netting is closely monitored and repaired as there is a breach at the top. When bird-deterrent netting is put up incorrectly or becomes damaged, it can leave gaps where birds can enter and become trapped.

“RSPCA Cymru continues to highlight the importance of regularly maintaining bird-deterrent netting to protect birds from getting caught or entangled.

“We would very much like to thank the fire service for their assistance.”

Trapped: A pigeon tangled in the netting

The RSPCA advises that if a bird becomes trapped behind netting, the owner of the building where the netting is situated should be informed (if assistance is needed to free a bird, call the RSPCA’s helpline 0300 1234 999).

The owner should then contact whoever erected the netting (usually a pest control company) as it is their responsibility to ensure that the netting is fit for purpose and appropriate in that location.

The RSPCA recommends that anyone with netting installed on their property sets up a system to check regularly for trapped birds and to ensure any netting is in good repair.

All wild birds, including pigeons and gulls, and their nests are protected under the Wildlife & Countryside Act 1981.

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Work gets underway on historic Guildhall redevelopment

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WORK has started on the £1million redevelopment of Carmarthen’s Guildhall.

A new restaurant and café bar, taking up the ground floor of the historic town centre building, is due to open in September.

It has been taken over by the Loungers group, which has the popular eateries Zinco Lounge in Swansea and Croeso Lounge in Mumbles.

It is set to create around 30 jobs, with a recruitment drive getting underway during the summer.

The Grade I listed building is owned by Carmarthenshire County Council.

James Morse, of Swansea-based developers NextColour Ltd, said work will be carried out sensitively to ensure the building’s history is looked after and can be enjoyed by diners and visitors.

The historic courtroom on the first floor will be un-touched, with public access retained.

Many of the building’s original ground-floor features will be restored, including its distinctive columns and black and white tiled flooring.

“We are excited about restoring this wonderful building and opening it up so that it can be seen and enjoyed by more people,” said Mr Morse.

“We are working closely with CADW to ensure that the refurbishment is sensitive to the history of the building and shows off its best original features.”

Carmarthenshire County Council hopes the redevelopment will act as a catalyst for further investment in the town, creating a key link between the town centre’s different retail areas and supporting the surrounding independent shops.

Leader, Cllr Emlyn Dole, said: “Guildhall is an important and iconic building in the centre of Carmarthen that we did not want to see standing empty.

“I’m delighted that it will have a new lease of life, and that it can now be enjoyed by people other than those who have fallen on the wrong side of the law in the past.

“We welcome the Loungers Group, and congratulate them on bringing their business to Carmarthen and providing jobs for local people.”

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