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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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Plaid Cymru MP campaigns against martial law

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PLAID CYMRU’S Defence Spokesperson, Jonathan Edwards MP, has spearheaded a campaign to stop the use of troops on the streets and the imposition of ‘martial law’ post-Brexit.

Working with the Peace Pledge Union, Mr Edwards, MP for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr, has tabled a motion calling for the Defence Secretary to rule out the use of armed forces personnel for police functions or for social control, and to make clear that the imposition of martial law is not under consideration.

In December 2018, No. 10 sources said that 3,500 armed forces personnel were being put on standby to deal with any disruption in the event of a disorderly departure from the EU. In January, The Sunday Times revealed that Whitehall officials have been gaming a state of emergency and even the introduction of martial law in the event of disorder after a no-deal Brexit.

Alongside the motion – known as an Early Day Motion – Mr Edwards also tabled a series of questions to the Secretary of State for Defence seeking to clarify whether he has any plans to impose martial law and if he will rule out the use of troops on the streets in place of police.

As well as serious concerns about the economic and democratic implications of imposing martial law, Mr Edwards questioned whether the army is appropriately equipped to deal with roles normally reserved for the police or civil agencies.

The effects of police cuts and whether this plan puts the public at risk must be considered, the Plaid Cymru MP said. The last time states of emergency were declared in the UK was in the early 1970s to deal with the effects of strikes in essential services.

Plaid Cymru’s Defence Spokesperson, Jonathan Edwards MP, said: “It is both absurd and terrifying in equal measure that the British state is considering putting soldiers on the streets as a result of their own bungled Brexit policy. The British Government must clarify the mission statement it has sent accompanying the call up and calling for it to be published.

“Martial law is probably the most serious domestic decision any government could make and is not to be taken lightly.

“The economic effect of imposing a state of emergency would be catastrophic. That is not to mention the democratic and social implications.

“Of course, brutal police cuts have left our law enforcement services with little or no spare capacity. Replacing them with soldiers is, however, neither sensible nor safe – they do not have the appropriate training, experience or, fundamentally, function in our society.

“Contemplating putting soldiers on the street is surely proof enough that the Westminster Government cannot continue with their dangerous deal or no deal gamble.

“Imposing martial law wasn’t on the side of a big red bus in the 2016 referendum. Now the facts have come to the fore, it’s time the people had the opportunity to make an informed decision and the chance to stop this Brexit mess.”

Symon Hill, spokesperson for the Peace Pledge Union, said: “Gavin Williamson has so far failed to deny reports that the UK government is looking at using troops for social control, or even considering martial law in the event of civil unrest.

The chaos over Brexit must not be used to present the armed forces as the only institutions that can save us in a crisis. Both leavers and remainers emphasise their belief in democracy. A democratic society is not a militarised society. Sending troops onto the streets is no alternative to listening to people’s grievances.”

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Kitten rescued from telegraph pole

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A KITTEN that was stuck up a wooden telegraph pole in Carway, Kidwelly, after being chased up there by a dog has been safely rescued.

The eight-month-old tabby and white cat – named Nala – became stuck on Monday evening and the RSPCA was contacted when she wasn’t able to get down. Due to the height and nature of the pole, the fire service were called to assist, with a crew from Pontyates fire station attending Bron Gwendraeth in Carway on Tuesday (Feb 12).

RSPCA animal collection officer (ACO) Ellie West said: “Poor Nala had been up there all night and was not able to get herself down. She had perched herself on a light and looked quite scared. She must have been around two storeys high.

“The fire service, as usual, were absolutely brilliant and came along with their specialist equipment for this rescue.

“Initially they tried a big set of ladders and it was hoped she would come down of her own accord as she was showing interest, but unfortunately it didn’t work. They then used different ladders for one of the firefighters to go up and rescue her who carried her down safely. We’d very much like to thank the fire service for their assistance and continued partnership working.”

ACO West added: “Nala was returned to her owner and then tucked into her late breakfast after her ordeal. I’m sure she will keep away from the pole in future and hopefully the dog won’t be chasing her again!”

If you do see an animal in distress please call the RSPCA on 0300 1234 999.

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Tributes paid to ‘kind natured’ man who was killed by falling tree

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TRIBUTES have been paid to Llanelli man who tragically lost his life after a tree fell on his van in Carmarthenshire.

Mid and West Wales Fire Service confirmed the tree had fallen on to a transit van on Friday (Feb 8) just after 10am.

Police were called to the B4306 between Pontyberem and Llannon where the driver was pronounced dead at the scene.

Darren Davies, a father of three, from Carmarthenshire, was driving his Yodel work van when he was killed by the falling tree.

He has been described as a ‘kind natured’ man, with his family describing him as ‘caring, thoughtful and have the ability to make everyone laugh’.

He has worked at the Yodel depot in Llanelli for a number of years, Yodel have said he would be ‘sorely missed’.

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