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‘Our cultural heritage has been ignored’

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The ruined house: an aerial view by Hidden Carmarthenshire

The ruined house: an aerial view by Hidden Carmarthenshire

FOUR years after the council transferred Gelli Aur to a Trust, the property has continued to fall into disrepair and public access to the grounds has been curtailed. Instead of the promised art gallery, café, and public space, the house and grounds are off limits and the iconic grounds and buildings continue to decay, while the trust that acquired the property has failed to file accounts for almost two years and the corporate end of the same trust is about to be struck off at Companies House. Most residents of Carmarthenshire will have some memory of walking, playing, studying or just enjoying the beauty of the old Gelli Aur (Golden Grove) Mansion. The beautiful grounds were home to fallow deer and during its time has been an agricultural college, billet to troops and offices for Carmarthenshire County Council. The way in which Carmarthenshire County Council trumpets ambitious plans and significant public investment in projects that fall some way short of its high aspirations has been a feature of Carmarthenshire’s public life for many years.

The Herald has looked at what happened to Gelli Aur, which was transferred to the ownership of a trust in 2011 in a fanfare of publicity and press releases. At the time, the public were assured of a golden future. Cllr Meryl Gravell claimed: “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.” But what has evolved? The answer is – apparently – ‘not much’.

The grants goose has laid many golden eggs for Gelli Aur, all of which have ended up scrambled. Seized by the excitement of entering a new millennium, the Welsh Development Agency (now gone the way of the dodo), decided to launch four ‘Technium’ projects in Carmarthenshire. The Aqua Technium project sank without a trace. The Bio Technium at Llanarthne became entangled in the undergrowth with the loss of £4.7m in public funds before being sold on the quiet to a private company. The Auto Technium never got its motor going at all and was transferred back to Carmarthenshire County Council’s care in 2011.

Since then it has been excitingly rebranded as The Beacon Centre for Enterprise and remains now, as it was originally, a white elephant. In 2013, a damning report from the Welsh Government saw the plug pulled on six out of the ten remaining Technium projects across Wales, with business analysts and academics pointing out the folly of pursuing ‘Field of Dreams’ economics. The Federation of Small Businesses said the schemes were doomed to failure. “Even in the good times they didn’t do anything for the economy.” The amount of public money wasted across Wales was huge and hugely embarrassing. Millions of pounds of public money have been ploughed into the sands, but what happened at Gelli Aur eclipses all of the other projects. The Media Technium was supposed to bring new life to Gelli Aur. This scheme had a price tag of £9.7 million, of which £5.2 million was to have been funded from public money.

A key partner in the venture was businessman Jeffrey Paul Thomas, acting through his companies Gelli Aur Ltd and Hatham Park plc. An estimated £1 million from the WDA and the County Council went in to Gelli Aur and work apparently began on the house, but then stopped when it was discovered that there was no planning permission. In 2003 the WDA announced that Mr Thomas would be pulling out because of the “prevailing uncertainties in the international climate”, conditions which most economists would probably now describe as a boom. Exit Mr Thomas with the WDA saying that it would be pursuing him for £434,000. The WDA remained confident that the project would still go ahead, however. Around £250,000 of other grant money apparently also went missing. If any of this was ever recovered, history does not relate.

The Council remained in possession of its lease on both the house and the estate after Mr Thomas’s sharp exit. In 2005, Harmoni Developments announced plans to turn the house into a luxury hotel. By the end of the year, the company was out of business. In 2007 another property developer from Narberth announced and interest in turning the property into flats. A similar scheme foundered in 2009, but not before the lead had been stripped from the roof, after which the fabric of the house went into sharp decline. In 2011 a charity reported an interested in buying Gelli Aur and turning it into a convalescence home for wounded soldiers.

That scheme collapsed as well. So, by the time The Golden Grove Trust came on the scene, there was a certain urgency and focus to the Council’s wish to dispose of its interest and reduce the burden of Gelli Aur on the public purse. Trustee Richard Salmon told the media that the first project being undertaken would be renovating the park’s cafe and restaurant. He said: “The Trust is committed to a full restoration and development of the public offer at Gelli Aur Country Park. It is hoped the space available to the public there will be increased in years to come. We are grateful to the council’s partnership input to provide this continued public access.” The Council was committed to maintaining the estate for eighteen months after it was transferred to new owners The Golden Grove Trust. But even while the council was still ‘maintaining’ the estate, Gelli Aur continued its slide to ruin; large areas of the park, including the deer park trail and arboretum, were closed by the new owners.

The café was also eventually closed. Of the Trust’s three original directors, two, William Powell Wilkins CBE and Lady Frances Birt departed in 2013 and 2014 respectively. The remaining original director is Richard Salmon, who has been joined on the Board by Mr Barham Enshari Eshlaghi. A look at the Charity Commission’s website shows that the Trust is (at the time of writing this article) 684 days late in filing its returns for 2012. A proposal is on file at Companies House to strike it off the register. Instead a separate entity, Golden Grove Ventures Ltd with the same two directors was incorporated on June 24. Llanfihangel Aberbythych County Councillor Cefin Campbell used to take his children to the park at Gelli Aur. He said: “It is so sad to see the place like this. We have so many memories of coming here to the park, the children playing, ice cream at the café and watching the deer.”

Cllr Campbell continued: “Since the park has been closed this is the first time I have been here. It was a wonderful place for families to come. To see it overgrown is really sad. What we have here is a part of our cultural heritage, which has been ignored. I know people have tried to bring this back into use but they have failed. The longer it goes on the more worried I am that this will never be open to the public.” Reflecting on the demands on shrinking public finances, Cefin Campbell told our reporter: “It is a worry because public finances are not available. We are in a recession and Government has no money to spare.

We are living in difficult times. You have to balance spending on buildings, social care and highways. I will be speaking to the Executive Board for Leisure (Meryl Gravell) and asking the council what we can do now. It would be a disaster for this area if this went to rack and ruin. “The council has an agreement with the owner for the public to have access to these areas at certain times of the year. The owner is responsible for maintenance and you can see, very little has been done. It is disheartening to see this playground in this state and badly needed facilities left to go to ruin.” Expressing dismay at the fate of such a treasured public asset, Cllr Campbell continued: “We appear to be in a state of desperation taking anybody with an idea. I have spoken to the owners and they were very enthusiastic.

They had an ambition to open it up as an arts centre. There is no money available to spend on something like this. Would Welsh Government, Cadw or the National Trust like to get involved?” Looking forward to the future, Cefin Campbell made some suggestions as to how the situation could resolve to all parties’ benefits: “We need to get people around the table to ask what can be done. There are people who could come here as volunteers from the probation service to clear up the park. A couple of days of strimming and weeding here would make it look better. “The local community council could get involved in this. Elen Rhys was very critical of the Welsh Government when they were dealing with them for Telesgop. The financial crash coupled with the lack of public money has left us with this situation. Looking forward we need to try and find a way forward for this historic building and open the park up to the public again.”

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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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