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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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Police appeal for missing woman

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DYFED-Powys Police is appealing for help to find a woman who is missing in the Carmarthen area.

Christine, who is 58, left her van at an address in the Cwmduad area overnight and hasn’t been seen since.

She is described as being 5ft 8ins, with grey/blonde shoulder length hair, of very slim build and is believed to be wearing jeans and a T-shirt.

Christine

Anyone who has seen Christine, or knows of her whereabouts, is asked to report it to Dyfed-Powys Police, either online at https://bit.ly/DPP101Online, by emailing 101@dyfed-powys.pnn.police.uk, or by calling 101. 

If you are deaf, hard of hearing or speech impaired text the non-emergency number on 07811 311 908, quoting Ref: DP-20220812-040.

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Discover Carmarthenshire launches 100% Carmarthenshire Larder Trails

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TO HELP their visitors to eat and drink local and authentic produce, Discover Carmarthenshire has developed three new online guides, the 100% Carmarthenshire Larder Trails for them to follow. The three Larder trails can be viewed here.

With every season bringing the freshest local produce to the county’s markets, delis, farm shops and even the shoreline, as well as an increasing appetite for foodie focused travel experiences, the new trails help visitors head straight to the ‘source’ with some truly authentic experiences to be enjoyed along the way.

The ultimate aim is to help make the picnic, campsite cook up or holiday cottage kitchen supper feature as much Carmarthenshire produce as possible ensuring tourism secondary spend supports the local economy.

Discover Carmarthenshire enlisted the help of three food and travel writers who each spent time in the county researching their trails, locating the tastiest addresses to recommend. Kacie Morgan from The Rare Welshbit who lives in Cardiff covered the west, Binny’s Food and Travel from London hit the east and Carmarthenshire based travel writer Jade Braham, explored her mid county food and drink favourites.

Each trail breaks down advice under different categories including best places for produce market shopping, morning coffee, lunch, treats, hands on tasting experiences, take homes and dinner dates.

From pop up markets to coffee roastery cafes, to cheese makers, vineyards, bottle shops, butchers and delis, visitors following the trails are led on a self guided eating, drinking journey around the county meeting the makers themselves, the farmers, foragers, baristas and gelato producers adding to their experience.

Discover hidden milkshake vending machines down winding county roads and family-run cafes and delis tucked away in market towns, as each guide suggests the best of local eats and drinks.

The Eastern Larder Trail covers the Aman Valley, Llandeilo, Llanelli, the Western Larder Trail explores Laugharne, Whitland, St Clears and Newcastle Emlyn and finally the Mid County Larder Trail focuses on Carmarthen, Kidwelly and Llansteffan. The whole county is covered including experiences such as a low intervention vineyard tour and tasting, to gin and rum distilleries, cookery classes and coastal foraging.

As well as focusing on classic Welsh produce, the trails also celebrate diversity and guide visitors to where they can enjoy Asian curries and tapas cooked up using the freshest local veg followed by a visit to the county’s most famous cheese producer or a drive to a market to search out laverbread, Carmarthenshire’s very own caviar.

The guides also include recommended places to stay (Larder Sleepovers) where the food journey continues – from a new self-catering apartment above the Caws Cenarth dairy, to Mansion House restaurant with rooms and views over Carmarthen Bay, or Cowpots campsite with its own pizzeria and ice cream parlour.

To view the three 100% Carmarthenshire Larder Trails go to: https://www.discovercarmarthenshire.com/explore/carmarthenshire-larder-trails/.YvOdLS8w35Y:

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Carmarthenshire based company supplies kit to Wales Commonwealth Team

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Olivia Soady - Bethan Jones - Jasmine Joyce - Gabriella Maria - Steven Wright - Credit University of South Wales

A LLANELLI based business, that has received financial support from Carmarthenshire County Council, has won the contract to supply the Wales Commonwealth Team’s training leggings.

Onesta has only been trading since June 2020 but is already kitting out the likes of Rosie Eccles, Anwen Butten and Alys Thomas as they represented Wales at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham.

The leggings were designed by University of South Wales students Beth Jones and Olivia Soady, who won a design competition set by Commonwealth Games Wales in partnership with the University. Beth and Olivia worked in partnership with Onesta to produce 360 pairs of leggings using sustainable, recycled materials.

Since it commenced trading, over two years ago, Carmarthenshire County Council has supported Onesta, not only during the COVID-19 pandemic but also to realise the company’s long-term ambitions. In June 2021, Onesta was awarded an Economic Resilience Fund grant of £2,500 by Carmarthenshire County Council as support to cover the business bills during the COVID-19 restrictions of May and June 2021. They were also awarded a £2000 Non-Domestic Rates Grant during the COVID-19 support schemes in February 2022.

In April 2022, Onesta was awarded a Business Growth & Recovery Grant of £10,000 to assist with the purchase of manufacturing equipment and workshop and office furniture. The grant money will fund a cutting table, overlockers, cutting machine, industrial iron, industrial sewing machine and lockstitch, which would assist in the manufacturing of the clothing for the Wales Commonwealth Team for the 2022 Games.

The company’s founder, Gabriella Diana, was nominated by the Council for the Wales Start Up Awards in 2021 in which she went on to win the Rising Star category.

Since then, Onesta has also won the Marie Claire Sustainability Award for Best Sustainable Small Brand 2021, UnLtd Social Entrepreneur Award, and was a finalist in the Cardiff Life Awards 2021 and the GBEA Awards 2021.  

Onesta was highly commended in the Heroes of Net Zero competition at a special awards ceremony, hosted by Intuit, at the COP26 international climate change summit in Glasgow. More than 160 businesses entered the competition, making a commitment at the UK Business Climate Hub to achieve net zero by 2050, in line with the government’s own climate commitment. They were highly commended in the micro business category for demonstrating a range of measures taken on their journey to net zero, including sourcing eco-friendly materials locally, removing toxic chemicals used in manufacturing and re-purposing fabric scraps to make sustainable products for Surfers Against Sewage.

Gabriella Diana, Founder and Owner of Onesta said “I was over the moon when we found out that the Wales Commonwealth Team had chosen us to supply their leggings. The past few months have been very busy as we have been measuring the athletes and creating the garments. I’m so pleased to see them being worn on the international stage next week.

“I’m very grateful to Carmarthenshire County Council for the financial support we have received to, not only survive the COVID-19 restrictions but also to build the business and strive.”

Since launching the Business Growth & Start-Up Grant scheme in early 2022, Carmarthenshire County Council has approved 61 business grants to Carmarthenshire businesses. Of which 44 approvals were Business Growth & Recovery Grants, totalling £299,225.17 and 17 approvals were Business Start Up Grants, totalling £117,924.31.

Cllr Gareth John, Cabinet Member for Regeneration, Leisure Culture and Tourism said “As a local authority, we are delighted to have been able to invest in Gabriella and her company to enable her to grow the business. We are also very proud to have provided financial support to Onesta, and other companies based in Carmarthenshire, to weather the difficult COVID-19 restrictions of the past two and a half years.

“We have all enjoyed watching Wales’ athletes compete at the recent Commonwealth Games and the fact that they are wearing a kit that is made in Carmarthenshire has been a source of much pride for Carmarthenshire County Council.”

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