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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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Llanelli High Street shortlisted for prize

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LLANELLI HIGH STREET has been shortlisted in the Government’s Great British High Street Awards, in proud partnership with Visa, putting them in the running for up to £15,000.

After a rigorous selection process led by a panel of independent judges, the high street has been shortlisted for the Rising Star category, which celebrates high streets which are taking the lead to adapt and diversify.

The bid by Ymlaen Llanelli follows research commissioned by Visa in April 2019 demonstrating the positive impact that the local high street has on communities. The research found that nearly three quarters of consumers (71%) in Wales say that shopping locally makes them feel happy, with nearly half (45%) citing supporting local shops and knowing where their money is going as the main reason. Spending time with friends and family (25%) and offering a sense of community (18%) were other reasons cited for why high streets make people feel happier. The research also reveals that half of consumers (50%) feel that their high street gives them a sense of pride in their local community.

High Streets Minister Jake Berry MP said: “Congratulations to Llanelli for being shortlisted for the Rising Star Award for this year’s Great British High Street Awards.

“Llanelli high street is a hive of activity, with food festivals, childrens’ days and community get-togethers all part of the local calendar. A great example of how high streets can bring a renewed energy to communities.

“People are happier when they can see their hard-earned cash support local businesses. That is why we are celebrating those that go above and beyond to keep their high streets thriving for generations to come.”

Sundeep Kaur, Head of UK & Ireland Merchant Services at Visa, added: “We’ve seen some fantastic entries for this year’s Great British High Street Awards across both the Champion High Street and Rising Star categories. In particular, the desire to innovate stands out amongst this year’s entries, with high streets adapting to the challenges presented by a rapidly changing retail environment to find ways to thrive at a local level.

“As our research shows, high streets play a vital role at the heart of communities, so this is a great opportunity for those communities with shortlisted high streets to show their support by placing their votes on the Great British High Street website.”

Llanelli High Street is one of the 28 high streets that have been shortlisted for the Rising Star category, identifying high streets which are taking the lead to adapt and diversify. 12 high streets have been shortlisted in the Champion High Street category, which recognises the UK’s best high streets. All 40 high streets are now in the running to win a prize of up to £15,000 to be dedicated to a local high street initiative.

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Head Teacher at Primary school in Llanelli suspended

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THE HEAD TEACHER of a Welsh primary school has been suspended, it has been confirmed.

Catherine Lloyd-Jenkins, who is head at Ysgol Gymraeg Ffwrnes in Llanelli, has been suspended from her duties at the school with immediate effect.

Governors at the school have been unavailable for comment, but Carmarthenshire Council confirmed the news this morning.

It is understood that the chair of the governing body is currently out of the country, and the council would not comment further on the circumstances surrounding the suspension.

The council’s director of education, Gareth Morgans, said: “School staffing is a matter for the Governing Body, however, we can confirm the headteacher of Ysgol Ffwrnes has been suspended.

“It is not appropriate to comment further.”

Mrs Lloyd-Jenkins has worked at Ysgol Gymraeg Ffwrnes for 23 years, taking up a post at the school in 1996.

She has been the headteacher there for almost 20 years, taking over the role in 2000. She has also worked as a peer inspector at Estyn, the education and training inspectorate for Wales confirmed.

According to one local councillor, ‘serious concerns’ have been raised about the school in recent months.

“Local residents and parents have approached us raising serious concerns about the school in question,” said Carmarthenshire councillor Rob James.

“We are in dialogue with senior council officers to assert whether the allegations are credible and what action the council and governors have taken in response to these allegations.”

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Dyfed-Powys Police numbers at record low, say Labour

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POLICE officers based across the Dyfed-Powys area are now at their lowest levels in the last decade, with over 300 officers being lost across the region, claim Carmarthenshire Labour.

According to a freedom of information request by Carmarthenshire Labour, police officers based across Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire and Ceredigion are down 42% and are at record lows in both Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion.

The figures published by Dyfed-Powys Police show that Carmarthenshire has lost 160 officers in the last ten years, Pembrokeshire is down 107 officers and Ceredigion has lost 56 bobbies on the beat.

These figures come off the back of a poor report by Her Majesty’s Inspectorate of Constabulary that shows the force has gone backwards in the last year, with crime also on the increase.

HMIC’s recent PEEL (Police effectiveness, efficiency and legitimacy) report noted concerns about Dyfed-Powys Police’s performance in keeping people safe and reducing crime and specifically warned of failures to assess all incidents of domestic abuse.

Carmarthenshire Labour Leader Cllr Rob James claims that the figures show that the current Police and Crime Commissioner is now performing worse than their predecessor.

Rob James stated: “These figures that show a dramatic decrease in police numbers are extremely worrying and reinforce what communities are saying across Dyfed Powys – there are simply not enough police officers in our areas.

“The fact that we now have lower police numbers in the three counties compared to the end of the last Police and Crime Commissioner’s term with crime now on the rise illustrates that the Plaid Cymru Commissioner is failing in his duty to protect our communities.

“We need urgent action to make our communities safe once more, as there is a clear link between the loss of youth provision and cuts to officer numbers, and the rise of crime in our communities.

“There is little evidence that our Commissioner has grasped the nettle over the last three years in tackling this important issue.”

These claims however, have been slapped down by Police and Crime Comissioner, Dafydd Llewellyn. He said that said that Cllr James had misunderstood or misrepresented the information provided to him.
The Carmarthen data have a significant rider attached to them.

The explanatory note reads: ‘It should be noted that the figures for Carmarthenshire police division between 2008 and 2018 are not comparable as the structure of Carmarthenshire division in 2018 has altered to that of 2008 which has impacted upon the figures provided’.

That explanation is expanded upon concerning the Ceredigion data. Regarding them, an explanatory note warns that: ‘[T]he structures between 2008 and 2019 are not comparable as some sections that were recorded divisionally now come under the HQ remit, e.g. the Road Policing Unit, CID, etc.’.

Dafydd Llewelyn pointed out that note in his response to The Herald: “As outlined in the response to the Freedom of Information request, structures between 2008 and 2019 are not comparable as some sections that were recorded as divisionally based are now recorded under the HQ remit, for example, Roads Policing Unit, CID.”

Dafydd Llewelyn continued: “Since taking up my role as the elected person to represent the many communities across the four counties served by the force, I have increased the overall resource available by 4%. I have ploughed funding into dedicated teams to support front line officers and have invested in resources to support the most vulnerable in our communities.

“I have commissioned services specific to their needs – be that as victims of domestic abuse or young people choosing to leave their homes for reasons unknown to authorities. I will continue to do this. I will not be held to account by numbers on paper alone, but by the difference I can make to individuals’ quality of life.

“I will also use the opportunity I have to campaign for services appropriate to the very specific needs an area the size of Dyfed-Powys Police has and will work with the force to adapt according to those needs.”

He concluded by pointing out: “Carmarthenshire, Ceredigion, Pembrokeshire and Powys remain the safest counties nationally and I’m proud to be driving a service that is willing and able to flex and respond, despite the financial challenges faced day-in-day-out.”

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