Gelli Aur or Golden Grove Mansion visit and afternoon tea 29/6/2022

This Tudor/Gothic large rambling house near Carmarthen, proved to be an interesting visit. Not only for its historical links to the Cawdor family of Stackpole estate, but also it’s story of recent years and the astounding construction and current state of repair.

View from the rooftop.

The Earl of Cawdor, John Campbell, employed Sir Jeffrey Wyattville, a prominent architect who transformed Windsor Castle, to design a replacement for a house which had been lower down the hill. The Estate was founded by the Vaughan family, who were descended from the Price of Powys and settled in Carmarthenshire in 1485. At the height of its affluence the Estate comprised over 50,000 acres. The house has superb views over the River Tywi, a rich agricultural landscape sprinkled with history and beauty.

John Frederick Campbell inherited the Cawdor Estate and in 1827 was created Earl Cawdor in the County of Pembroke and Viscount Emlyn in the County of Carmarthen . He laid the foundations of the present house and pulled down the former residence. In the 1930s the family returned to Nairn and during World War 11 Golden Grove was occupied by the US Air Force. In 1952 it was leased to the then Carmarthenshire County Council for use as an agricultural college. In 1976 most of the vast estate was sold to pay taxes on the death of his father.

The main house is a large rectangular wing with a glass central ceiling and then an extraordinary number of buildings linked by corridors to provide the working areas and servants accommodation of the estate. We wandered through laundries, stables, cellars and vast kitchens for preparation of produce from the agriculturally rich estate and numerous rooms. The majority in a poor state of repair with some elements removed, others seemingly untouched for many years. In the main house ceilings were propped up with scaffolding and roof slates being repaired to prevent water ingress. But the fine ebony inlaid dark wood staircase was still in excellent condition and the original front door and main rooms with superb views across the valley preserved. 

stable block in need of renovation

Our excellent guide Frances took us first to the extensive stable area, which is of national architectural significance, but has unfortunately been stripped of roof slates in some areas causing deterioration. She explained the history of recent owners and that Gelli Aur was now in a charitable trust led by an art dealer. The house, which has planning permission for reconstruction and for a number of uses, was full of wrapped up paintings and discarded furniture and is being maintained by only one employee.

A champion Monterey Pine

This same employee also has the task of trying to maintain some of the world class arboretum at the rear of the house. We wandered through giant precious trees, labelled by Kew gardens, marvelling at how this superb garden not been more significantly preserved and publicised. The visit provided material for an interesting discussion about preservation and the value of the National Trust. Sitting together on the auditorium at the end of the tour we were virtually speechless at the enormity of the task presented to the charitable Trust to even just preserve the Mansion and its historical gardens. However, it is clear from what we saw it is a precious resource that deserves to be brought back to life.

Report by Jane Mason

Photographs Andrew Weaver.