by the Curious Scribbler
Gelli Aur (or Golden Grove) is an important mansion and estate situated in the Towy valley not far from Aberglasney but much less visited. Its fortunes in the last half-century have been rocky, and increasingly dispiriting. The second world war took its toll, when the house was occupied by the US Air Force and temporary buildings mushroomed on the lawned terraces. The following peace saw it occupied for almost 50 years by the Carmarthen Agricultural College (Coleg Sir Gar) while 60 acres of the grounds became a Country Park. Then more recently the College moved to modern premises and the estate was sold. The last ten years or so has seen a succession of owners of which the most publicised was the aspiration to develop it as a convalescent home for soldiers. However the failure of this and various inappropriate development bids left the house a severely dilapidated wreck, stripped of its roof lead and run through with wet and dry rot, and even the Country Park closed to visitors.
So it is a delight to find its fortunes have finally turned the corner, thanks to a philanthropic backer and a newly formed preservation trust. Last Autumn public access was restored to the arboretum and a newly built tea room provides excellent lunches and teas. It is a big largely glass building overlooking the wooded landscape below, and is even well equipped with family board games should the weather be too wet to venture outside. I found Frances Jones Davies ( formerly editor of Wales’ glossy magazine Cambria) running the cafe and expounding the ongoing developments for the house.
It is not perhaps the prettiest of Regency mansions. The ancient seat of the Vaughans was down in the valley and was demolished by Lord Cawdor when he built the present house. Styled a Hunting Lodge it was built 1827-32 by Wyatville on the slopes above the deerpark. It acted as an alternative to the principal Cawdor seat at Stackpole in Pembrokeshire.
To frame the setting of the new house, the land rising behind it was formed into a series of broad grassy terraces, and an arboretum was begun by the head gardener William Hill in the 1860s among some existing native beeches and oaks.
Things have thrived in this rich damp valley. Last week horticultural expert Ivor Stokes led a group of enthusiasts from the Ceredigion WHGT ( Welsh Historic Gardens Trust) around the arboretum. Among the huge beeches and oaks there are exotic firs, pines, spruces, thujas, redwoods and cypresses drawn up to prodigious heights.
The undergrowth includes a fine variety of rhododendrons and azaleas, some of them cultivars now rare or lost. We marvelled at a particularly vigorous Fern leaved Beech, and a huge Magnolia tripetala still sporting one or two spring flowers.
It it were not for the rain I would have taken many more photographs and made copious notes.
An unexpected treat was to be granted access to the 10 acre walled garden, now in separate ownership which adjoins the site of the old mansion. This is truly large, so huge that it even contains a small lake! ( most walled gardens are little more than one acre in extent).
And at the margin of this garden is a truly spectacular tree, remnant of the Vaughan glory days. It is a towering double-trunked tulip tree, more than 29 feet in circumference. A whole ecosystem lives upon it, with massive vines of ivy, and seedling rhododendron, ferns and mosses nestled in the crevices of its bark. Tulip trees Liriodendron tulipifera first came to Britain in Stuart times and this may well be one of the first to arrive.
Gelli Aur mansion is undergoing restoration and will in time be open to the public an art gallery and cultural centre. In the meantime it may be possible for small groups to arrange a visit to the house.