It was quite a week for the trustees of Cardigan Castle. What was supposed to have been a gradual build-up of excitement culminating in the Grand Opening Concert featuring Bellowhead, the English folk-rock group, turned instead into an epic PR disaster for the board, headed by Aberporth’s answer to Sepp Blatter, the 80 year-old Jann Tucker MBE.
Two rival petitions were launched calling for the reinstatement of sacked Director, Cris Tomos, and an extraordinary general meeting of the Trust to decide whether the current trustees are fit to go on running the £12 million project.
Meanwhile, the trustees themselves concluded their kangaroo court “investigation” into Mr Tomos, and paid him off in return for a gagging clause.
Cris Tomos was the third Director to leave the project, and all three are known to have departed in acrimonious circumstances because of micro-managing interference by a small group of board members.
Two former trustees and a third prominent volunteer wrote to the Tivy-Side Advertiser to express their concerns about governance of the trust. They have been in contact with the Charity Commission to see what can be done about what they say are serious abuses by the clique which dominates the board of trustees. Under the trust’s constitution, ten members can call an extraordinary general meeting of the membership, and they are now gathering names. One of their objectives is to arrange an independent audit of the trust’s books.
All of this would be bad enough, but the trust has also found itself at the centre of a media storm, with the most startling revelations coming from Jac o’ the North himself, as readers of this blog will know.
This is a multi-million pound undertaking led and controlled by a handful of chums with homes and holiday homes in and around Aberporth, some seven miles to the north of Cardigan, with an official contact address in Kent.
A project which was meant to have the history of the Eisteddfod movement, and the Welsh language and culture at its heart, has been turned into a high-end hospitality venture for upmarket weddings, corporate bashes and a handful of well-heeled, braying visitors wishing to spend a few days roughing it in West Englandshire.
A shot in the arm for local economy?
Vanishingly little of the £12 million poured into the project has benefited local businesses, with even most of the tat in the gift shop having being purchased in Birmingham.
A huge chunk of the money went to Andrew Scott Ltd with insiders reporting massive waste and botched work; £40,000 went on high security glass cases used to display artefacts with little or no monetary value; and local businesses did not get a look in when it came to supplying the furnishings and fittings.
Serious questions are being asked about the tender processes, as well as the trustees’ appointment of one of their own to the post of Facilities Manager while scrapping the role of Education Officer.
All through the construction and restoration phase of the project contracts and jobs have gone to businesses well outside the local area, although large numbers of locals have worked as unpaid volunteers. The hope was that when the gates finally opened, paid employment would be created to benefit locals, but this has not happened either. There remains a heavy reliance on unpaid volunteers, while most of the real jobs have gone to non-Welsh speaking incomers.
It is now clear that the start-up phase of the project has brought almost no economic benefit to the town, and while this new attraction will undoubtedly bring more visitors into Cardigan during the short summer season, there has been further criticism of the trust for pricing the castle’s holiday accommodation at levels which will undermine existing local businesses. At the same time, the wedding venue business is being pitched at well-heeled clientèle from outside the area and priced at levels which will exclude most locals.
Gilbert and Sullivan
If the castle’s contribution to the local economy has so far been minimal, what of the castle’s cultural offering which is supposed to have the Welsh language and culture and the history of the Eisteddfod movement at its heart?
If you missed the Grand Opening Concert and Bellowhead, there are plenty more cultural events coming up, including a performance of Gilbert and Sullivan’s Iolanthe, Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew and an adaptation of Kenneth Grahame’s The Reluctant Dragon. Originally set in the Oxfordshire Downs, the story tells the tale of a dragon’s fraught relationship with the locals. The townsfolk bring in Saint George to rid them of the beast, but its life is eventually spared when they realise that the dragon is now a reformed character and not dangerous.
There seems to be a message in there somewhere.
Anyone hoping to see any sign of our rich cultural heritage, or the lively contemporary Welsh cultural scene, will search the castle’s forthcoming events schedule in vain.
A glimpse of what might have been is provided by A History of Cardigan Castle written by local historian Glen Johnson. Johnson is currently a trustee who has signalled his intention of stepping down from the role next year, but for years he was a persona non grata to the Aberporth clique running the show because of his awkward insistence on uncovering the archaeology and history of the site.
Bringing his story up to date, Johnson notes that, “in September 2007 Cadwgan B. P. T. revealed their plans to convert the front range of Castle Green House into a Welsh Language Learning Centre and the remainder of the building and all of the outbuildings into holiday accommodation”.
The Welsh Language Learning Centre never came about, and the Welsh classes that are held in the castle are confined to outbuildings on the periphery behind heavy metal gates, padlocks and “no entry” signs.
Moreover, there are persistent claims that archaeological investigation of the site was kept to a minimum by the trustees who were much more interested in developing the castle as a high-end wedding, holiday and conference venue.
“Not much to see here”
Meanwhile, the trust’s efforts to market the castle have fared no better if Tripadvisor is anything to go by, with a very mixed bag of reviews. A common theme here is that visitors unfamiliar with the town were expecting a castle rather than a heavily restored Georgian house and a vast expanse of lawn, and there is not much to excite the interest of children.
This won’t help in an age where mums and dads tap their smartphones before deciding what to do with the kids on a wet Welsh summer’s day.
Which brings us to the trustees’ PR strategy. A leaked e-mail showed that Sandra Davies, a member of the inner circle, told Cris Tomos that the board had decided he should not contact critics of the project. They were bigots, and the best thing would be to let them run out of steam, she said.
By refusing to talk to local critics and disillusioned volunteers, the trustees instead created a pressure cooker.
Cyfeillion Rhys ap Gruffudd, a local group dedicated to celebrating the castle as the home of the Eisteddfod and a cradle of Welsh culture, wrote to the board three months ago to ask for a meeting and an opportunity to present constructive new ideas. The letter did not even receive an acknowledgement.
Negotiations with the Gorsedd to hold a special ceremony of blessing collapsed in acrimony, with Father Seamus Cunane, the trust’s unofficial spin-doctor-in-chief telling readers of the Tivy-Side Advertiser that the Gorsedd had behaved like a bunch of divas.
This week several of these chickens came home to roost, with damning articles in the Carmarthenshire Herald, the Tivy-Side and Golwg.
The piece in Golwg was notable for the appearance of an unnamed spokesperson for the trust who told the somewhat surprised journalist that the trustees would in fact welcome an opportunity to meet the Cyfeillion, and would welcome a grand ceremony of the Gorsedd.
This sudden U-turn clearly had nothing to do with the catastrophic response in the mainstream and social media, and the trust’s Cardiff-based PR agency is now desperately engaged in a fire fighting exercise.
Pressure is growing on the trust to open up its books, and for the octogenarian chair of the trustees and her inner circle to step down and make way for a new team to turn the project round and ensure that it works for the people of Cardigan, rather than friends and family.