A unique opportunity to acquire land with a castle built on it became the inspiration for one Welsh farming family to diversify their farm and welcome thousands of people on-site throughout the year.
Barry Alston finds out more.
The future of a West Wales hill farm has been safeguarded by the introduction of a medley of diversification ventures, attracting more than 80,000 visitors a year along its way.
Bernard and Margaret Llewellyn are under no illusion without such a wide spread of alternative ventures their 80-hectare (200-acre) holding at Trapp, near Llandeilo, Carmarthenshire, would not have been viable.
But now, apart from the day-to-day attractions of being a working farm, activities encompass a variety of rare breeds, a collection of farming memorabilia from days gone by, a gift shop, a purpose-built meeting and conference centre and a ‘baronial’ hall restaurant.
At the heart of Castell Farm are the pedigree Longhorn cattle successfully exhibited throughout summer at agricultural shows up and down the country and in demand as film and television extras in period dramas.
Overlooking the farm is Carreg Cennen Castle, one of few independently owned Medieval castles in Wales and commanding panoramic views across the Tywi Valley.
“We love having visitors to the farm and, let’s face it, without them it is doubtful whether we would still be farming,” says Bernard, who has three daughters Nia, Ellen and Angharad and eight grandchildren, ranging from 18 months to 10 years old.
“It does mean we need to be prepared to open the farm all-year-round, with Christmas Day being the only time we close the gates."
Inevitably, their location is a unique part of the family’s story and the 12th century castle on their land has been turned into an asset which has totally transformed the family’s farming way of life – ironic given the original price tag was just £100.
There has, however, been a considerable investment since, with the provision of a tea room, gift shop, restaurant and a fully licensed function room which is also becoming a popular venue for wedding receptions.
Ownership of the castle came about due to a legal discrepancy when, as sitting tenants, Margaret’s parents purchased the farm from the Cawdor Estate in the early 1960, acquiring the ground on which the castle stands.
On realising the mistake the estate tried to buy the castle back for £100, an offer which the couple politely turned down.
“It was all above board. A deal was a deal and there was no going back on it,” says Bernard.
But it was not until 1977 when the Llewellyns took on the farm that the real potential of what they had in their ‘backyard’ started to become apparent.
Newly married, they had intentions of concentrating on farming and in their first few years built up to an 80-cow pedigree Friesian dairy herd.
By the start of the 1980s there began a steady trickle of people trekking up the hill to the castle and unintentionally disruptioning the working day. The decision was made to stop milking and switch to sucklers and sheep while diversifying into tourism.
“We went out of milk in 1983 primarily because of the pressures from tourism and being unable to compete with other parts of Wales in the grass growing stakes,” says Bernard.
“It transpired that we gave up just before the introduction of lucrative quotas. Hindsight is a wonderful thing.”
Having to deal on a daily basis with the general public, put up with a variety of whims and demands from visitors is not something everyone – farmers in particular– can readily turn their hand to.
But the Llewellyns agreed to give it a go and to do it properly meant catering more and more for the expanding demands of the visitors.
“When we started out we only had a few thousand people coming to look around, but now more than 80,000 people a year visit the site as a whole, whether it be to see the castle, sit in the tea room, be a guest at a wedding reception or just to walk in the surrounding countryside.
"It is recognised as one of the top AA walks in the UK,” says Bernard.
“We quickly realised if we were to make a real go of diversification it was no use sitting back and expecting people to just come along and spend money. You have to make them welcome and provide things for them to see and buy.”
As part of this, displays of old farm implements and equipment were set up and visitors invited to look around the farmyard and buildings.
An old barn was converted into a tea room and shop and the granary was turned into a restaurant serving home cooked food.
Out went the suckler cows and in came Longhorns, Welsh Blacks and White Park cattle, as well as Balwen, Soay, Hill Radnors and improved Welsh Mountain sheep, not forgetting the odd Welsh Cob and farmyard poultry – all geared towards boosting visitor interest.
With the site’s popularity continuing to grow and realisation of the potential to stage Medieval-style banqueting and other traditional gatherings, a £200,000 investment went into a new-build function facility capable of catering for parties of up to 150 people.
Throughout their growth, great care was taken to ensure it was fully in-tune with the natural surroundings, with locally-grown oak being used extensively. It also means the site now provides employment for up to 20 full- and part-time local people.
While the family owns the castle, its maintenance is in the hands of CADW, the organisation responsible for historical buildings throughout Wales and it takes a share of the admission charge.
Although his daily activities can range from working in the restaurant serving meals, conducting guided tours and liasing with customers, Bernard remains just as committed to farming as he has ever been and was awarded an MBE in The Queen’s Birthday Honours list for services to rural affairs and the tourist industry in Wales.
For many years he has been heavily involved with the Young Farmers’ Clubs, the Welsh Woodland Forum, the Longhorn Council, the Balwen Sheep Society, the Brecon Beacons National Park and the local tourist association, as well as recently being elected an Associate of the Royal Agricultural Societies.
He is also very much an agri-politician having been county chairman of Carmarthenshire NFU, chairman of NFU Cymru’s rural affairs board and the COPA representative in Brussels on the water framework and waste directive.
“I have always had an extensive interest in agri-politics which began when I served several terms as NFYFC council member for Pembrokeshire and fortunate enough to represent the organisation on several European environmental committees, coupled with a long-term personal commitment to productive agriculture and its connectivity with environmental issues,” says Bernard.
“I represented the NFU on a number of stakeholder groups advising the Government on environmental schemes, was a member of the Climate Change Commission for Wales and served on RSPB’s Welsh committee for 12 years.”
The farm is very much a working enterprise and care has been taken not to ignore the normal day-to-day activities.
Bernard’s initial involvement with Longhorns has also developed into something of a breed passion and he regularly exhibits them, achieving considerable championship success at both national and local shows across England, Scotland and Wales.
The Carreg herd was first established in 1981 with two cows from Peter Close’s Fishwick herd at Berwick-on-Tweed, an association which has been retained to the present day with joint ownership of bulls.
While some of the beef from the 20-cow pedigree breeding herd is sold via boxes to established customers, Bernard attributes much of the venture’s catering success to the quality of the naturally matured meat.
Recently there has been involvement supplying Celtic Pride with premium branded beef much in demand by specialist retailers primarily supplying the London market and some well-known chefs.
Heifers are mostly retained for breeding, while steers are slaughtered at 23 months weighing about 400kg deadweight and the carcases hung for a month.
These days the farm is very much a mixed holding, growing a small acreage of cereals for home use alongside the variety of sheep breeds, some kept as a visitor attraction but primarily for commercially finished lamb.
“The highest ground runs to 1,000 feet, being grazed by our two crop and older ewes and a number of Texel cross females, all of which are lambed indoors from mid-March onwards,” says Bernard.
“They are turned back to the hill in April with the older ewes and those with twins grazing the grassland around the castle. We start drawing lambs in July for selling liveweight which suits us, given the broad range of ewe breeds.
“With such a variety of types within the flock it is essential to have the right tup to use on them, with the preference being for a neat, commercial Texel with plenty of shape without being too heavy in the shoulder or head.”
All the available meal options on the catering side are home-made by the family using as much local produce as possible, whether it be for snacks or traditional wedding breakfast receptions.
For the main course, however, the choice is Longhorn beef, Longhorn beef, or Longhorn beef.
“For me the breed is beyond equal as a suckler cow, with milkiness, calving ease, longevity, docility, length and leanness of body unrivalled,” says Bernard.
“Add in tenderness and flavour and the result is beef with superior eating quality. The Longhorn ticks all the boxes.”