One of the greatest treasures on our rail network is Llanelly House in Llanelli – and this year it celebrates 10 years as a cultural attraction. Craig Newton, Llanelly House’s liaison officer, gave us a tour.
Do you like ghost stories and tales of historical intrigue? Do you love wandering around grand old houses? Then Llanelly House should be top of your list for a day out on our rail network.
A gracious Georgian building close to the centre of Llanelli, Llanelly House has a long and fascinating history. Archaeological studies have shown that its origins go back far beyond the building we see today, with hidden parts of the house dating to the Elizabethan and Jacobean periods.
Some 20 years ago, the building was disused and in a state of serious deterioration – then, in 2003, it starred in the BBC TV series Restoration, winning the Welsh heat. Out of this came a determined effort to restore the house and open it to the public. In 2009 the Carmarthenshire Heritage Regeneration Trust (CHRT) received funding to get the project underway, and by October 2013 the house was open.
The house now fulfils several roles. It’s a fascinating historical attraction, and visitors can take guided tours enlivened by video presentations starring characters from the building’s history.
It’s also available for functions such as weddings and funerals, and has a delightful bistro serving everything from breakfasts to home-cooked lunches.
As Llanelly House’s liaison officer, Craig Newton is deeply involved in the house’s history and future development. The house tours are an important part of its offering. They begin in the downstairs Great Hall, where visitors learn about how the house came into existence before being introduced to the Stepneys, who built most of the house you see today.
“We talk about their influence, because they literally re-shaped the house into its current Georgian architecture,” says Craig.
The tour also takes in all the colourful elements of the house’s history, starting with how Sir John Stepney, the 8th Baronet, left the house to his illegitimate son. This led to the Chambers family taking possession of the house.
“They moved in, lock stock and barrel, and were hugely influential not just in terms of the house’s history, but also the development of the town,” says Craig. “They arrived here in the middle of the industrial revolution, amid huge socio-economic change. They were determined that Llanelli was not going to be left behind in this burgeoning industrial economy, so they make the critical move of ensuring the railway line extends beyond Swansea and continues West, bringing it through Llanelli and then further afield.”
Visitors to the house can see rooms furnished for two eras, starting Elizabeth Stepney’s chamber, decked out as it would have been in her lifetime. Its ante chamber is decorated with an extraordinary grisaille mural by the renowned Georgian artist John Lewis. Grisaille was a painting technique that was very fashionable at the time, which involved creating 3D effects with various shades of grey or another neutral colour.
“The restorers initially had no idea that this was here because in the 60s and 70s, the Tax Office had occupied this part of the house and the ante chamber was a map room,” says Craig. “Somebody in the Tax Office decided that the grisaille wasn’t good enough, so they took to it with a tin of white emulsion.
“The restorers realised there was something quite significant under there. It took weeks, months, with the most miniscule of tools, but they were able to bring the grisaille back.”
This wasn’t the only stroke of luck for the restorers. Elizabeth’s husband Sir Thomas, the 7th baronet, was a prolific note taker and kept a highly detailed inventory of the house, which still exists today.
“His inventory was used during restoration as a sort of blueprint, so the so the house has been restored to a high level of historical accuracy,” says Craig.
Details include a solid mahogany bed from France, and rugs and carpets of the kind Elizabeth had imported from the Near East. One thing that can’t be recreated is the view from her window, which in those days would have looked out over her pinery (like an orangery but for fashionable pineapples) to the parkland beyond.
As the visitor tour continues, you’re taken from the Georgian era into the Regency and then the Victorian era as the story of the Stepney family, and then the Chambers family, unfolds. A grand room at the front of the house introduces their chapter of the building’s history.
“Here we introduce William Shambers senior and his family, who talked a lot about the good that they did in the town – being founder members of the first health board, setting up schools, building the Llanelli pottery and bringing in employment,” says Craig.
“We also talk about the fact that they were not universally loved – they had fractious relationships with various figures in the town, notably Ebenezer Morris, who was the Anglican clergyman.”
A copy of the Times Newspaper on the table also hints at the biggest scandal in the house’s history – the death of the head maid, Mira turner, who was accused of having had an inappropriate relationship with a member of the male staff and was found dead in the house.
The tour takes visitors upstairs to the cramped servants’ quarters where Mira lived, and includes a video dramatisation of the inquest into her death. While the official verdict was suicide, there is reason to suspect foul play – and that she may have been involved with one of the house’s owners, not a fellow servant.
“There are a lot of versions of events – one of which was that she had a nervous breakdown was put to bed and then was found the next morning at the bottom of stairs with a fatal head wound,” says Craig. “Another reported that she threw herself off from a second floor window. Lots of mixed messages came out, and the family were most concerned about absolving themselves of any wrongdoing. They didn’t want to be seen as being embroiled in what had gone on. What actually happened is open to interpretation.”
Every visitor gets a chance to watch the testimonies and make their own decision – and maybe Mira’s restless soul still haunts the house. A significant number of staff and visitors have reported ghostly events: sightings, touches, and items moving inexplicably.
“A couple of years back, a woman in the front row watching the video of the inquest turned to the tour guide and said asked who the young girl sitting on the staircase was,” says Craig. “At that point everybody turned to look, expecting to see someone, but there wasn’t anything there. She was convinced she’d seed a young girl in Victorian costume. She thought she was a volunteer dressed up for the tour.”
There’s no doubt the house is atmospheric – and for the brave, there are occasionally opportunities to join paranormal investigators on a stake out of the house. Other events planned for 2023 include tapas nights and the opening of a Victorian style school room in the house, where visiting pupils can learn about the house’s history and Victorian education.
Even more events will be on the cards in October, when the house officially completes its first decade as a visitor attraction. Here’s to many more years to come.