When Celtic Inns Ltd purchased a derelict Manor House in 1980, few people could have imagined that it would become part of such a prestigious, internationally recognised development.
The vision came from the company’s chairman, Sir Terry Matthews, a highly successful entrepreneur who has invested £100m in the project. Sir Terry lives in Canada, where he founded two highly successful telecommunications businesses, Mitel and Newbridge Networks. However, he was born in the Manor House when it was a maternity hospital, and has strong family ties in the area.
The Celtic Manor Resort is first and foremost a commercial venture. From the outset, Sir Terry saw that the site - with its superb countryside and proximity to the M4 - had the potential for development into a thriving business. However, he also hoped there would be wider benefits for local people and Wales as a whole.
“I think the Resort can act as a magnet to draw new investment into Wales from across the UK and overseas,” he said recently. “I did my best to put up a building that you can see from the West End of London and I didn’t come far short of it!”
The Manor House
The first step in The Celtic Manor’s development was the renovation of the 19th century Manor House, which had fallen into disrepair since being closed as a maternity hospital in 1977.
Originally known as Coldra House, the building dates from the early 1860s when it was the home of Thomas Powell Jnr, the son of a leading figure in the coal and iron trade who formed the Powell-Duffryn Company. Thomas’ tenure was short-lived - in 1869, he and his wife and young son were murdered while on safari in Abyssinia. The Monmouthshire Merlin newspaper reported that Thomas’ brother Henry went to the country to investigate the deaths, but only the bodies of the parents were found and there was no trace of their son, John. More lurid accounts suggest that ‘cannibals’ attacked them.
The Powells’ trustees then leased the house to a number of tenants until it was sold in 1915 to Sir John Beynon, a coal and shipping entrepreneur and the son of a former Mayor of Newport, Thomas Beynon. Sir John added a new wing and fitted several stained-glass windows and the main staircase, with its carved newel posts and elegant paneling. (The two windows depicting The Prince of Wales at Caernarfon Castle were transferred from the home of Sir John’s father, Bryn Ifor Hall, where they had originally been fitted in 1889.)
In the 1930s, Sir John gave the house to the local health authority, and on January 1, 1940, it opened as the Lydia Beynon Maternity Hospital, in memory of his mother. Over the next 35 years, more than 60,000 babies were to be born there - with many subsequently using the hotel for their wedding receptions!
A hotel takes shape
After the Lydia Beynon closed in 1975, it was boarded up and there were fears that it might have to be demolished. A proposal to use it as a hospital for the mentally handicapped was rejected in 1978, and it was put up for sale. Two years later, Celtic Inns became the owner and obtained planning permission for a 17-bedroom hotel and an 18-hole golf course on 163 acres of land.
The golf facilities were not developed until the 1990s, but work began immediately on converting the Manor House. “As soon as they took it over, the company launched a major restoration and rebuilding programme,” reported the Western Mail (9/7/82). “Builders, decorators and workmen, faced with a rundown building, worked flat out against the clock to meet an opening deadline… Though the redevelopment was difficult, the results show that it was all worthwhile.”
The Celtic Manor opened on schedule in April 1982 and was an instant success, winning the Egon Ronay award for the best hotel in Wales in five consecutive years from 1983 to 1987.
By December 1988, The Celtic Manor was ready to open its first major extension, which added 58 bedrooms, the 350-seater Manor Suite, four meeting rooms, an indoor swimming pool and a sauna, solarium and gymnasium. The new facilities put the hotel on the map nationally as a venue for conferences and business events. There was also a constant flow of celebrity guests, with Elton John, Shirley Bassey and Tom Jones among those attracted by the hotel’s growing reputation.
Thinking big - the 1990s
In 1991, plans were unveiled for further expansion, this time on an even bigger scale using land stretching from the grounds of the Manor House to the River Usk three miles away. The major elements were a new hotel and convention centre and two golf courses with a clubhouse and leisure centre.
Terry Matthews had become friends with the legendary golf course architect, the late Robert Trent Jones Snr after a chance meeting in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Mr Trent Jones’ family roots were in Aberystwyth and he was instantly enthusiastic about creating world-class layouts in Wales.
Work began on the Roman Road course in September 1992, with painstaking attention to the protection of trees, wildlife and a wealth of archaeological features. Several Roman roads, including the main route connecting the fortress of Caerleon with the town of Caerwent, cross the land and the course was shaped to avoid disrupting the remains.
In 1994, contractors started building the luxurious £10m golf clubhouse, incorporating new leisure facilities, and a Golf School with a 24 bay driving range and three coaching suites. Construction also began on a 4,000-yard, executive-style course, Coldra Woods, which was built around the site of a hilltop Roman military camp.
The following year, the new facilities were opened to the public and The Celtic Manor Golf Club was formed with 100 founder members, captained by the television presenter Alan Wilkins.
HRH The Prince of Wales visited the resort in July 1996 for a charity dinner in the clubhouse that raised £50,000 for the Princes Trust. During the event, he announced that he was donating a trophy, The Prince of Wales Challenge Cup, to be played for annually in an international golf tournament at the club.
Shortly after the Royal visit, work began on the centrepiece of the expansion programme - the new hotel with a further 325 rooms, a 1500-delegate convention venue and a second health club and spa.
Meanwhile, a third golf course - Wentwood Hills - had also moved off the drawing board and was taking shape alongside the river Usk. An 18-hole championship lay out, it was designed by the son of Mr Trent Jones, Robert Jnr, who has built other top courses around the world, including the Moscow Country Club, Bossey near Geneva and Penha Longa in Portugal.
Again, the Romans had a say. Work on the second green uncovered an ancient pottery kiln. “It was a significant discovery - they’re very rare,” said Andrew Marvell of the Glamorgan and Gwent Archaeological Trust. “The green had to be moved about 50 metres, some of the pottery was taken away to be reconstructed and the kiln was then covered over by sand and grass to protect it. It was a good example of a developer being sensitive to the environment, everything was carried out according to the best practices and Government guidelines.”
Some of the pottery may eventually go on display at The Celtic Manor, a symbol of the region’s heritage in a modern resort aiming to bring pleasure and prosperity in the 21st century.
In a hundred years, the contents of a time capsule buried at the new hotel in May 1998 will give future generations some insights into these developments. More than 400 pupils at Caerleon Comprehensive School took part in a competition to produce items for inclusion. The artwork and essays by the thirteen winners were placed in the capsule along with newspapers and magazines, photographs, a Spice Girls CD, information about The Celtic Manor and a recording of the BBC regional news programme, Wales Today.
The chairman of the school’s governing body, Jim Kirkwood, said: “The Celtic Manor is the most important leisure development we’ve ever had in this area. It’s a prestige project comparable with anything anywhere in the UK, and it’s a privilege for our school to have been chosen to make a little piece of history.”
On May 17th, 1999, the Wentwood Hills Course was officially opened by the new First Minister for Wales, Alun Michael, following an exhibition match between Mark James, the captain of Europe’s Ryder Cup team, and Ian Woosnam, former US Masters winner. At a news conference afterwards, Terry Matthews and George O’Grady, the Deputy Executive Director of golf’s European Tour, announced that the course would stage a new event - The Celtic Manor Wales Open - from 2000 for at least three years. Mr O’Grady described the course as ‘a jewel’ and said: “The European Tour is very, very excited about the Wales Open, it’s a pleasure to be on board.”