‘How the heck has it happened?’: The man who turned his farm into a resort with a roller-coaster and diner
Richard Youle, local democracy reporter
The livestock are long gone and holiday-makers occupy his working hours, but deep down Ken Strelley still considers himself a farmer.
Mr Strelley has just secured planning permission for a hotel at Gateway Resort, near Llanelli – another piece in a growing jigsaw that would have seemed incomprehensible to the young dairy farmer 20 years ago.
He took over the 95-acre farm in Bynea from his late father and grafted for little reward.
“It was long days, hard days,” he said. “I was literally working for nothing.”
One spring evening in 2001 he was cutting hay when the friend with whom he was working, Paul Picton, had an idea.
“Paul told me to stop the tractor and look at the view,” recalled Mr Strelley. “It was getting dark and the lights across the estuary in Gower were shining on the full tide.
“He said, ‘People would camp here. Why don’t you apply for some touring pitches?’ I didn’t think it would work. But I thought I had nothing to lose.”
The young Mr Strelley submitted an application to Carmarthenshire Council, and after overcoming various hurdles he opened 30 touring pitches a year-and-a-half later.
Pretty soon he realised he was on to something good. His farm looked across the Loughor Estuary and bordered the newly-opened Millennium Coastal Path.
The caravan and touring market was also enjoying a resurgence in the UK.
“It was the right time,” said Mr Strelley.
Nevertheless, in the early days he failed to secure a £2,000 loan from what was then Midland Bank, because the manager considered his idea for 90 pitches “pie in the sky”.
Mr Strelley went on: “I borrowed the £2,000 from my grandmother, and paid her back within six months.”
He said since then he has invested around £10 million into Gateway Resort, as well as acquiring a further 85 acres of land or so from neighbouring farms.
The complex now has just over 400 pitches, a roller-coaster, fishing lake, indoor swimming pool, crazy golf, two bars that can seat 700 people, an American diner, and shop.
In the pipeline is a 15-bed boutique hotel, heated outdoor lido, multi-use games area, electric go-kart track, land train and theme park-style barn with climbing frames and other equipment.
Mr Strelley also plans to apply for 36 glamping pods to add to the four already on site.
He has a full-time workforce of 56 staff, with a further 20 or so helping out during busier times.
The resort is open to the public and operates all-year-round. Covid has hit the business, but demand has increased.
“If I’d had 1,000 pitches last summer I would have filled them,” said Mr Strelley.
The 48-year-old said employing locally and well has been a factor in the business’s success. He said he paid above the minimum wage, and had a good management team around him.
“We meet on a weekly basis and decide everything – expansion plans, staffing levels, right down to rotas,” he said.
“To start with I was barman, cleaner, groundsman, and I still am up to a point, if needs be.”
Mr Strelley is now a qualified chef and said he was always picking up ideas on his travels.
In the early days he toured the UK in a motorhome to see what worked well and, just as importantly what didn’t work well, at holiday resorts.
Asked if he considered himself a wealthy man now, he replied: “I’m still a farmer at heart. I have a got a good standard of living compared to before. But the majority of what the company generates goes back to the business.”
Mr Strelley said he sympathised with farmers who had less than 500 acres.
“This is too small to exist as a modern-day farm,” he said. “That’s why there is so much diversification.”
The father-of-five lives in a farmhouse which he described as being in the “epicentre” of the resort.
His eldest son – now 23 – trained in-house as a chef, while his 17-year-old son is learning the ropes as an electrician.
He said he hoped one day his children would take over the business.
“I’ve had offers from large companies, but I’m not tempted,” he said.
Mr Strelley said holiday-makers and visitors came from as near as Swansea and as far as Ireland and Scotland, including rugby fans when the Scarlets were in action just down the road at Parc y Scarlets.
He added: “We are fully booked for the Six Nations.”
Mr Strelley paid tribute to his former architect, Bob Lashley, for spearheading expansion plans which at times his young boss worried might bankrupt him.
“I was led by him,” said Mr Strelley. “The expansion has never stopped.”
As we talked in one of the bars, Mr Strelley said his late father would have been amazed by what the farm had become.
“Where you’re sitting now would have been right inside a barn with 60 cattle,” he said. “Towards the estuary you would have seen 200 sheep.
“Sometimes I look at it now and think, how the heck has it happened?”