For one of the most picturesque villages in Pembrokeshire, things have become pretty ugly for Cwm-yr-Eglwys.
The jumbled collection of houses that make up the pretty holiday hotspot in west Wales have become the poster child for second home issues for all of Wales. From a comment by a local community councillor, who said “it’s a sad village really and probably will never change”, Cwm-yr-Eglwys was catapulted into the national headlines which screamed: “One local left in village so stunning nearly all houses are millionaires’ second homes.”
It’s certainly true that of the 27-odd houses which make up the north-Pembrokeshire hamlet, only a handful are ‘first homes’. But it’s certainly not true that they’re worth millions of pounds, that they’re all owned by millionaires or that the community has been ripped apart by English incomers.
“We’re a highly unusual community, but we are a community,” said permanent resident Anne Lewis.
A brief search of property transaction history shows that in the last decade, there have been three sales. Eight properties in Cwm-yr-Eglwys have been sold since 1997 with prices ranging between £90,000 and £520,000, according to Land Registry data. As if to prove the point, a two-bed flat in the village came up for sale the day before we arrived in Cwm-yr-Eglwys, with a starting price of £220,000. No one claims to know anything about a house that reportedly sold for £1.3m.
There’s no denying that the ownership of second homes is a real problem in coastal parts of Wales – and no more so than in Pembrokeshire where nearly one-in-10 properties are second homes or holiday lets. The coronavirus pandemic seems to be accelerating the problem. It means local people struggle, or are simply unable, to buy homes there because they cannot compete with people who live elsewhere and earn more money.
But whether Cwm-yr-Eglwys is the poster child for this problem might not be so straightforward. You have to go back hundreds of years to fully understand just why so many of the houses are owned by so-called second home owners. The reasons might just surprise the policy makers and planners: from a medieval harbour to the industrial revolution and seeing off Billy Butlins and his holiday camp, it’s far from straightforward.
In fact, take a careful look at the history of the village and it could be argued that it owes its very existence to people coming in from away. It’s a little-known fact but in the 1950s, Butlins had its eye on Cwm-yr-Eglwys and the flat valley between Dinas Head and the mainland as an ideal spot for its next resort…………
….”Those families are still here,” Anne said. “The so-called second home owners have been here for three or four generations; there’s one family who have deeds showing they’ve owned property since the 1800s. There may not have been any work for them during the 1800s and early 1900s, but they kept hold of the land and returned many years later.”
Her family is a prime example. Her grandparents owned land in Cwm-yr-Eglwys since the early 1900s. Anne can remember spending every summer holiday in Cwm until her own father retired and built a house on the sea front. Anne was lucky enough to find work in west Wales so she could look after her ageing parents and has been here ever since.
“They haven’t taken them away from the local people, they are the local people,” she said. She points out the foresight of the trust formed to protect the little slice of heaven: “They wanted Cwm to be for their children and their children after them. That’s why Cwm is so beautiful and peaceful today. To call them rich incomers is insulting and untrue.”
The damage that’s been done to the community by the scale of the publicity and the hurt that it’s caused has left Anne indignant. There’s been a torrent of abuse on social media and even threats to come and burn down the houses.
Martin John is another one who resents the term ‘second homers’. His main home is somewhere between Usk and Abergavenny, yet his house in Cwm-yr-Eglwys was his father’s. The 78-year-old’s father was one of three who thwarted plans to turn the hamlet into the Butlins camp.
He’s unwilling to have his picture taken given the fallout from the headlines just two weeks earlier and would prefer the village be left in peace. The quicker it dies down the better, he said.
But he does say this: “This village owes its existence to incomers. One’s heart is here. Hiraeth comes into the equation. It will go on forever. I’m 78 and I’ve been here all my life. My father died quite a few years ago and there was no question of selling.”
He can remember the days when the nearest shop was up the hill in Dinas, which sold everything from a sack of coal to paraffin from just one single room.
“It’s changed but it’s been preserved,” he added. He will stay in Cwm for a month or six weeks at a time in summer. When he leaves, his brother and his family will stay for several weeks. Between March and November, it’s pretty much full week in, week out, and then again over Christmas and New Year.
There’s no denying that there are houses in Cwm which are rented out through agencies or through Airbnb, and that their owners live across the Prince of Wales bridge. There’s no question that the issue of second homes in Wales is an emotional one, not that that justifies threats or abuse. And owning a second home is a luxury few can afford whether it’s because you’re a London millionaire seeking a bolthole or because you have family connections to the area. The house is still unavailable to someone looking for their first home. That doesn’t mean there is animosity between the non-permanent residents and the permanent ones.
Cwm-yr-Eglwys is “a rarity in Pembrokeshire”, says Carol Peett, from West Wales Property Finders http://www.westwalespropertyfinders.co.uk.
“Cwm-yr-Eglwys really has nothing to attract people to live there permanently unfortunately apart from being a sweet little place,” she said. “It really is a place that falls between two stools for permanent residents – it is too isolated and inconvenient for younger working families and doesn’t have the facilities like a village shop or post office that older people want when looking for a home.
“It is down a tiny narrow lane so fairly inaccessible and time consuming to reach if you are driving to and from work every day (it’s a 35 minute drive from Haverfordwest but if you meet people on the lane going down it can take a lot longer). Most villages here have families who have lived in and around those villages for hundreds of years.”
Mrs Peett’s job is to locate properties for people looking to buy in Pembrokeshire, sometimes from outside the area and often with very specific requirements. She too is sceptical of the quoted £1.3m house sale, saying she’s been looking for a permanent home there for a client from nearby Newport for the last eight months and has seen nothing about it.
She thinks 85% of her clients are people who grew up in Pembrokeshire, went away to work and are returning home or, as far as second homers are concerned, are people from the county but cannot live there due to their work and are buying second homes to be able to keep a connection to Pembrokeshire for their family, spend holidays there for now, with the intention of moving back when they retire.
She can reel off numerous examples including a London-based consultant with family from Narberth looking to buy a second home with plans to move back eventually; a solicitor from Haverfordwest working in London buying a second home to move back to eventually; a couple – both consultants at a London hospital – buying a property to use as a second home for one year and then moving back there permanently.
Only about 5% of people buying second homes are from England, she estimates, and even then it’s usually because they came to west Wales on holiday as children to stay with grandparents.
Dr Simon Brooks, a professor at the School of Management at Swansea University, said it was “surprising” to hear so many homes in Cwm-yr-Eglwys were second homes. Dr Brooks has just published a report scrutinising policy on second homes in Wales and Cornwall, to help policymakers in council and government.
There are hamlets in Gwynedd where half of properties are second homes but the reasons why often go back over many decades, he said.
“When it comes to coastal locations in Wales, there are three broad demographic trends: out migration of local people, retirement migration and a big second home market,” he explained. “In recent months, that has been heavily influenced by Covid, which has accelerated a shift in working patterns as people realise they are no longer tied to urban centres, and Brexit, with second homes in Wales now more appealing than the continent.”
Yet Cwm-yr-Eglwys can’t really relate to these owners who were there long before either Covid or Brexit. Dinas councillor Bob Kilmister, Pembrokeshire council cabinet member for finance, can remember canvassing in 2008 when, even then, there were just five permanent residents in the village. It hasn’t really changed between 2008 and 2021, he said. A couple of the elderly residents had died, but the properties have been taken on and used by their families.
“There’s a real problem with the number of holiday homes and rentals in some parts of the county,” he said. In places like Saundersfoot, Amroth, St Davids and nearby Newport, nearly half of homes are holiday lets or second homes, he added.
It’s not so much second homes he’s worried about than holiday rentals, which are significantly more profitable. He said: “The number of second homes in Pembrokeshire haven’t gone up significantly, whereas holiday lets have gone through the roof.”
If you are looking to buy a property in Pembrokeshire, Carmarthenshire or Ceredigion, give West Wales Property Finders a call on 01834 862816. We can find your perfect property for you whilst saving you time, stress and often money too.