Three years ago Marian Evans bought a 900-year-old Welsh castle but kept the “lavish” purchase a secret in case people judged her.
Unusually for the savvy businesswoman the decision to buy Llansteffan Castle was not one made for financial reasons but came purely from the heart.
The castle ruin, built by Norman invaders right on the edge of the west Wales coast, stands at the end of a seemingly never-ending pathway to the heavens.
The castle itself somehow manages to appear overpowered by nature yet, built to defend, it has lost none of its power to intimidate. The rough stone ruins are perfect for young imaginations dreaming of dragons and knights.
With far-reaching views across the Twyi estuary and beyond the magnificent castle has also been crowned one of the UK’s most romantic ruins of all time.
For Marian, who has treasured childhood memories of exploring the ruins with her siblings, Llansteffan Castle holds a very special place in her heart. That’s why when the 42-year-old saw it up for sale it wasn’t her business mind talking but rather her heart.
“Thank God I have got an understanding husband,” Marian says, talking at her sprawling farmhouse that came with Llansteffan Castle, Plas Farm and some additional woodland. “He supports me when I come up with crazy ideas. It was an emotional buy more so than anything else.”
Marian, a Carmarthenshire-born business woman and entrepreneur, is used to dealing in big numbers and is no stranger to making investments. Indeed this is a woman who had smashed through pretty much every glass ceiling in the world of business before she had reached 30.
Less than 10 years after starting out with NFU Mutual in the financial services sector she was overseeing a book of business worth £58m and was in charge of 16 offices. Last year she was crowned the Inspirational Woman of the Decade at the Women in Business awards.
Marian can talk all day about business and how to “line your ducks up in a row”. But talking about matters of the heart comes less easily than the world of business. Indeed, so afraid that she would be seen as “one of those types” who bought a castle, she put a caveat in the sale that kept the transaction a secret. The residents of the tiny rural village of Llansteffan knew nothing about how the majestic ruins had changed hands and now belonged to one of their own.
Talking about herself doesn’t come naturally at all and makes her visibly uncomfortable. So much so that only 10 minutes into our chat she has somehow turned it round so I feel like I am the one being interviewed. The mother of two young daughters has a steady gaze and I get the uncomfortable feeling she has sussed me out before I have even asked about her own background.
Over the years Marian, who grew up on a farm in Carmarthenshire just two miles outside of Llansteffan, has grown to become one of the most prolific businesswomen in south Wales. It is Llansteffan Castle that has remained a constant in her life and one that has always brought her back home.
“I grew up as a kid with trips to the beach and the castle,” she recalls, sitting at the wooden table drinking coffee from a white china mug. The kitchen is huge with big flagstones on the floor and a sense of history emanating from the solid stone walls.
“My parents were complete workaholics so always on the farm working,” she continues. “There were no holidays. Days out, if we were lucky, were down to the castle. It was a real treat, just being on the doorstep. I felt incredibly lucky as a child, even though we had to work harder than any other children I knew. We used to climb the tower and just play, just being kids. It was all downhill on the way back and if we were lucky we stopped off for an ice cream in the village.”
As a schoolgirl at Bro Myrddin, Marian continued to walk up that never-ending path just to wander around the castle and find some headspace. After she left home to study at the University of West of England in Bristol the castle was one of the first places she would visit on trips back home.
“I would still go up there as a bit of an escape really,” she smiles. Then when she met Rob – the man who would become her husband a few years later – as a 20-year-old student she would drag him up there too. “I can remember going up there together,” she says. “It changed to become more of a romantic thing. The castle has different meanings for the different phases of my life.”
They aren’t the only couple to see the romantic side of the hulking ruin – there have been hundreds of marriage proposals over the years.
Now she watches as her own two daughters play among the ruins just like she did with her sister. “Watching them, it’s like going back 35 years,” she adds. “I know how life has moved on but they still find joy like we did.”
The castle has had a turbulent history. In 1146 the Welsh princes of Deheubarth captured the castle from the Normans but by the end of the 12th century it had fallen into English hands. Henry II gifted it to the Norman de Camville family where it withstood a number of attacks by the Welsh. By 1338 the last male heir of the de Camvilles died and the castle was passed through marriage to the Penres family from Gower.
For the next two centuries Llansteffan was held chiefly by the crown but its military importance waned after Henry VIII and it fell into a long period of neglect. The ruins survived as part of the Plas Estate, which owned large swathes of land around Llansteffan. But over the years pockets were sold off and it was a chance meeting with a land agent that Marian heard Plas Farm was on the market along with the castle ruins and The Sticks woodland.
“I happened to be speaking to the land agents, coincidentally, on something completely unrelated about insurance advice,” she said. “I just commented that there wasn’t much of the estate left and how sad it was to see the old estate being sold off and he said the three lots were up for sale.
“I drove home and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. I said to Rob I thought we should ask if they would consider an offer.” The owners told Marian they were always open to offers and, after a chat with Rob over the next 24 hours, Marian decided they should go for it.
“We both thought ‘There’s no way it will come off’,” she laughs suddenly. “I’m a business person. People come to me for advice for returns on their investment. I manage risk. Whenever I have purchased properties, since I was 18, I have always been very calculated about it being the right buy to make to maximise my return on my investment.” But Llansteffan Castle was different. “I always knew it would be a sound investment,” she adds. But ultimately she made the decision because she thought: “This would be an amazing legacy”.
“Also it was in English hands for so much of it’s history so it’s quite nice to bring it into local ownership,” she adds.
The only thing she had to overcome was the thought about what people might say if they found out. It’s something she wrestled with right from the start and still does to this day.
“People who want to purchase something like that [the castle] tend to do so for a status reason, a symbol, but anybody who knows me knows that couldn’t be further from my DNA,” she says haltingly. “We put a caveat on the sale that we didn’t want anybody to know. It was a confidential purchase and we managed to keep it quiet for quite a long time.”
She won’t divulge how much she paid for it, not even the smallest of hints on the number of zeros attached to the final sum. But Marian is a shrewd woman who bought her first property in Carmarthen while still a teenager. Her success has come due to her work ethic and being business savvy– something she learned from her farming parents, she says.
“People don’t give enough credit to farmers,” she says fervently. “Some are among the best business people I know. I watched my father make deals growing up and I guess it must have rubbed off on me.
“I have an incredibly strong work ethic. I was a real worker and when I had money I invested it into the next thing. As soon as I could afford to buy another property I would buy it.”
She was named as one of the top sales associates in the UK in her first year at NFU Mutual and went on to become the youngest female sales manager in the country. By 30 she seemingly had it all and it had become “a bit too comfortable”, she admits.
“I was climbing the ranks. There have been lots of sacrifices along the way. Long hours, studying in the night, buying property on the side, all the while holding down a corporate career. It was pretty relentless in the early years. I like being busy. I get a hell of a buzz from business and making a profit and that’s in me, in my DNA, and I have made a good living in that.”
Even so, admitting she has done all right is an internal struggle and something Marian doesn’t like to say out loud. She visibly cringes as she talks about her own success and describes how people started coming up to her asking how she did it.
“Between the ages of 24 and 32 every meeting was almost all men,” she says. “I was the first woman to hold every position I held. So not only was I young, I was a woman and managing men who were much older than me. Over the years I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve underestimated me, particularly with my strong Welsh accent. I had to prove I was good enough.”
Marian is of the view that actions speak louder than words. “Now I know I’m good enough,” she says quietly but assuredly. “But I don’t shout about it. I suppose there have been quite a lot of ceilings smashed along the way.”
In 2017 Marian established Elevate BC offering business consultancy, executive coaching, and mentoring to individuals and businesses.
“I have to keep pushing, keep pushing as far as it will go,” she says about her decision to start up her own company. “I have to push things to the absolute limit. I’m not super-talented, I’m a grafter. I have the fight, the drive.” She is talking in short sentences as she gets more and more impassioned. “I think you either have that entrepreneurial spirit in you or you don’t’ if you do you are rarely satisfied”.
Suddenly she knows what she is trying to say: “Grit – that’s the word, and guts.”
Even so, sharing her business knowledge and expertise with other people didn’t immediately come naturally and Marian still felt she needed something more solid to back up her own experiences. “When people first asked: ‘Can you help me?’ I said: ‘All I can do is share with you what I’ve done myself,’” she says, leaning forward earnestly. “I only got the executive coaching qualification so I had the badge.”
The badge is more for her than the reassurance of her clients, I sense. Especially when you consider Marian is also a chartered broker, fellow of the Institute of Leadership and Management and a Fellow of the Chartered Management Institute.
“There are quite a lot of people in senior positions who think of themselves: ‘What the hell am I doing here?’,” she continues. “The work I do with them is to ask ‘So what’s the plan?’.” Through her one-to-one coaching it is the same things that crop up time and time again: impostor syndrome, businesses in crisis, and a lack of emotional intelligence among managers.
“We are all different but there have been a high proportion of people who have come to me looking for somebody who has been there and done it,” she says. “Doing this job is a real leveller – we are all just human and we all need help sometimes. I’m quite proud when people do go on to reach their goals.
“My greatest achievements are what other people have achieved with my help. That’s enough for me. My job is making them look good. I’m their secret ally helping them get to the place they want to get to.”
How can she see the way forward when they can’t, I ask. Her answer is stark in its simplicity: “It’s a self-confidence thing.” But success requires hard work too. “I always had my eye on the next milestone. It was hard work and I know that I’ve worked harder than most people are prepared to do.
“You decide what you want most and I have now got to the point where I can choose who I work with and where. If you do plan and are strategic with things you don’t have to work as hard later.”
It’s easy to think Marian has it easy, sat in her large kitchen, choosing when to work and with whom, and with her very own castle at her disposal. But, as she tells her story, buying a castle suddenly feels a lot less lavish and more and more deserved.
“You are only limited by the limits you put on your own ambitions,” Marian says, with a twinkle in her eye. “If you were one of my clients,” she says, then tails off. She is back to doing what she does best, always analysing and thinking ahead.
It seems fitting that Llansteffan Castle, which shaped the young Marian as she grew up, will be used to shape the next generation of business managers and leaders.
Marian has big ambitions for the castle to become integral to her executive coaching business. She now offers clients exclusive walking executive coaching sessions on Plas Farm which are centred around the castle ruins. Her clients come from all over Wales and the UK.
“Executives often welcome the opportunity to escape to the country, away from the office environment,” she says. They come in search of the same headspace Marian sought up on the ruins as a youngster.