We tend to think of diversification as a modern issue, a response to the challenges of lower profits and an uncertain future, but the Morgan family first diversified into tourism over 100 years ago.
Today, Dan Yr Ogof, or The National Showcaves Centre for Wales is a popular tourist destination; it received over 90,000 visitors in 2017, making the caves Wales’ most popular privately-owned attraction. The National Showcaves Centre is a regional finalist for the Best Rural Tourism Business Award, and this article explores their fascinating history.
A Life-Changing Discovery
Two Brothers, Tommy and Jeff Morgan were farmers who in 1912 discovered the famous ‘Dan Yr Ogof Caves’. They first found a small passageway leading off from the main cave river. Their initial explorations of the cave system lead, many years later, to over 10 miles of cave passageways being found.
The Brothers were amongst the first true ‘cavers’ in Wales, and Tommy Morgan was the first photographer to produce black and white cave pictures, using ‘flash’ powder.
In 1912 the tourism industry in Wales was tiny compared to the present day turnover of £6.6 billion! However, the Brothers started to attract visitors and took them around their cave. The Brothers were also amongst the very first to diversify their efforts from farming into tourism.
The War Years
In 1937 they at last had the funding to start turning their tourism dreams into a full commercial venture. They constructed concrete pathways, and a 100-year-old water turbine was purchased to supply electricity for the cave’s lights. This was the first time in history that water power had produced electricity to light up a cave. They also built a small wooden restaurant, and constructed a car park.
They completed this initial work in 1939. However, after only 9 weeks of trading ‘World War Two’ started, and their dreams of building a tourism business faded.
The caves in the war years were taken over by the army, and were filled with explosives and art treasures from all over Britain. Two armed guards were stationed at the cave entrance during this period. The Morgan family also assisted Swansea by supplying cave water for the Swansea water mains. The water helped douse the many fires created by German air raids.
Rebuilding the Business
In 1964 the next generation of the Morgan Family rekindled the original discoverers’ dreams. A new coffee shop was built along with the opening of the stunning Cathedral Cave.
However, it was the third generation of the Morgan family that really created the largest showcave complex in Western Europe that visitors see today.
This generation opened the ‘Bone Cave,’ creating one of the largest dinosaur parks in the world. They were early pioneers in the self-catering sector, and developed a caravan camping site, museums, shops, an Iron Age village, and huge stone monoliths to celebrate what the early cave dwellers in Bone Cave created on the mountainside behind the caves.
The Morgan family were always very keen environmentalists. Like the Brothers’ original plan for cave lights they still rely on hydro-power, and many of the conservation work on the caves is based on their original practices.
The original Morgan Brother schemes have inspired many other green initiatives. Recently over 80,000 broad-leafed trees have been planted and large lakes are to be found on the farm to attract wetland birds. Three years ago a new hydro plant was installed to make Dan Yr Ogof self-sufficient in its energy needs. The farm also breeds Shire Horses which have become an endangered species.
The Morgans in the Modern Day
Four generations on, and the caves are still run by the same family. No other tourism business in Wales has such a long history, and Dan Yr Ogof has won many tourism and environmental awards over the years.
The showcaves complex is so much larger than the original discoverers could ever have dreamed of, but is still run as a family business. Today the company employs over 62 local people. It is also company policy that all electrical work, building schemes, plumbing, and food suppliers are locally sourced.
Most tourist attractions have a life span of only 30 or 40 years, but Dan Yr Ogof has survived two world wars, several recessions, the foot-and-mouth epidemic and constant changes to the business environment.
Four generations on, and the Morgan Brothers’ descendants are looking forward to the next 100 years.
If you would like more information about visiting Dan Yr Ogof, visit their website: http://www.showcaves.co.uk/
To see the other businesses competing for this award, take a look at our shortlist for Wales and Northern Ireland.