"The Welsh are hard-wired to aesthetic defeatism"

How Welsh is Welsh architecture? And why aren’t the English bothered?

Sir Simon Jenkins, who began his starry and pithily opinionated journalistic career writing for Country Life magazine in the 1960s, is happily letting his conservationist sideline take over his life. After two earlier volumes in this series, devoted respectively to English churches and houses, the publication of his latest volume on all kinds of buildings in Wales coincides with his taking over as chairman of The National Trust. This means he is now actually in charge of a large chunk of the heritage he writes about. It’s a rare privilege.

Jenkins has always got up early and put in the legwork. He is a tireless twister of church doorhandles, a tramper of the hallways and kitchens and attics of great and offbeat houses alike. With his annual mileage, he must be the principal beneficiary of the collapse in the oil price. With his connections, he could (and doubtless does) get in anywhere, but instead he chooses to write up only those properties that are open to the public in some form or other. What he assesses, we can go to see, and make our own judgments. One can criticise this – after all, it’s nice to learn about the secret places, too – but it’s a successful formula, and he’s not going to change it now.

This, then, is a project which has become a mini-series. Wales being small, in this volume he can cover both churches and houses, which of course includes castles. He knows the territory, he is a Jenkins, his father was Welsh, he has a house in Aberdyfi as well as London. And it’s clearly satisfying to have such a handily-sized bit of country as your subject. England sprawls, and has many characters. Wales is compact, and broadly has only two: north and south. Within those chunks, some parts are more Welsh in feel, some more English, but all are distinct. They must be, otherwise the Welsh would not be the butt of so much English humour (and Welsh humour, come to that, which I’ll return to).

England and Wales may have been one administrative area for the past 500 years, but nobody ever thinks of them as being essentially the same place. Odd, really, when, as Jenkins points out, Wales has a very long and porous border with England, and is far closer to the English centre of things than other former Celtic strongholds such as Northumbria and Cornwall. Why aren’t those places more like Wales, he ponders? Why are their identities less distinct?

“England seemed merely the sum of its parts while Wales is far more,” Jenkins says of his travels. “Its most notable buildings are interlinked with its history by the paradox that the majority were the work of an invading and occupying power, England. As a result, any exploration of the Welsh landscape throbs with self-consciousness and renders the concept of the ‘Welshness’ in a building particularly challenging.” Consequently, many of the best buildings in this book were designed and built by the English. Such as the Romanesque-revival Penrhyn Castle near Bangor, a fantastical Regency and early Victorian concoction built by an English MP who had come into a vast Welsh inheritance. It was designed by an over-the-top English architect, Thomas Hopper. Jenkins gives it top marks.

He is a one-Wales man. North-south division notwithstanding, there is a place from which you can just about see the whole principality laid out before you, he says This is the summit of Aran Fawddwy in mid-Wales. From Snowdonia in the north to the Brecon Beacons in the south, the English Marches to the east and Cardigan Bay to the West, there it all lies. “No place in Europe offers such an encompassing vista of one country. From this vantage point there is no obvious sign of human settlement. There is only landscape…whatever else Wales may or may not be, it is unquestionably one place.”

Unquestionably? One thinks of kiss-me-quick Rhyl in the north, and staid St. David’s with its mini-cathedral in the south, and wonders if they are really in the same place. But this comes back to that business of distinctiveness. Neither is quite English, that’s for sure.

The bulk of the book is structured in the now familiar, very accessible manner. Jenkins selects all the buildings he reckons are interesting, and gives each a description and a star rating, from one to four. While his English churches and houses volumes include a Top 100 apiece, here you get “Wales’s Top 30”, from the fantasy village of Portmeirion to Powis Castle. This is indeed a pocket-sized principality, so no wonder the Senedd, the new Welsh Assembly building in Cardiff by Richard Rogers (three stars) is smaller than many an English Town Hall.

He likes the rampantly picturesque buildings, whether Victorian (Castell Coch by William Burges – another Englishman) or present day (the scarcely less overwrought Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff, never call it an opera house, by the very Welsh Jonathan Adams). But he is aware of the faults of these places. Castell Coch “has too much the image of a Robin Hood film set,” he says, while the Millennium Centre “has been likened to an armadillo, a turtle and a slug”. Fair comment from a man who, as a Millennium Commissioner, had quite a hand in getting it built.

So the guide part is useful, his concise history of Wales excellent, but more interesting to the casual reader is Jenkins’ attempt to get to grips with that tricky sense of Welsh inferiority. He gets round this largely by quoting others, carefully. “The Welsh are said to be hard-wired to aesthetic defeatism, if not to visual philistinism,” says Jenkins, who refutes the philistinism claim. Even so, Wales could match England architecturally reasonably well until the economic decline of the 20th century, when it all went wrong. Jenkins does not mince his words. “By the middle of the century the story of Welsh buildings is of a country that appeared to have lost identity and heart,” he says. And it’s not just the individual buildings – the quality of urban planning was dire.

“Wales is the world capital of the self-deprecating remark,” he says. So where does it come from, this visual defeatism in a land of such extraordinary natural beauty? Perhaps, as he quotes the artist Kyffin Williams, it is to do with an innate Welsh desire for “the seam of melancholy that is in most Welshmen and that derives from the dark hills, the heavy clouds, and the enveloping sea mists.”

Jenkins, you conclude, is as baffled by Welshness as anyone. But also enchanted. He loves this place, the mystery and oddness of it. Knowing it and loving it, he has produced an excellent book about it. “The English are starkly ignorant of Wales,” he remarks. There’s your answer. Wales has remained Welsh because the English just can’t be bothered with it.

“Wales: churches, houses, castles” by Simon Jenkins, pub Allen Lane £25. Hardback, 292 pages, full colour.

© Hugh Pearman. Review of “Wales: churches, houses, castles” by Simon Jenkins. First published in The Sunday Times, 14th December 2008.