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Wales and the Welsh are no longer a dismal joke

A decade after the first elections to the National Assembly of Wales, Harry Mount says that the principality is at last escaping its dire caricature. No, really

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

6 May 2009

12:00 AM

In the hall at Aberglasney — a fine, classical country house, built in 1720, 20 miles north-west of Swansea — high up by the cornice, an elaborate chunk of plasterwork is missing. To give the full catalogue entry, it is a rococo console, carved with twirling honeysuckles, a motif dear to the ancient Greeks.

I know, to my deep and lasting shame, where to find it. In fact I can see it now, on a mahogany stand next to my desk. Its protuberant plaster leaves provide a nice perch for my keys where I don’t forget them. For all its usefulness as a key perch, the console would look better glued back to the cornice in Aberglasney’s drawing room. And so I am returning it. It was 20 years ago that I took the console — a country-house-obsessed teenager on my year off, en route to my parents’ cottage in Pembrokeshire.

The house was in a terrible state, like the seat of a Welsh Miss Havisham. I climbed over a gate choked with nettles and rhododendrons as high as the gateposts. The roof of the house had fallen in. Its portico had been stolen and was about to be flogged at Christie’s. (An eagle-eyed Welsh antiquarian spotted the distinctive Ionic pillars in a sales catalogue and the portico has now been restored to its original site.) In front of the house there was a three-foot-deep pile of plaster fragments and damp, shattered wood. The console lay on top of the pile. If I didn’t take it, someone else would — that was my wicked logic, anyway. My excuse isn’t much helped by a recent Telegraph article in which another man admitted to pillaging Aberglasney 20 years before me — Neil Hamilton, the disgraced Tory MP, who grew up in nearby Ammanford.

Two decades on, that picture of sad ruin has utterly changed. Aberglasney has been restored, its rare Tudor cloister garden a honeypot for Carmarthenshire tourists. A decade after the first elections to the National Assembly of Wales, the restoration of Aberglasney is just one of many happy reversals in the story of Welsh architecture — and the story of Wales, too.

For so long, Wales has been a dismal joke, the butt of laddish sheep gags and nasty folklore (‘Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief’), the charmless cousin of Guinness-and-blarney Ireland and stags-and-malt-whisky Scotland. David Starkey was up to the same old routine last week on Question Time, when he called Wales ‘a feeble little country with a romantic 19th-century style nationalism’. And I’ve lost count of the number of English people who declare that they’ve never crossed the Severn — as if it’s some badge of honour, and not a shaming admission of a deep lack of curiosity.

Wales, like its architecture, has been marginalised for decades, mocked as a sad little wreck of a country, blighted first by industrialisation and then by rapid deindustrial-isation. Even the Prince of Wales had never lived in Wales until 2006, when he bought Llwynywermod, a farm with a 190-acre estate near Myddfai in Carmarthenshire. ‘I tried some 35 years ago to find somewhere in Wales,’ was the prince’s flimsy excuse, ‘but in those days it wasn’t so easy. At last I have a base.’

All the same, the prince has gone for a Welsh cliché — the farmhouse; he never would have considered a country house the size of Highgrove or Clarence House in humble old Wales. But at least he is finally able to spend a night under his own roof in his principality, unlike his recent predecessors. There hasn’t been a royal house in Wales since Charles II’s time, when he decommissioned the great mediaeval castles which had once, literally, been cradles for monarchs — Henry VII was born in Pembroke Castle in 1457.

Slowly, slowly, this unfair picture of Wales is changing — a mere half a millennium since the 1536 union. Part of the reason is the Welsh Assembly, not that it was a particularly popular idea at the time of its inception — in the 1997 referendum, on a turnout of only 50.12 per cent, the majority in favour was just 6,712 votes. A decade after the elections on 6 May 1999, the Assembly has distinctly limited powers — only since the Government of Wales Act 2006 has it had the power to initiate primary legislation, and that power is still subject to the veto of the Secretary of State for Wales or Parliament. It has limited tax-raising powers and far less control than the Scottish Parliament or the Northern Ireland Assembly. Still, it has abolished NHS prescription charges in Wales, imposed a flat rate for residential care and charges lower fees for Welsh students at Welsh universities.

However indifferent the Welsh are to the Assembly, its very existence makes the non-Welsh less likely to jump to their old conclusions — that the Welsh are a chippy, whining bunch. There’s less to whine about if you’re in charge, or at least a bit in charge. Attitudes to the English have changed, too. Last summer, I saw a Plaid Cymru MP marry off his daughter at the National Trust’s Dinefwr Park in Carmarthenshire, ancient seat of the Lords Dynevor. That wouldn’t have happened a decade ago.

There’s less to whine about, too, if you’re richer — and Wales, credit crunch notwithstanding, is richer. Rural Pembrokeshire — which for decades had the rare distinction of having the highest unemployment and lowest crime rate in Britain — has been hailed as the new Cornwall. The empty cliffs that I have walked for 30 years are beginning to fill with families dressed in Boden, heaving Cath Kidston picnic bags along the deep, wide beaches. Further east, the Swansea-Cardiff commuter belt now stretches from the Gower coast to the Welsh borders.

Cardiff itself has been spruced up, particularly the docks, home to the Assembly and its Senedd, or Senate, as Kingsley Amis would have called it. A great lover of Wales, Amis hated the gratuitous Welshification of English — taxi-tacsi and all that. Wales’s capital is once again the international hub it was when its old landlord, the Marquess of Bute, turned its docks into the world’s coal scuttle in the 19th century. Next to the grand new Millennium Stadium is the Marquess’s old home, Cardiff Castle, a unique palimpsest — Victorian splendour by William Burges, laid on top of a medieval castle, wrapped in a Norman motte and bailey, all on Roman foundations. A little further east are the finest baroque municipal buildings in Britain — the Edwardian city hall, law courts and National Museum of Wales (with a terrific Impressionist collection), built of gleaming white Portland stone.

The docks look onto Cardiff Bay and, beyond, to the Bristol Channel and the Somerset coast; behind the city, narrow green gulleys lead up to the valleys that produced the black gold that built the city. If you were in New York or London, you’d never stop banging on about this splendid combination of water, reclaimed industrial architecture and rural hinterland. Because it’s Wales, it must somehow be a lesser thing. It isn’t.

Harry Mount’s A Lust for Window Sills — a Lover’s Guide to British Buildings from Portcullis to Pebble-Dash is published by Little, Brown (£12.99).

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