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BOOK

REVIEW

Buildings of Wales: Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion By Thomas Lloyd, Julian Orbach and Robert Scourfield. Yale UP, 2006.661 pp. £29.95

After a while with this new Pevsner Buildings of Wales volume, you wonder how you could ever have felt there wasn't much architectural interest in a large swathe of south-west Wales. True, there are still no world-class masterpieces, no cities at all in the common sense of the word, almost nothing most people will know.

All of which makes the search an adventure. There are fascinating places no one has previously written about, like the Victorian church at Pontargothi by Benjamin Bucknall, the translator of Viollet-le-Duc, with an interior covered in paintings, or the medieval building at Eglwys Cymun made more ancient by its SPAB restorer and containing woodwork 'like a stage-set ship's cabin' by Philip Webb. Carmarthen may not have the most complete Welsh castles, but it possesses some of the most curious, like Laugharne, filled with a recreated Victorian garden traversed by paths paved in cockleshells. Here Dylan Thomas wrote in the gazebo.

People keep pushing their way into the story, like the local connoisseur whose antiquities have disappeared, except for a circular window in pink stone reputed to hail from Fatehpur Sikri, Akbar's new city in Rajasthan. Like also the 14thcentury poet who wrote about watching the local girls in church at Llanbadarn Fawr.

It doesn't seem irrelevant to mention literary associations, the Song of Roland translated into Welsh in the disappeared monastery at Llanbadarn, the Black Book of Carmarthen assembled somewhere else, for Welsh culture has often been fragile or under threat and is often transmitted better in words than in buildings.

One can also enjoy the idea of wizards hovering round.

A burned-out ruin recalls a magician who prophesied his own death. The Welsh name for Carmarthen means 'fort of Merlin'. The introduction on vernacular buildings summons up the benighted world of practically windowless dwellings bare of furniture except for beds, lacking even doors; buildings whose disappearance the authors wistfully note. Just one illustration and description and it becomes harder to lament the loss of the hovels; a few reminders are enough.

Another class of building no longer neglected is the nonconformist chapel. Those at Carmarthen are given four pages of sharp and serious architectural description. This is extremely well done, attending to Welsh buildings as they are, not as substitutes for English models.

The whole picture also needs to include the see-saw of building and destruction which attaches to the castles. This tangled story is well summarised in introductions to full accounts of the principal castles, where one is often guessing from slender remains.

Recently a room at Kidwelly formerly viewed as a prison has been redesignated a household official's office, and the pit in its oor has become a safe for keeping valuables instead of a torture cell.

So far the pleasures have been small scale, and the most striking later monument, Seddon's University College at Aberystwyth, built as a hotel, has gone unmentioned. Two recent initiatives only possible through Lottery funding suggest a jump in scale: Foster's National Botanic Garden of Wales near Llanarthne, with the world's largest single-span greenhouse, and the Millennium Coastal Park between Llanelli and Pembrey, which reclaims 23km of polluted industrial coast by capping the poisoned soil with a mixture of ash from a power station, treated sewage and harbour silt. Both projects have slowed or faltered for lack of continuing support, but like this work of dedicated scholarship that opens one's eyes to so many new things, they bode well for Wales.

Robert Harbison is a professor at London Metropolitan University

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