Welcome to the pleasure dome

Yes, the Welsh have one, too. And, unlike the white elephant in London, it's thriving

Like Xanadu and London, Tywi Valley now has its very own stately pleasure dome. Unlike its Greenwich counterpart, however, the Welsh Millennium dome has no known detractors, and is exceeding all attendance forecasts by almost 40 per cent.

Like Xanadu and London, Tywi Valley now has its very own stately pleasure dome. Unlike its Greenwich counterpart, however, the Welsh Millennium dome has no known detractors, and is exceeding all attendance forecasts by almost 40 per cent.

The dome, the world's largest single-span glasshouse, is the centrepiece of the recently opened National Botanic Garden of Wales at Llanarthne. Designed by Sir Norman Foster's firm, this giant glistening dewdrop that appears to have been distilled on the Carmarthenshire countryside was intended to echo the gentle contours of the surrounding hills. Never can concrete, steel and glass - those ubiquitous components of modern architecture - have been employed more effectively. It won an award last week from the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors, while the London dome did not make the shortlist.

Twenty-four tubular arches support almost 800 panes of glass which help to create a year-round Mediterranean climate in the 300ft arena beneath. As you browse among its parched screes and sandstone terraces or descend into man-made ravines between lake and waterfall, platoons of computer-controlled windows are gently opening or closing above your head to maintain the desired temperature. Fans suspended around the dome's circumference simulate tropical breezes.

Though the great glasshouse is, understandably, the prime attraction for visitors, it is only part of the £44m garden project. Executives here are naturally wary of being drawn into comparisons with the London dome which might prove odious, but the director of horticulture, Ivor Stokes, does venture one telling observation. "We knew from the beginning what we wanted to put in our dome," he said firmly.

What that involved was the creation of five ecosystems to mimic those of Australia, California, Chile, South Africa and the Mediterranean basin. Many of the trees and shrubs here are threatened with extinction in their native environments. One section features a burnt landscape with trees charred as though by some recent forest fire - a common enough event in many regions.

This, then, is Britain's most popular leisure activity - gardening - served up with an ecological message for the 21st century. It is the latest symbol of Welsh identity, among such established national institutions as the Assembly, National Library, the University of Wales and the hallowed rugby shrine of the Millennium Stadium.

Like most successful ventures, it began as the inspiration of a single individual: William Wilkins, a former Greater London Council exhibitions officer-turned-artist. There would be time later for steering committees and business plans, but the initial idea was his.

It is only four years since we waded through thigh-high grass on a neglected Carmarthenshire hillside and Wilkins talked somewhat fancifully, it seemed then, of restoring the 18th-century Middleton Hall estate and transforming its 568 acres into the first large-scale botanic garden to be built in Britain for two centuries.

Scepticism was misplaced, however: thanks to a £21m Millennium Commission grant, the Wilkins dream is now rapidly becoming a reality. In its first three months 140,000 people paid to enter the grounds, not far short of the attendance estimate of 175,000 for the entire year. Like any other garden, of course, it will take time to reach maturity, a good enough reason for return visits.

But staff are already planning for the moment when the public's initial curiosity wears off. Among the garden's strategies for luring visitors from around Britain and abroad are performances of suitable music by the National Orchestra of Wales String Ensemble, beginning on 4 November with 'Autumn' from Vivaldi's Four Seasons. The first of two editions of Gardeners' Question Time has just been recorded there.

The estate was once owned by Sir William Paxton, a former master of the Calcutta Mint and agent for the East India Company. He returned to Britain with sufficient means to pursue a parliamentary career and a number of more commendable ambitions, which included the supply of piped water to Carmarthen town and the development of Middleton. To assist him in the latter enterprise he employed Samuel Lapidge, a former colleague and admirer of Capability Brown. The result was a distinguished garden created in the contemporary manner, with water running through it as a natural thread, creating no fewer than seven lakes.

Sadly, after Paxton's days the estate deteriorated. Lakes were drained and in 1931 the mansion he had commissioned as his family home was burnt down.

Eventually the site was bought by Carmarthenshire County Council, which, before giving the land for its present use, leased it as smallholdings. This proved to be no bad thing for the present occupants, according to Stokes. "Tenant farmers did not have the cash or inclination to lavish fertilisers and pesticides on their land, which consequently remained unspoilt," he said.

We started our tour at the circular gatehouse. Another Foster creation, the timber construction was based on that of ancient Welsh roundhouses, some of which have been reconstructed at Castellhenllys in nearby Pembrokeshire.

The building's flat roof slopes gently inwards to channel rainwater down into a central pool. At first sight, the gleaming copper-and-silver floor of the pool appears to be some attractive Modernist mosaic, but on closer inspection turns out to be the result of the British compulsion to throw coins into any patch of standing water.

The spine of the garden is a broadwalk shaped like an ammonite to commemorate the life of a 17th-century Welsh scholar and founder of palaeontology. From a pebble-lined fountain the path climbs more steeply to the summit, where the greenhouse and administrative buildings stand. (Buggies are provided for the elderly and disabled.)

Lined by vividly coloured herbaceous borders, our path skirted a unique double-walled garden which remains from Middleton's past. It will not open to the public until refurbishment is complete. This corner of Wales enjoys - if that is the word - an annual rainfall of 72 inches: even on the driest summer day, water gurgles through a pebble-lined rill that meanders down the broadwalk.

Middleton Hall's former coachhouse and stables now house an exhibition space, shop and a self-service restaurant. A former barn has been turned into a replica of a late-19th-century pharmacy called Apothecaries' Hall, a reminder of times when most medicines were extracted from plants.

It was not far from here that the popular legend of the Lady of the Lake was set. The tale is a simple one: young man meets fairy maiden, marries her, then loses her, after what might now be termed serial domestic violence. Before disappearing finally into the lake from which she had emerged, the fairy commends to her sons a healing mission. They should, she says, treat the sick with remedies derived from herbs collected on the surrounding mountains.

Strangely, there is a real-life tradition hereabouts of plant medicine administered by the Physicians of Myddfai, whose descendants practised into modern times. Perhaps, if Wales had had its national garden then, they would be doing so still.

election 2015The 10 best quotes of the campaign
A caravan being used as a polling station in Ford near Salisbury, during the 2010 election
election 2015The Independent's guide to get you through polling day
David Blunkett joins the Labour candidate for Redcar Anna Turley on a campaigning visit last month
voicesWhat I learnt from my years in government, by the former Home Secretary David Blunkett
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Guru Careers: Dining Room Head Chef

    £32K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Dining Room Head Chef to work for one of ...

    Guru Careers: Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Chef

    £27K: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Pastry Sous Chef / Experienced Pastry Che...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Recruitment Genius: Technical Supervisor

    £24800 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: As one of London's leading Muse...

    Day In a Page

    General Election 2015: ‘We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon’, says Ed Balls

    'We will not sit down with Nicola Sturgeon'

    In an exclusive interview, Ed Balls says he won't negotiate his first Budget with SNP MPs - even if Labour need their votes to secure its passage
    VE Day 70th anniversary: How ordinary Britons celebrated the end of war in Europe

    How ordinary Britons celebrated VE Day

    Our perception of VE Day usually involves crowds of giddy Britons casting off the shackles of war with gay abandon. The truth was more nuanced
    They came in with William Caxton's printing press, but typefaces still matter in the digital age

    Typefaces still matter in the digital age

    A new typeface once took years to create, now thousands are available at the click of a drop-down menu. So why do most of us still rely on the old classics, asks Meg Carter?
    Discovery of 'missing link' between the two main life-forms on Earth could explain evolution of animals, say scientists

    'Missing link' between Earth's two life-forms found

    New microbial species tells us something about our dark past, say scientists
    The Pan Am Experience is a 'flight' back to the 1970s that never takes off - at least, not literally

    Pan Am Experience: A 'flight' back to the 70s

    Tim Walker checks in and checks out a four-hour journey with a difference
    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics - it's everywhere in the animal world

    Humans aren't alone in indulging in politics

    Voting, mutual back-scratching, coups and charismatic leaders - it's everywhere in the animal world
    Crisp sales are in decline - but this tasty trivia might tempt back the turncoats

    Crisp sales are in decline

    As a nation we're filling up on popcorn and pitta chips and forsaking their potato-based predecessors
    Ronald McDonald the muse? Why Banksy, Ron English and Keith Coventry are lovin' Maccy D's

    Ronald McDonald the muse

    A new wave of artists is taking inspiration from the fast food chain
    13 best picnic blankets

    13 best picnic blankets

    Dine al fresco without the grass stains and damp bottoms with something from our pick of picnic rugs
    Barcelona 3 Bayern Munich 0 player ratings: Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?

    Barcelona vs Bayern Munich player ratings

    Lionel Messi scores twice - but does he score highest in our ratings?
    Martin Guptill: Explosive New Zealand batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Explosive batsman who sets the range for Kiwis' big guns

    Martin Guptill has smashed early runs for Derbyshire and tells Richard Edwards to expect more from the 'freakish' Brendon McCullum and his buoyant team during their tour of England
    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'