Once editor of the Times, now a columnist on the Guardian, Sir Simon Jenkins is also an expert on architecture and heritage. As he takes over as chairman of the National Trust, he tells Rebecca Willis about the wonders of his world...
From INTELLIGENT LIFE Magazine, Winter 2008
1 WORK OF ART TAJ MAHAL, AGRA
I first saw it at dawn, which is when you’re meant to see it, and I remember thinking “this is the most beautiful thing I have ever seen.” It was partly the perfection of the proportion; the materials and the light, even the slight smog, make it beautiful. It seems to float and shimmer. I was also moved by the story of love and loss behind it. There is the sense of it being fragile, an infinitely vulnerable work of art; everything from the actions of man to earthquakes is capable of destroying it, and it’s an achievement that we have managed to keep it. It’s a potentially transient work of art, something it has in common with Venice.
2 JOURNEY THE WYE VALLEY
This is the defining place of the Romantic Movement. In the 1780s [the Reverend William] Gilpin published his description of the Wye Valley as Arcadia in Britain, so people went to see it and came back captivated. The journey takes you from Chepstow, with its majestic castle, upstream to Tintern Abbey, Monmouth, Symonds Yat and farther on through Wales to the wilds of the mid-Wales mountains. I’ve driven it a few times and I’ve walked bits of Offa’s Dyke, but my dream would be to go up on a boat as they used to do in the old days.
3 BEACH MUIZENBERG, SOUTH AFRICA
This (top) is one of the world’s great beaches. I used to go to South Africa a lot as a young journalist and look from Cape Town towards this beach, a great huge sweep of sand from Table Mountain to the Indian Ocean. The early black settlements were taking place along it, but only the whites could use the beach. I remember thinking how different it would be one day. It embodied the scenery and politics of South Africa at the time. Now it’s very populated; parts of it are gorgeous and others are dangerous—some bits I wouldn’t go near.
4 VIEW THE LLEYN PENINSULA, WALES
Tre’r Ceiri is the most remarkable Iron Age fort in Britain, and I always argue that the view from the top is as good as the view from Machu Picchu. You have the huts in front of you where the people lived, then the great wall of the fortress, then the most spectacular views beyond. You can see the three mountains on the same peninsula known as the Rivals, the entire sweep of Cardigan Bay, St David’s Head in the south, the mountains of Snowdonia and the island of Anglesey. I am half Welsh, so it’s partly my country, which may explain why I’m drawn there.
5 CITY VENICE
Anyone who goes to Venice is aware that it is a city unlike any other city, because it still exists without modern forms of transportation. It is a place that explains why cities can work so well—because when people walk and the buildings are not gargantuan, then the buildings talk to each other and so do the people. It also shows old cities can live today without having to be rebuilt. I was knocked out by my first visit there, that unique combination of water and brick and stone. It’s a very romantic place, like a fantasy, and I love the fact that there are no straight lines anywhere—everything is curved.
6 BUILDING HARDWICK HALL, DERBYSHIRE
I first saw Hardwick Hall at dusk with the setting sun reflected in the windows—it looks as if it is on fire. It is sensational, a sort of northern, mildly brutal Taj Mahal. Windows were a sign of wealth, and about half the surface area is glass. It is the defining house of the Elizabethan renaissance, and of course it has attached to it the extraordinary story of Bess of Hardwick building like there was no tomorrow with fanatical ostentation to create a shimmering palace on a hill. And she built it in the shadow of her old house, 100 yards away, to show off to her guests. Inside there is an astonishing staircase from the Hall to the High Great Chamber, and leading from that is the Long Gallery, one of the great rooms of England, with its tapestries and paintings.
7 HOTEL SAMODE PALACE, RAJASTHAN
Samode Palace is about an hour north-west of Jaipur in the mountains. It’s the most romantic hotel in the world. As you approach across the desert you see a cleft in the mountainside and in the cleft you see the turrets of the old palace, above the cobbled streets and houses of the village. You pass camels and palm trees and clamber up through the gate of the old palace; your room has a fountain and palms in it. The food was very Victorian—mulligatawny and curried lamb, bread-and-butter pudding, that sort of thing. Our toothpaste was stolen by monkeys. I went there about ten years ago; I wrote an article about it and apparently I ruined it.
"Wales: Churches, Houses, Castles" by Simon Jenkins was published by Allen Lane in December
(Rebecca Willis is Associate Editor at Intelligent Life.)