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The Fantasy Village of Portmeirion

Originally published by British Heritage magazine. Published Online: June 12, 2006 
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In the unlikely setting of the coast of Wales, Clough Williams-Ellis created his vision of an Italianate village, complete with watchtower, grottos, a lighthouse, and a castle.

Until you have stood on the vast camel-coloured sands of the Dwyryd River estuary, where it starts to curl into the waters of Tremadog Bay, and gazed at a sweetshop confection of shocking-pink and turquoise cottages, lemon-yellow turrets and terra cotta and dove-grey roofs, you cannot really say that you have'seen the complete Wales' — even though the most recognizably Welsh things about the village of Portmeirion are the names of the place and of the man who dreamt it all up and saw it through.

It is almost 70 years since architect and new-town planner Clough Williams-Ellis came upon the overgrown headland of Aberia, at the head of the Porthmadog Bay in Meirionethshire. Covered in ancient trees and exotic shrubs, it seemed to Sir Clough almost too good to be true.

While serving in the army during World War I, Sir Clough had refined in his mind an idea he had since childhood. 'I had to dream of something other than the horror, destruction and savagery' of the war, he later remembered. His vision was of building an entire village set in a remote and tranquil setting and designed solely according to his own whims.

In the years following the war, this keen yachtsman combed offshore islands in search of a site on which to create his idyll, but he knew in his heart that the cost of transporting building materials to an island would be prohibitive. When he discovered the little-known Welsh peninsula of Aberia, he immediately recognized that it was a much more practical alternative. The name of the place, however, did not sound very Welsh, so he changed it to Portmeirion, rolled up his sleeves and, in 1925, got down to his life's work.

What a life it was. Sir Clough lived until 1978 when he was 95, and saw Portmeirion completed in 1973. It has changed little, except that the seaside-blue and white wedding cake hotel by the water's edge has risen phoenix-like and increased sumptuousness from the ashes of a near-disastrous fire in 1981, and that several of the cottages in the village are now available for holiday lets. In one of these cottages, perched on the very edge of the village and overlooking the estuary, whose sands can sometimes be covered by the tide in 15 minutes, Noel Coward wrote 'Blithe Spirit.'

Putting your own interpretation on Portmeirion is as much a part of a visit as browsing for Portmeirion pottery in the village shops. During my last visit to Portmeirion, as I followed people threading their way in and out of Georgian-styled colonnades, up flights of stone steps and down flights of fancy, peering into a goldfish pond, chuckling at all the trompe l'oeil, and resting in the shadow of the bell tower, I heard one say, 'Of course, you know it's not to be taken seriously.'

Sir Cough wanted to bestow a Mediterranean flavour on Portmeirion, which he partly conveyed by yew trees masquerading as cypresses. But the architect also delighted in incongruity. Where in Umbria would you find a giant Buddha under the shade of a pantiled loggia; where in Tuscany that so-English box tree topiary silhouetted against a yellow-ochre façade that's not quite the substantial house it seems?

One important impression of what Portmeirion is all about comes from Clough Williams-Ellis himself. The flamboyant architect, who liked to dress in knee breeches, large bow tie and yellow stockings, wrote a visitor guidebook to the village and provided the commentary that accompanies a video film made from still pictures of Portmeirion at its most romantic.

The film is shown every 20 minutes in a miniature cinema only yards from the village's colonnade. In it, Sir Clough tells how he became the man that local authorities or stately home owners would send for if they had decaying old structures they wanted removed. This reputation for collecting old buildings began when he heard that Emral Hall, in Flintshire, was scheduled for demolition. Sir Clough purchased much of the furnishings, including the sculpted ceiling of the ballroom, which depicts the adventures of Hercules, and brought it to Portmeirion where it was reconstructed to become the 'town hall.'

'Portmeirion should have been called The Home for Fallen Buildings,' Sir Clough once joked. He described the place as 'an architectural explosion,' saying that it is all'slightly bogus.' Everything in Portmeirion is scaled down, making it a village of 'archways you can walk through, but only just.'

But its creator's verbal explanation is not the best way to get a feeling for what Portmeirion is all about. Sir Clough expressed the belief that 'The place itself must do the talking, and you will approve or detest what it is trying to say according to your own individual bias. Pavlova, on being asked to explain what she meant by one of her dances, rather tartly replied: 'If I could put my meaning into words, do you think I would go to all the trouble of dancing it?' I feel a little that way myself, for if what I have actually planned and built can't reveal what I am after, still less will my words.'

Portmeirion strikes many visitors as very much like a stage set, and not just because people still associate it with the 1960s cult television series 'The Prisoner,' starring Patrick McGoohan, which was filmed here. Among the storybook scenery that greets visitors is a surrealist petrol pump; a statue of Hercules; the town hall that's nothing of the kind but makes a good meeting place; a 'Gloriette' that, as Sir Clough said,'serves no useful purpose' but is 'handsome and jolly'; and a dome that would not disgrace a cathedral city. The village also has several shops, including one selling Portmeirion pottery and gifts, an excellent bookshop and a 'Prisoner' information centre.

To encourage visitors to explore, Sir Clough provided them with more than 20 miles of woodland walks that criss-cross the peninsula and lead to secluded beaches all along the headlands. Some of the most evocative views awaiting walkers are of sun-dappled woods, and of sunsets beyond the tree-fringed shore. At the very least, people who wander downhill towards the hotel, perhaps to test its fine reputation for seafood, should continue on as far as the turret and light-house along the beach.

Although Clough Williams-Ellis said he preferred his landscapes to have people in them, this kingdom by the sea is never more romantic and evocative than when the day visitors have gone, leaving the piazza quiet in the cool of the evening.

Cars would be out of place in such a setting, and except for the busy little estate service vehicles and the occasional lorry rushing fresh supplies of fizzy drinks to the quaint village shops, they are not allowed.

Portmeirion's creator urged people to think of the place as 'light opera,' and it is indeed fun to be part of its chorus, not just when the sun shines but when sea mist introduces a soft focus.

Portmeirion is owned by a charitable family trust set up by Sir Clough and his daughter and son-in-law. It is managed by the founder's grandson, thus ensuring that it not sold or adversely developed, but that it remains as Sir Clough had envisioned it when he first set eyes upon this perfect sight for his dream village.

To see pictures and learn more about this fascinating place, visit the Portmeirion Village website at www.portmeirion-village.com/en/index.php.

This article was written by Bryn Frank for British Heritage.

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