PortmeirionAn Italian Seaside Village in Wales
This wedge of land nudging out into the shallow eddies of the northernmost crook of Cardigan Bay is so sheltered that it boasts its own microclimate. Its warm slopes support vegetation that would perish just a few miles away.
With bold lines, an ornate upper case hand, and lush watercolour palette, Clough Williams-Ellis’s architectural drawings are reminiscent of Tolkien’s maps and landscapes of Middle Earth. While both depict a fantasy world, it was perfect harmony between nature and architecture that this prolific 20th century architect dreamed of. It is a small miracle that so many of Williams-Ellis’s drawings survived, exposed as they were to fires in warehouses, the chaos of war, and abandonment in a damp cellar. While many of his buildings have not been so lucky over the years, his greatest work, the Welsh seaside village of Portmeirion, has endured. This strange Shangri-la rises picturesquely from the southern side of a squarish peninsula, bounded on either side by twin estuaries. When he became its new owner, Aber Iâ, or ‘estuary of ice’ as it was then known, was unkempt and wild. The only structure of note amongst its tangle of trees was the home of the reclusive late Miss Haig and the pack of dogs that had kept her company. The location was both magical and convenient, lying just five miles from Plas Brondanw, the ramshackle house he had recently inherited. Williams-Ellis disapproved of his new secret kingdom’s somewhat chilly appellation, and risked the disapproval of Ordnance Survey by renaming it Portmeirion. With dome, campanile and gloriette, the mix of styles he accrued over five decades of construction can startle the purist. They are evidence, however, of Williams-Ellis’s intention to create a living folly embodying his ‘vivifying principle’ – a sense of balance brought about by architectural forms designed to complement their natural setting. This principle was exemplified for him in Mediterranean fishing villages such as Portofino, which may have inspired his choice of name, and far eastern architectural styles which he saw as “a fusion of conscious art with nature”.
His initial designs, drawn in black ink on linen in 1925, show a cluster of buildings seen from both land and sea. While some are neo-English vernacular, the ornate tower is clearly Italianate. It is a blend of styles he came back to over and over again. By Easter 1926, Miss Haig’s house had been refurbished as a hotel, and the idiosyncratic country cottages Angel and Neptune were rising. A third cottage, Mermaid, constructed from the shell of a gardener’s residence, completed the heart of the village. Across the green stands the Town Hall, one of Williams-Ellis’s so-called ‘fallen buildings’. It incorporates windows, doors and ceilings salvaged from Emral Hall in Flintshire, which was granted reprieve from definitive oblivion when he bought it piecemeal. In true magpie style, the hybrid structure is topped off with a cupola made from an upturned pig boiler. Having earned a reputation as a saviour of doomed buildings, offers of architectural flotsam and jetsam flooded in from across the country, yet only a few fit his grand vision. Among them was The Colonnade, originally built in 1760 to grace the bathhouse of wealthy Bristolian smelter.
Architecture is only half the story of Portmeirion, and Williams-Ellis was always just as proud of its natural beauty. This wedge of land nudging out into the shallow eddies of the northernmost crook of Cardigan Bay is so sheltered that it boasts its own microclimate. Its warm slopes support vegetation that would perish just a few miles away. He particularly revelled in this exuberance of flora, and its well tended grounds are a draw to this day, most notable for cascades of spring blossoms, gingkos, tree ferns, and rhododendron thickets. While early attempts to spice up the local fauna by introducing a species of green lizard failed, the peninsula plays host to a special strain of Persian cat. Descended from the pets of a former resident, they extend their languid dominion over The Green and the humid woods beyond.
Portmeirion was never conceived of as a populist scheme and as the years went by, Williams-Ellis went to great efforts to conserve what he called its ‘remember where you are’ atmosphere. In the early days, a half crown toll (a hefty 20 – 27 GBP in today’s money) had been enough to put off all but the most well heeled, but the upheaval of war swept away the old order. To the new emancipated working classes, a half crown was no longer much of a deterrent. So controllable access gates were built and cars were banned to keep the hordes at bay, as was excessive signage and advertising. While Portmeirion calls itself a village, stringent measures are still in place and it is very much private property, with most buildings pressed into service as hotel accommodation. Day trippers must part with 10 GBP for the privilege of strolling across the cobbles of Battery Square, cars and dogs are not welcome, and you are politely requested to make yourself scarce before dinner. While many warned Williams-Ellis that his folly was financial as well as architectural, time only saw Portmeirion’s coffers swell. During the later years of his life, his main preoccupation was to protect his life’s work from being ruined by over development – or as he put it in a speech on his 90th birthday, “blowing up what had been conceived as an elegant little mouse into a bloated and clumsy cow”. In 1971, it was declared a protected landmark. Against the odds, his vision – like his drawings – has been preserved largely as it was at the time of his death in 1978.
On the 14th of September 2012, Portmeirion entered a new phase when it opened its gates to 6,500 revellers for the inaugural Festival Nº 6, named for Agent Number Six in The Prisoner, a cult TV hit filmed here in the 1960s. Now in its third year, numbers have swelled to 10,000, and for three nights of the year, Portmeirion is brighter and louder than anywhere else on this lonely stretch of Welsh coast. Such large numbers of visitors bent on such enthusiastic celebration might not seem congruent, on first blush, with Clough Williams-Ellis’s rather restrained ideals, but it would do us well to remember that this was a man who asked for his ashes to be used to make a marine rocket that was included in a New Year’s Eve firework display over Portmeirion Estuary. Given that this was a man who obviously appreciated that flamboyant gestures were necessary for a good party, we can be fairly sure he would have approved.