PORTMEIRION is Britain’s most bizarre village. It is the lifelong project of an eccentric architect, and the Welsh village is eclectic, impish irreverent and constantly reinventing itself.
Constructed in the 1920s on the sandy DWYRYD estuary of North Wales, beneath SNOWDONIA’S majestic peaks, the buildings in PORTMEIRION run the “stylistic gamut” : Jacobean, Gothic, Norwegian and Regency. They are pink and red, green and ochre. Each roofline differs from the next.
Eclectic, eccentric PORTMEIRION is one of the most recognisable attractions in Wales. The lifelong project of an architect with a passion for beauty, it would have been easy for the village to be “frozen in time”, a relic of its 1920s heyday. Instead, it has continued to change and evolve. If there’s anything constant about PORTMEIRION —– other than its beauty — it is its capacity for reinvention.
In 1968, it was featured in the bizarre British Secret Agent television series : THE PRISONER. Britain was still going through a self-imposed period of post-war ugliness and it seemed that there was a “grown-up” in the country who believed in beauty. That “grown-up” a Welshman called Clough Williams-Ellis was born in 1883. He was a successful, but virtually self-taught architect —– and he despaired of the 20th century’s attachment to “functionalism” and “brutalism”. He wanted to show, as he once wrote, “that buildings, properly situated within a landscape, could actually enhance the scenery”.
In 1925, Williams-Ellis bought a small estate on the edge of Snowdonia and started proving his point by building on pretty, wooded slopes that ran down to the estuary. There was, already, a gentleman’s residence on the estate which he immediately turned into a hotel. Williams-Ellis always intended that his village —— which he called PORTMEIRION, a fanciful name coined from MERIONETHSHIRE, one of the 13 historic counties of Wales ——— would be a tourist destination.
There were a few other buildings, too, mainly stables and outbuildings, which Williams-Ellis embellished in a colourful manner that owed more to style than necessity. CLOUGHED UP became a fashionable term for his technique. He painted shutters and the façade of one cottage, attached a statue of St. Peter to another. His approach was as irreverent as his style. He would draw his concept, then let his builders work out how to achieve it.
But most of the village was new —— in the sense that new uses were found for old, salvaged pieces of architecture. In the years after World War — 1 & 2, modernising architects were demolishing a lot of Britain’s architectural heritage. Williams-Ellis acquired buildings or their parts to reuse ——– so much so that he declared PORTMEIRION ” a home for fallen buildings”. His pseudo TOWN HALL, for example, used a carved Jacobean ceiling that the architect purchased and also recycled an upturned pig-boiler, to create a copper-painted coronet on its spire.
PORTMEIRION plays impishly with the perspective, too, UNICORN, a pink Palladian “cottage” has far fewer steps to get from the road outside to the front door : the NEO-CLASSICAL façade, tacked on to the building, makes it look much larger, from far away, than it really is.
Williams-Ellis and his writer wife Amabel hoped that their village would inspire painters. But artists never arrived ——– perhaps, ironically, because PORTMEIRION was already a “work of art”. Still, thanks to Amabel’s contacts, with the London literati, many celebrities were soon accepting invitations, including the playwright George Bernard Shaw, novelist H. G. Wells, architect Frank Lloyd Wright and director Noel Coward who famously wrote his play BLITHE SPIRIT here in 1941, having left London to escape the Luftwaffe Bombing). ——————- When Edward, Prince of Wales ——- perhaps the most eligible man of his generation ——–came to visit in 1943, Williams-Ellis added a private suite to one of the hotel rooms and temporarily increased the village’s entrance fee to 1pound, to keep down day-tripper numbers. By World War -2, PORTMEIRION had become a “visual and social phenomenon”, so much so that Williams-Ellis bought a hotel in the Shropshire Market Town of Shrewsbury, to act as a half-way house for those motoring up from London.
In the 1960s, there was a sliding-scale of admission charges indicated on the toll-house wall : payment depended on whether you were a resident, annual pass member or day-tripper. (“residents” referred to overnight guests at the resort as no one, aside from Ellis, owned property). Not that the prices were always followed. The cost of a day-pass could suddenly go up in the middle of the day if the village got too crowded, as Ellis wanted his residents to feel relaxed and at home. For all his quirky instincts as an architect, Williams-Ellis had a clear streak of British pragmatism. He needed PORTMEIRION to pay for itself or he would not be able to fund his vision.
Today, PORTMEIRION is always busy. And, while fine dining is still offered in the hotel’s art-decoding room, the village is more egalitarian, the sliding-scale of prices abolished.
It seemed surprising that such a famous anomaly could survive into the 21st century —— never mind become more popular than ever before. “The village has always muddled along. Various members of the family have often pursued their own interests, but, somehow, this has worked to the long-term benefit of PORTMEIRION,” says Williams-Ellis’ grandson and PORTMEIRION’S MD, the writer —– Robin. Susan, Williams-Ellis’ daughter founded PORTMEIRION POTTERY, ceramics based on her original designs, in Stoke-on-Trent in 1960.
Clough Williams-Ellis always wanted PORTMEIRION to be a place for things to happen, where events might take place, to be a setting. He did not like the idea of PORTMEIRION being, in any way, a “sterile museum of architecture”.