Overlooking the Dwyryd estuary on a site that once meant ‘frozen mouth of river’ is a village that is best described as one man’s whimsical fancy. And walking through the quaint streets might seem like you’ve landed up in Italy or any Mediterranean seaside town — that too without leaving the UK coastline!
Portmeirion — a luxury resort that is equal parts living on a movie set and equal parts a man’s imagination set in the Mediterranean; equal parts Antoni Gaudi’s Barcelona as it is Alice’s Wonderland — is the brainchild of genius architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and is located around 5km from Porthmadog in northern Wales. Much of the village, which houses scaled down versions of mansions, has been built of bits and pieces salvaged from disintegrating houses and mansions Clough was working on through his career, recycling buildings much before the term became fashionable. Influential friends often chipped in, and so did lady luck.
Started in 1925, it took Clough 50 years to bring his vision to life (which is fine given that it took him 20 years to find the ideal location!). He wanted to show people that architecture could be aesthetic and yet functional, which is evident when you see a fireplace from a Tudor mansion form the stunning front facade of a building called the Dome, or a pig swill forming the top of the crown atop the Town Hall, which is actually a water heater, 33 of 35 mermaid insignias procured from yet another disintegrating job form a leitmotif of sorts for the village, among many other knick knacks.
There is no obvious connection between the architectural style of one building with another. In fact it’s a combination of baroque, classical, Gothic, Mediterranean, etc., coming together as what Clough called ‘architectural mongrel’ in pastel shades and white. Basically, he pretty much designed and did what he liked without a care in the world for stuffy rules. It made sense to him, and so it must to you. He’s even played tricks with your mind, making the buildings appear much larger than they actually are, painting windows without making them or using 3D art for a flat structure — all to trick the eye. Not one to desist from playing a joke on himself, Clough even got his face made into a gargoyle for one of the arches in The Bristol Colonnade.
All this just proves that there was much method to this projected madness. As Meurig Jones, the attraction manager at Portmeirion, says, “In the first block (Angel and Neptune), his head carpenter spent a long while putting the windows in place, and Clough climbed up on the wooden scaffold and threw away his spirit level, and punched the window, stating that he wanted it to look old and uneven! The roof of Neptune was built in a ‘bowing’ style, so as to make it look old and decrepit!” This story comes with a slight roll of the eyes and a laugh, both of which show how enamoured Jones is with the creator, whom he never had a chance to meet personally, but had sung for once at a school event as a young boy.
Jones describes with glee how Clough came to acquire the 17th century plaster ceiling for the Town Hall, which is now a popular space for weddings and concerts. In the 1930s, Clough heard that the Emral Hall in Flintshire was to be sold. He had wanted the unique Jacobean plaster ceiling depicting Hercules’ struggles and the astrological signs. So when the hall went under the hammer, Clough bid £13 for the whole ceiling, and walked away with it unopposed. After that he ended up paying hundreds of pounds for the rest of the building, but that’s just incidental. Now it stands atop 18th century wooden panels with 20th century electrical fittings, playing host to 21st century events. This incident just goes to show the extent to which Clough would go to realise his dream. No wonder then that his wife Amabel would constantly feel as if one day they’d go bankrupt.
Thankfully, that never happened, and now Portmeirion — with its 58-odd rooms and 13 self-catering cottages sprawled across 120 acres — is one of the little-known Welsh gems that not only attracts lots of visitors but weekend tourism as well. There are regular walks, music and cultural events held here, and it’s a very popular wedding destination. There are several restaurants, cafés and shops that sell the popular Portmeirion pottery (started by Clough’s daughter Susan). The village was also the locale for the 1960s popular drama The Prisoner and even an episode of Dr Who. There is a huge plaster of Paris Buddha from the 1958 film, The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman. Portmeirion even shares history with The Beatles.
All the buildings are historic monuments and the area has been designated conservation area, after all 70 acres form the woodlands called Y Gwllt. Taking a turn through the village, there are surprises and stories in every nook and cranny should you take the time to observe. Much like the Thai artist Chalermchai Kositpipat who created the quirky Wat Rong Khun in Chiang Rai, where Superman and Elvis share space with Buddha.
Clough died in 1978 at the age of 94, but in Portmeirion he left a huge part of himse
lf — an example of how a quaint model village can be functional as a sustainable eco-hotel, a luxury haven and all this achieved without spoiling the inherent natural beauty of the place.
If you’re someone who likes to make sense of things or are a great fan of symmetry, then let me tell you this, Portmeirion will drive you up the wall, but you will have so much fun while at it too. You will also walk away with a tiny insight into the mind of this eccentric architect through his buildings, leaving you wanting more. It’s a place where creativity thrives and the mind is tricked into relaxed intrigue.
How to get there
Porthmadog is around 5km from Portmeirion. There is no public transport as such, so if you don’t fancy a walk, then hire a cab. Though, for large groups, the resort can arrange for transport if told in advance.
9.30am – 7.30pm
You can either take a day tour of the place and attend a curated walk, or make a weekend of it by staying in one of the unique rooms at the property. Each room has a characteristic of its own and is fitted with all the modern facilities. There’s a lovely spa as well. Be sure to take a curated walk around the property and watch a biographical film on Sir Clough Williams-Ellis that’s shown on the premises.
For day visitors
Adults: £11 (full price £12)
Concession: (over 60) £9 (full price £10)*
Children: £7 (full price £8)
Family Tickets also available
*Concession: available with student card or for over 60s
These are variable and there are many discounts available. But an average cost would be around £320 a night.
For more details, visit http://www.portmeirion-village.com