Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion’s creator, was born in 1883 and built Portmeirion Village in two phases: between 1925 and 1939, and from 1954 to 1976. The following is a very brief history of the Italianate village which is beloved by local people and visitors from all over the world.
Portmeirion Village was Clough’s dream for more than thirty years. As a small boy of five or six, he had already made his mind up to be an architect and a town planner. He decided that one day he would choose a site and build a group of buildings for his own satisfaction.
“Thus, for more than a generation the Portmeirion Idea simmered or boiled within me waiting its chance to be born, which required (besides me and my dream) capital, the appropriate site and a vivifying principle, a use, a job, that would make and keep it viable.”
He knew early on that the village would need to depend on tourism for its income, and realised that the site would need to be both beautiful and coastal for this to work: “…a holiday retreat for the more discerning.”
When Clough first started scouting out sites for his project, he looked exclusively at islands: “…as nowhere else, it seemed to me, should I be safe from the spreading infection of the bungalow virus and the destructive brutality of speculative development.” After visiting 22 islands he eventually found one that was ‘remotely suitable’ for the task, and made a half-hearted bid on it, only to find himself feeling relieved when negotiations broke down.
Eventually the ideal location presented itself: a private peninsula off the Snowdonia coast, where a hundred-year-old mansion, weed-choked and overgrown, was for sale. Its most recent occupant had been an old lady so eccentric and reclusive that even her nearest neighbours were refused entry (it was rumoured that the woman was a ‘proto-nudist’). Clough bought the house, and its land, and Deudraeth Castle, saving the latter from becoming an “institution for the treatment of delinquent youths of low intelligence” – a fate that the estate’s trustees had been considering until Clough stepped in. Later in the castle’s history, it would become home to an evacuated prep school for seven years during the Second World War.
After changing the estate’s name from Aber Ia, which he felt sounded ‘chilly’, to Portmeirion – “”Meirion” giving its county and “Port” placing it on its coast” – Clough decided to create his village as a tribute to Portofino, the Italian village with which he had fallen in love.
After less than a year of preparation, the original old house opened at Easter 1926 as an unlicensed hotel. Two new cottages, the Angel and the Neptune, provided extra accommodation. As improvements were gradually made, year after year, the hotel became so popular that guests had to be turned away. In the years that followed, the ‘essential dominant structures’ – the Watch-house, the Campanile and the Chantry – were built, later to be linked informally with ‘less important’ buildings.
During World War II building restrictions meant little could be done to continue the construction of the village; just a little landscaping and a limited amount of urgent maintenance took place at that time. During the wartime years Portmeirion unofficially became a place for airmen to enjoy their leave – among them the Dambusters’ commanding officer, Guy Gibson.
Clough had a penchant for saving interesting architectural features of other properties from destruction. Such was the case when he saw an article in Country Life which said that an old Flintshire mansion that Clough had visited in his youth, Emral Hall, was due for demolition. Clough bought the barrel-vaulted 17th century ceiling of its ballroom, arriving at the mansion just in time for the start of the auction. He paid just £13 for the ceiling, but also spent thousands of pounds in buying, transporting and re-erecting the rest of the room including the old leaded glass in its mullioned windows, the fire grate, oak cornices and architraves. And thus was born Portmeirion’s Town Hall, which today is often used for wedding ceremonies and celebrations.
Having established a reputation as a rescuer of dilapidated buildings, Clough often received notifications of buildings with interesting architectural features that were due for demolition, resulting in many of Portmeirion’s most famous features – including the Bristol Colonnade. The cannons guarding the battlements of ‘The Battery’ came from Fort Belan on the Foryd, near Caernarfon.
By 1963, when Clough wrote his book “Portmeirion: The Place & Its Meaning”, the village had its own garden centre, as well as shops selling antiques, clothing, books and gifts. Clough’s daughter Susan began producing the world-famous Portmeirion pottery, and selling it in the village’s Ship Shop. Susan was also responsible for designing the interior of the Salutation Restaurant, and was heavily involved with the interior design and furnishing throughout the village, as well as the visual aspect of the village’s gardens.
Today, Portmeirion is one of Wale’s best-loved visitor attractions, receiving some 225,000 visits per year. It is not just popular with tourists, however; local people love the village too, and during the quieter winter months Portmeirion is often full of local people who use a special winter entry ticket to visit the village for a reduced entry fee. The annual food and craft fair attracts many visitors, and the village is a very popular venue for weddings, with the Town Hall being licenced for civil ceremonies and the main hotel building offering a wonderful setting for wedding breakfasts. There are few more beautiful backdrops for wedding photos in the British Isles.
Portmeirion was famously the setting for the cult 1960s television show The Prisoner. Clough always intended the village to be used for events and concerts, and so it came as no surprise when Festival No. 6, whose name is a nod towards the village’s televisual past, started to be held at the village in 2012. The event, which has won a number of awards, is hailed as the UK’s most unique music and arts festival, attracting such high-profile musical acts as Grace Jones, Pet Shop Boys and Manic Street Preachers.
Clough’s vision was to prove that architecture and town planning could be fun, exciting and colourful: “…it should be possible to develop and exploit even a very beautiful place without thereby spoiling it… it could be made yet more lovely by manipulation.” A vision which, we’re sure most will agree, has been very much achieved – perhaps even surpassed – at Portmeirion Village.
Acknowledgement: the story of Portmeirion as written in this article was sourced from “Portmeirion: The Place & Its Meaning” by Clough Williams-Ellis, ISBN 0.216.90672.5.