By Sharon Whitley Larsen
Portmeirion is a unique "Mediterranean" village in Britain, which some 235,000 visit each year. It's one of the most popular tourist attractions in Wales, which is the size of New Jersey and boasts more sheep than people.
Composed of colorful buildings, whimsical statues, fountains and 70 acres of gardens and forest in a seaside setting in north Wales, Portmeirion was designed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978). He purchased the property — which he described as "a neglected wilderness" — in 1925 for less than 5,000 pounds. He then spent the next 15 years working on it. Then after more than 10 years of disruption due to World War II he fine-tuned details in the second phase from 1954-1976. The last building, the Tollgate, was built in 1976 during his 93rd year.
Believing it to be the perfect place to fulfill his boyhood dream of building a utopia, an ideal village on a romantic coastal site, he named it Portmeirion: "port" because of its coastal location and "meirion," which is Welsh for merioneth, the county.
Williams-Ellis and his family (he had two daughters and a son who was killed during World War II) lived nearby in Plas Brondanw, an estate he inherited. Much of it was destroyed by fire in 1951, causing him to lose many valuable architectural papers and family documents. Fortunately some had been copied by a historian, and several major architectural drawings were safe in London, but the loss was devastating. The house was rebuilt in two years and that's where he died in 1978, a month shy of his 95th birthday.
Popular Portmeirion pottery, decorated with flora and fruits and launched in 1960 by Williams-Ellis' artist daughter Susan Williams-Ellis, is sold in Portmeirion village shops, as well as worldwide.
One of the first things Williams-Ellis did in Portmeirion was to restore and expand an old beach house, built around 1850, converting it into the 14-room Hotel Portmeirion, which officially opened in 1926. After a fire destroyed it in 1981, it was reopened in 1988. Famous guests have included George Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. The Prince of Wales (Edward VIII, later known as the Duke of Windsor) stayed in the Peacock Suite when he visited Wales for his investiture in 1936.
Other notable visitors to the town have included Noel Coward, who wrote his popular play "Blithe Spirit" during six days in 1941; Ernest Hemingway; Beatles' manager Brian Epstein; and George Harrison, who celebrated his 50th birthday here.
For his Portmeirion project, Williams-Ellis, an environmentalist who was knighted in 1971 in recognition for his contributions to architecture and the environment, salvaged some buildings from demolition sites. He described the village as "a home for fallen buildings" and an "architectural mongrel." It is a mixture of styles, including Italianate, Arts and Crafts, and Georgian. His motto was, "Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future." He strongly promoted beauty — "that strange necessity."
The creative genius, the preacher's kid who had attended Cambridge, seemed a bit eccentric in his endeavor to salvage old architectural items. For example, in 1965, when he decided to tear down an unsightly 35-year-old tennis court and build in its place a central piazza, he could not remember where, 30 years earlier, he had stored the Ionic columns he wanted to use in the design. Eventually his tenant farmer located them under a pile of manure, and they were dug up and used.
Then there's the Angel cottage — one of the first built, in 1926 — so named because Williams-Ellis had an angel carving that he wanted to utilize. And the crown atop the town hall is an upside-down copper cauldron used for boiling pigs! There's even a dog cemetery on the property, established by the eccentric Mrs. Adelaide Haig, who resided from 1870 until 1917 in the mansion that later became the Hotel Portmeirion. Said to prefer dogs instead of human friends, she would take in strays and read sermons to her cherished canine creatures in the elegant Mirror Room.
Off-the-beaten-path Portmeirion — which appears to be a magical Mediterranean village — has been the site of numerous films, television shows and weddings, including those of celebrities. The estate is owned by the Ymddiriedolaeth Clough Williams-Ellis Foundation, a registered charity.
Many of the pastel-colored buildings, built or relocated here during the mid- and late 1920s, include the Italianate style (Bell Tower, Watch House, Government House) and the Arts and Crafts (Angel, Neptune, Toll House), as well as Georgian (Gate House, Bridge House, Belvedere, Chantry Row, Unicorn, Round House, Telford's Tower), built or moved here during the 1950s and 1960s. Some have been converted to self-catering cottages, ideal for vacationing families.
Besides the cottages and hotel, there's also the nearby 11-room Castell Deudraeth, which Williams-Ellis bought in 1931, a 10-minute stroll from the village. Opened in May 2001, it was originally an 18th-century cottage, later enlarged into a 19th century mansion.
On the sunny day we visited my husband Carl and I strolled around the area, then sat on benches observing families with young children pushing baby strollers, older people and couples who had booked cottages and now sat on porches eating ice cream or sipping drinks — everyone enjoying this fantasy paradise.
WHEN YOU GO
Portmeirion Village: www.portmeirion-village.com
On a previous visit we stayed at Castell Deudraeth. This time we stayed at St. George's Hotel in Llandudno, about an hour away, enjoying the gorgeous scenery on the drive here: www.stgeorgeswales.co.uk
Driver/guide: Bespoke Tours of North Wales: www.bespoketoursofnorthwales.co.uk
Visit Wales: www.visitwales.com
Sharon Whitley Larsen is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
Some 235,000 visitors annually visit Portmeirion Village in Wales. Photo courtesy of Sharon Whitley Larsen.