Sunday, 3 July 2016
Portmeirion is a colourful
and extravagant essay in
architecture and no prison
I have often travelled through Wales, and I had stayed there twice – once when I was leading a retreat in a convent in Llandudno, and again when I visited Saint Michael’s College in Llandaff. But, more often than not, I travelled hastily through Wales, seeing as a corridor between Ireland and England until Ryanair made it easier, cheaper and quicker to fly.
But my perspective of Wales changed a few weeks ago when I caught the ferry to Holyhead to spend a weekend visiting Frongoch, where Irish prisoners were held in 1916, and Portmeirion, the architecturally unique village in North Wales designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and the location of ‘The Village’ in the 1960s cult television series The Prisoner.
I was first captivated by The Prisoner almost half a century ago, and since then Portmeirion and was an early inspiration for my lifelong love of architecture. It was on my “must-see” list, and so I have no explanation for why it took me so long to get there.
I was staying in Beaumaris on the Isle of Anglesey, close to the Holyhead ferry terminal, the Menai Straits, and Llanfair PG – the Welsh village that claims to have the longest name – and within easy reach of Penmon, an early Celtic monastic site in east Anglesey, as well as Bangor Cathedral, Frongoch and Snowdonia.
It is all just three or four hours’ drive from Dublin, and I was surprised it was so easy to get to Portmeirion in Gwynedd. It is a small coastal village off the beaten track, tucked away in North West Wales, on the Triath Bach tidal estuary.
Bold splash of colour
On an overcast Sunday, when the coasts of North Wales were shrouded in mist and rain, Portmeirion was a bold splash of colour and extravagance to brighten up the afternoon with the promise of summer joys.
Portmeirion is the creation of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who designed and built it over half a century between 1925 and 1976 in the style of an Italian village. He persistently denied that the concept was based on the fishing village of Portofino on the Italian Riviera. All he would say was that he wanted to pay tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean. However, he loved the Italian village, and once asked rhetorically: “How should I not have fallen for Portofino? Indeed its image remained with me as an almost perfect example of the man-made adornment and use of an exquisite site.”
As he built Portmeirion, he incorporated fragments of demolished buildings, including works by other architects. This architectural bricolage and deliberately fanciful nostalgia would influence the development of postmodernism in architecture in the late 20th century.
The main building of the hotel and the cottages ‘White Horses,’ ‘Mermaid, and ‘The Salutation’ were originally on a private estate, Aber Iâ (‘Ice Estuary’), developed in the 1850s on the site of a late 18th-century foundry and boatyard.
The estate included remains of a mediaeval castle (Castell Deudraeth, Castell Gwain Goch or Castell Aber Iâ), mentioned as early as 1188 by the Welsh historian Giraldus Cambrensis, or Gerald of Wales. David Williams (1799-1866), Liberal MP for Merioneth, rebuilt Castell Deudraeth as a crenellated and castellated mansion, with Gothic and Tudor features that are represent Victorian architecture at its most fantastical.
In 1925, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis started building his fantasy estate and changed the name from Aber Iâ, which he though meant ‘frozen mouth,’ to Portmeirion, meaning the Port or coastal town – as in Portofino – of Merioneth (Meirionydd), then the name of the surrounding country.
A fashionable architect
Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978) was an English-born architect from a Welsh family. His father, the Revd John Clough Williams Ellis (1833-1913), an Anglican priest, poet and mountaineer, was educated at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, where he was elected a fellow in 1856. He was the Vicar of Madingley, near Cambridge (1865) before becoming Rector of Gayton, Northamptonshire (1876). He won prizes for poetry in Cambridge, and although he was proficient in Welsh he wrote only in English. He married Ellen Mabel Greaves and their son Clough was born in Gayton in 1883.
Clough Williams-Ellis entered Trinity College, Cambridge, but never graduated. He then trained as an architect in London, where he set up his own practice. In 1908, he inherited a small country house, Plas Brondanw, from his father, restoring and embellishing it over the rest of his life.
He spent World War I as a lieutenant in the Welsh Guards and the Royal Tank Corps, and was decorated with the Military Cross. Meanwhile, in 1915 Williams-Ellis married the writer Amabel Strachey.
In the inter-war years, he was a fashionable architect. In Ireland, he designed several buildings in Co Antrim for Ronald McNeill (Lord Cushendun), including Glenmona House, and for the Macnaghten family at Bushmills, as well as a Christian Science church in Belfast and a house in Glengarriff, Co Cork.
His book England and the Octopus (1928) is an outcry at the urbanisation of the countryside and loss of village cohesion. He was an ardent environmentalist who was ahead of his time and he wanted to create a functional and attractive private village that would act as “propaganda for good manners.”
Meanwhile, in the 1920s, he began building Portmeirion to show that architecture can enhance the environment rather than spoil it. From the beginning, he planned it as a tourist destination, with the Hotel Portmeirion as its waterfront hub. In 1931, he bought Castell Deudraeth and estate from his uncle, Sir Osmond Williams (1849-1927), a Welsh Liberal politician, so he could expand Portmeirion. He described the castle as “the largest and most imposing single building on the Portmeirion estate,” and tried to integrate it into Portmeirion as an hotel in the 1930s.
Portmeirion, with its Riviera-inspired houses, ornamental garden and campanile, is a pocket of beautiful madness on the Welsh coast. With his clever use of arches, slopes and window sizes, Williams-Ellis makes his compact village look larger than it actually is.
The architecture critic Lewis Mumford, in The Highway and the City (1964), calls Portmeirion “an artful and playful little modern village, designed as a whole and all of a piece ... a fantastic collection of architectural relics and impish modern fantasies.”
Portmeirion inspired writers, architects, television producers and movie makers. Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit while staying in the Fountain suite in 1941.
The architect Frank Lloyd Wright visited the village in 1956, and other visitors include Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman and Paul McCartney. But it attracted international attention when television series and films used Portmeirion as a location for exotic European towns.
In 1960, an episode of Danger Man, ‘View from the Villa,’ was filmed here starring Patrick McGoohan. In 1966-1967, he returned to Portmeirion to film The Prisoner, a surreal spy drama in which McGoohan plays a retired spy, ‘Number 6,’ who is incarcerated and interrogated in ‘The Village.’ But Williams-Ellis was worried that the village would be spoilt by overcrowding, and Portmeirion was not identified as the location until the credits rolled at the end of the final episode of The Prisoner.
The Prisoner was aired on ITV in Autumn 1967 and in the US the following Summer. It quickly became a cult classic, and fans continue to visit Portmeirion throughout the year.
The buildings in the first phase (1925-1939) are inspired by the Arts and Crafts Movement, while buildings in the second phase (1954-1976) are inspired by classical and Palladian styles.
We entered Portmeirion through the last building he designed, the Tollboth, built in 1976 when he was 92, and its companion, completed in 1999. The baroque Gate House is the first post-war building and straddles the driveway beyond the tollgate. The deep arch includes a ceiling mural by Hans Feibusch.
Battery faces onto a pretty plaza with guest accommodation, an aromatherapy spa and a café with outdoor tables on the cobbles. The Round House, the cottage where Number Six was held in The Prisoner, is now a souvenir shop. However, the building used as the exterior is too small for the supposed interior, which included a spacious lounge, bedroom, bathroom and kitchen. Instead, the interior was filmed in the MGM studios in Borehamwood.
The Round House is now a souvenir shop, and half a century later many of the locations in The Prisoner remain almost unchanged. Statues, corbels and whimsical details fill every nook and corner.
The central square of Piazza replaced an unsightly tennis court, and was completed a year before The Prisoner was filmed. The Bristol Colonnade was built in Bristol in 1769 and when it was moved to Portmeirion it was opened in 1959 by the philosopher Bertrand Russell, who also laid the foundation stone for the Pantheon, where Dome was completed in 1961.
The Gloriette, with the Gothic Pavilion, was designed as part of the Piazza development and was inspired by the vista at the Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna. Gothic Pavilion. Other buildings in the village, with romantic names, include the Bell Tower, Lady’s Lodge, the Chantry, Villa Winch, Salutation, Trinity, Unicorn, Telford Tower, Government House, the Watch House and Belvedere.
The 19th century statue of Hercules was rescued by Williams-Ellis in Aberdeen in 1960. The Town Hall is Town Hall is a Jacobean arts-and-crafts village hall. There is a Triumphal Arch, a Gazebo and there are arches everywhere. Recent upgrades have been faithful to the spirit of Williams-Ellis.
His daughter Susan (1918-2007), who trained with Henry Moore and Graham Sutherland, was selling ceramics in Portmeirion when she took over a pottery in Stoke-on-Trent in 1960. Today, Portmeirion Pottery is on sale in the village gift shops.
Realising a vision
Then, 70 years after Williams-Ellis bought Castell Deudraeth, his vision was realised in 2001 when the castle opened as an 11-bedroom hotel and restaurant.
The grounds are surrounded by 30 hectares of sub-tropical forest called Y Gwylt with lakes, temples and gazebos, and an Edwardian wild garden designed by Caton Haigh, a world authority on Himalayan flowering trees and exotic plants. Camellias, rhododendrons, azaleas and magnolia and maidenhair trees bring fresh blazes of colour with each season.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis was knighted in 1972 “for services to the preservation of the environment and to architecture.” At the time, he was the oldest person ever to be knighted. He died in April 1978, aged 94.
Today, Portmeirion is owned by a charitable trust, the buildings are Grade II listed, and this is one of the top tourist attractions in North Wales. The Rough Guide to Wales calls Portmeirion “a gorgeous visual poem,” and Tripadvisor has named it as the most colourful place in the UK and in the top 10 in the world.
Canon Patrick Comerford lectures in the Church of Ireland Theological Institute. This fature was first published in July 2016 in the ‘Church Review’ (Dublin and Glendalough) and the ‘Diocesan Magazine’ (Cashel, Ferns and Ossory).