03 July 2016

Portmeirion is a colourful
and extravagant essay in
architecture and no prison

Portmeirion is a bold splash of colour and extravagance with the promise of summer joys (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

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.

Welcome to Portmeirion … the 1976 tollgate was the last building designed by Williams-Ellis (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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

The Bridge House (1959) leads to the village and the Round House where Number 6 was kept as ‘The Prisoner’ (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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 Bell Tower, Battery and Prior’s Lodging (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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

The Pantheon and the Bristol Colonnade seen from the Piazza (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.”

The Gloriette and Gothic Pavilion were designed as part of the Piazza development (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.”

Creative inspiration

The Statue of Hercules (1863) by William Brodie was rescued in Aberdeen in 1960 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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 Angel (1926) was one of the first cottages at Portmeirion and includes an attractive Angel relief (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

Neptune was designed as one of a pair with the Angel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

Salutation, a former stable block, now sells Portmeirion Pottery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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 Triumphal Arch is a rococo-style gateway with a caryatid statue (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

The Town Hall was designed to house a Jacobean ceiling, panelling and mullioned windows salvaged from Emral Hall in Flintshire (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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
The Mermaid was once a gardener’s bothey and dates from 1840s (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

The Quayside has an elegant loggia, the Casino, that could be seen by the quays in an Italian or Greek port (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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.

Portmeirion and its hotel are among the top tourist attractions in Wales (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

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).

Portmeirion is tucked away in North West Wales, on the Triath Bach tidal estuary (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

‘God of our pilgrimage, you have led us to the living water.
Refresh and sustain us as we go forward on our journey’

The bells of the village parish church in Tsesmes, east of Rethymnon (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Patrick Comerford

This is the Sixth Sunday after Trinity, and I am probably going to go to church this morning [3 July 2016] in the little village of Tsesmes, which is a short stroll from Platanes, the village east of Rethymnon where I am staying in Crete since last Wednesday.

Like every village here, there is a local Greek Orthodox Church. But Tsesmes also has a Romanian evangelical church, the Church of God, as well as an English-speaking evangelical congregation, the International Christian Fellowship, that meets in the Romanian church.

Unfortunately, the only Anglican church in Crete is too far away for a Sunday morning journey from the eastern fringes of Rethymnon. This morning is also the Feast of Saint Thomas the Apostle, and it might have been interesting on this feast day to be present at the Sunday Eucharist in the Anglican Church of Saint Thomas the Apostle in the small, rural village of Kefalas in the Apokoronas area of Crete, about 30 minutes east of Chania.

The priest in charge is Canon Philip Lambert, and the parish believes that the Greek Orthodox Church has many riches which also enrich “our Western brand of Christianity.”

The small Anglican community in Crete is keen to support the local community, especially the poor, and gives a high proportion of its money to local charities that care for the homeless, the disabled, very poor families and the elderly.

The church traces its story to a small group of people who began meeting regularly in 2003 in the home of Tony Lane, a retired steel boat builder from Bristol, and his wife Suzanne, to pray and worship. In 2007, Tony Lane realised the need for a more suitable building. Inspired by typical Cretan mountain chapels, he designed and built the Chapel of Saint Thomas.

In July that year, the newly-built church was named and blessed by Canon Mike Peters, and the church was officially dedicated by Bishop Geoffrey Rowell in 2008. Terry Wilcock was later ordained, and Canon Philip Lambert, a former canon missioner at Truro Cathedral, has been the priest-in-charge since July 2014.

The Anglican Church was recently recognised in Greek law as a “Religious Legal Body” and the chaplaincy in Crete works closely with Canon Malcom Bradshaw and the Anglican Church in Athens.

Canon Bradshaw spoke last month at the USPG conference in Swanwick, Derbyshire, presenting an interesting analysis of the economic and humanitarian crises that Greece is suffering, and told moving stories of the work with refugees, mainly from Syria and Afghanistan, that is being supported by the Anglican chaplaincies in Greece and by USPG.

As I think of this work I am also reflecting on this morning’s Gospel reading (Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20), in which Christ sends out the 70, two by two, “to every town and place where he himself intended to go,” and tells them: “The harvest is plentiful, but the labourers are few; therefore ask the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into his harvest.”

Canon Malcom Bradshaw of the Anglican Church in Athens speaking at the USPG conference in Swanwick last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)

Readings: 2 Kings 5. 1-14; Psalm 30; Galatians 6: [1-6], 7-16; Luke 10: 1-11, 16-20.


Merciful God,
you have prepared for those who love you
such good things as pass our understanding:
Pour into our hearts such love toward you
that we, loving you above all things,
may obtain your promises,
which exceed all that we can desire;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

Post Communion Prayer:

God of our pilgrimage,
you have led us to the living water.
Refresh and sustain us
as we go forward on our journey,
in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

The Romanian evangelical Church of God in Tsesmes (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2016)