On the extreme northwest corner of Wales, in an idyllic cove, there is a fantasy escape engineered by a Welsh architect with abundant creativity and a sense of fun. Fortunately, his neighbors enjoyed watching the project grow. Over a period of fifty years, Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis turned the failed dreams of prior owners into a tiny city of bungalows, anchored by a hotel, given the name Portmeirion, a mythical Welsh port.
Williams-Ellis, a Cambridge educated architect, inherited the peninsula on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales, in 1908, when he was twenty-five. He purchased adjoining land in 1925, with a mansion on the edge of the water, and a hunting lodge, both built in 1850. He recognized the commercial possibility of the site, although as a founding member of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales, of which he was president for twenty years, he wished to control scale of development in keeping with the natural setting.
Rather than expand the hotel, Williams-Ellis created a small village of bungalows, built into town buildings, towers, gate houses, bridge houses and turrets, tucked into the landscaping, around a piazza, completed in 1965 with a pool and fountains. The town grew over fifty years, beginning in 1926. Soft lines of Neptune and Angel cottages were the first buildings, which are just outside regal gates of the Town Hall, built in 1937, incorporating architectural features reclaimed from ruins of Great Houses in Ireland.
When Williams-Ellis felt Portmeirion suffered from “dome deficiency,” he built a domed high cloister in 1960, on the hill above the piazza. On the piazza floor sits the Bristol Colonnade, a 1760 structure, rebuilt on the site, with the blessing of Her Majesty’s Minister of Works. The Colonnade was, and continues to be, a listed Grade II historic property, which by 1971, was in the company of most all of the buildings in the town.
During World War II, when London was turned dark during the blitz, playwright, Noel Coward, came to Portmeirion for a retreat, during which he hoped to create a comedy. People needed to laugh. He stayed in a cottage overlooking the water and wrote Blithe Spirit in five days. Frank Lloyd Wright visited Portmeirion in 1956, where he enjoyed the lavish and light-hearted architecture. Numerous couples have been married in the Town Hall and the wedding parties have spent a week in the hotel or in the town bungalows.
Clough Williams-Ellis died in 1978. Portmeirion and his ancient family home Plas Brondanw are owned by the Clough Williams-Ellis Foundation. Castle Deudraeth, built in 1840, on the site of a castle dating to 1175, is part of the Portmeirion property, although just outside the village. Portmeirion Limited manages the village, which includes cottage rentals, special events, including weddings, and shops in the village, including the bookstore in the Arches, built in 1963, and gift shop in the original lodge. The gift shop is known as the Salutation, “Cloughed up,” as the architect said of himself, in 1966.
Portmeirion is a delightful destination, or a cruise shore excursion from the Welsh port of Holyhead. The hotel suffered a fire in 1999, in which additions by Williams Ellis were lost. It was restored and reopened in 2010. The remote location means that it is never crowded. Stay a while in a miniature quirky village and write your own stories.
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See all the stories of Wales in Cruise through History, Itinerary X, Ports of the British Isles, forthcoming.