July 15, 2013

Wales: Putting Portmeirion on the map

David Ellis

WHEN we were told to "expect something of a surprise" at the village of Portmeirion while on an already eye-opening self-driving trip through Wales, we had little idea just what a surprise.

I say self-driving, for while we had booked ourselves a rental car for our week, we'd also contracted a guide and driver in a remarkable fellow named John Greenwood – not out of indulgence, but because we needed to cover as much ground as we possibly could in our travel-writing week. It was a good move: John knew every historic point, every major attraction and seemingly every minor one too, and every back-road in Wales to get us to what we were seeking in the quickest-time possible.

And on Day 3 he swung around a turn in the road to present us with our "something of a surprise." Because up ahead was not another pretty Welsh village, not another postcard-perfect farm setting amid rolling green hills, not even another Welsh Little Train.

Rather, on a headland bonding river and sea, a jaw-dropping, full-blown Italianate village whose pastel-hued buildings, white-washed walls, and tall central bell-tower, had us wondering if we'd been somehow plucked out of Wales and miraculously time-warped onto the Mediterranean coast of an Italy of yester-year.

And amid and surrounding this fairy-tale folly with its also fountains and ponds, sculptures, lakes and beaches, were 70 hectares of gardens and woodlands that the encyclopaedic John Greenwood assured us contained some 5000 species from the farthest-flung corners of the globe.

More remarkably, most of this place was the work of one man, Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis (no relation) who spent fifty years from 1925 to 1975 creating his dream village… and preaching that development did not have to mean destruction of the environment.

Today Portmeirion is a major North Wales tourist drawcard, with a circa-1850s hotel that after closing in disrepair was totally renovated and re-opened with 14 rooms by Williams-Ellis in 1926 (it was badly damaged by fire and rebuilt again in 1981,) 17 self-contained visitor cottages, 28 tourists' rooms in Italianate buildings from another era, boutique shops, an Italian restaurant, a pub and cafĂ©, tea-room and an ice-creamery… all designed by Williams-Ellis.

And for good measure a "castle" too – actually a crenelated mansion called Castell Deudraeth that Williams-Ellis bought in 1931from his uncle Sir Osmund Williams, and which with help from the British Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and the Wales Tourist Board, he began renovating until his death at 95 in 1978; it finally re-opened as an 11-bedroom hotel and restaurant in 2001.

And while he always fervently denied that Portmeirion was a copy of Italy's extraordinarily beautiful Portofino, he did confess his love of the Italian Riviera village as "an almost perfect example of man-made adornment on an exquisite natural site."

When he came upon the now-Portmeirion site on the River Dwyryd estuary in the early 1920s Williams-Ellis called it "a neglected wilderness," but one whose history could be excitingly traced back through a collapsed country estate venture of the 1850s, an 18th century foundry, earlier boatyard, a medieval castle whose remains are still in nearby woods today, and home of cleric/writer Gerald of Wales (1146-1223.)

Throughout the fifty years he was building his village, Williams-Ellis also resurrected the former country estate's sub-tropical woodland gardens, importing thousands of exotic shrubs and trees including Himalayan Rhododendrons, Californian Redwoods, New Zealand Kapukas, the-now tallest Chilean Mayten tree in the UK… even Australian Cabbage-tree Palms.

Portmeirion – "port" for its location on the coast and "meirion" from County Meirionydd in which it is located – is just outside North Wales' major town of Porthmadog, and if you visit and it looks familiar… yes, it was the 'The Village' in the 1960s hit TV series 'The Prisoner,' and has featured in numerous other films since.

And famed Portmeirion Pottery has its connections too: its early tableware, bakeware and giftware were designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis' daughter, Susan Williams-Ellis who died in 2007.

Day entry to Portmeirion is currently 10GBP for adults, 6GBP children, 30GBP family (2+2.) For accommodation information and pricing, email info@portmeirion-village.com

We hired our car through DriveAway Holidays 1300 363 500 (www.driveaway.com.au);  if you are looking for a reliable and knowledgeable UK driver/guide, contact John Greenwood on jdgreenwood24@hotmail.com 



1.SECTION of the extensive Portmeirion Italianate village and gardens in North Wales.  
   (North Wales Tourism)
2. THE village square and some of its shops. (David Ellis)
3. YOU could easily be in Italy with these Italianate houses overlooking the River
    Dwyryd estuary. (David Ellis)
4. EVEN a "castle" – the crenelated mansion Castell Deudraeth. (North Wales Tourism)
5. BELLTOWER just like in a traditional Italian village. (David Ellis)
6. SIR Clough Williams-Ellis on his 90th birthday in 1973. (Portmeirion Village Trust)

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