Snowdonia: an insider’s guide

Tucked away on the Snowdonia coastline is a magical village that could have been transplanted from the Mediterranean: a visitor attraction, television location and unusual place to stay. Escape to Portmeirion

Above: Snowdonia, home to the intriguing village of Portmeirion

As dusk falls gently over the green hills of North Wales, the soaring Campanile and imposing dome of the fantastical village of Portmeirion are illuminated high over the estuary. With its warm Mediterranean colours, this wonderful village on a private peninsula on the Snowdonia coast takes its inspiration from warmer climes, and since the 1920s has drawn hordes of visitors.

When the architect later knighted as Sir Clough Williams-Ellis set out to create a tightly grouped coastal village, partly inspired by the town of Portofino on the Italian Riviera, he faced huge challenges. A keen sailor, he’d scoured islands as far as New Zealand, before discovering a site just six miles from his North Wales home.

He later described it as resembling the Palace of Sleeping Beauty. This craggy, wooded land beside the Dwyryd Estuary had been much loved by botanists who planted exotic species, which thrived in its warm microclimate lapped by the Gulf Stream, but an owner who preferred dogs to people left it so overgrown that paths had to be hacked through the wilderness.

For an ambitious architect who had dreamed since he was six of creating clusters of architecturally imaginative buildings, this ravine, with towering crags and streams falling to the tidal estuary, was perfect. His dream, Sir Clough wrote later, was “to erect a whole group of buildings on my own chosen site for my own satisfaction – an ensemble that would in fact be me.”

Within the year the old mansion house had been transformed into a comfortable hotel, and at Easter 1926, visitors from the architect’s extensive social circle were welcomed. But everything went wrong: the water pump stopped working, the electricity was cut off, and the range broke. However the weather was glorious, and so Portmeirion (renamed from Aber Ia, or frozen river mouth, which sounded too chilly) was firmly on the map.

Buildings soon sprang up on the site, including the Watch Tower, perched precariously on the cliff edge and evoking the medieval castles and monasteries of Europe. Part of Portmeirion’s charm is its huge mix of architectural styles, all nestling comfortably together in endlessly fascinating vistas. Angel, on the village green and named for its beautiful angel relief, recalls glorious curving West Country architecture, while Battery, built soon after, evokes 18th-century Kentish design.

Wandering around the village today, it’s all too easy to see why the society magazine Country Life enthused about this new holiday village. Soon, visitors were thronging to the place, undeterred by idiosyncratically changing entrance charges which rose to 10 shillings when the Prince of Wales visited. And when eminent architect Frank Lloyd Wright arrived, he told Sir Clough’s wife Amabel, “why, I do believe you married an architect.”

While the outbreak of World War II saw a ban on building, this idyllic hamlet set far from the horrors of war went on firing visitors’ imaginations and  offering them peace. It was here, in 1941 and away from the bombs that rocked London, that Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit. Other visitors included H G Wells, Bertrand Russell, and George Bernard Shaw, and when the actor Patrick McGoohan holed up in the old fisherman’s cottage to write his new drama, he discovered the perfect set for what became the cult TV series The Prisoner, with McGoohan as the star. When Portmeirion was credited at the end of the series, visitor numbers soared, and today, Prisoner fans still regularly reconvene here.

Although many of Portmeirion’s buildings look huge from a distance, much of the village is glorious fakery. A closer look at the imposing windows shows they’re painted on, to give a building a sense of height. The damp, creeping up an aged wall, is in fact distressed paintwork, and that impressive onion tower in the distance is only half an onion, cleverly designed to conceal an ugly chimney.

The soaring pines above the sea almost reach the brightly painted cliff-top houses, but elsewhere height is an illusion: the towering Italian cypresses are actually tightly clipped Irish yews, and far more diminutive than they seem. And the boat moored beside the hotel is actually a stone recreation, incorporating the masts of the much-loved Amis Reunis ketch which sank in the estuary.

As Portmeirion’s fame grew, its creator acquired architectural splendours to re-house in what he called  his home for fallen buildings. The majestic Bristol Colonnade, dating from 1760 and which had fallen into decay, looks right here – so does the carved head of Sir Clough himself, replacing a missing one. Other buildings, however, arrived by a more circuitous route, and creating Portmeirion took some 50 years.

Buying the glorious Jacobean plasterwork ceiling for The Town Hall at auction cost just Åí13, but acquiring the rest of this Arts and Crafts building – and then transporting it from Flintshire – cost considerably more. And the magnificent donated Ionic columns that have been rebuilt as The Gloriette now overlooking the Piazza, lay lost beneath a garden for three decades, before they were recovered.

A sense of mischievous fun can be seen everywhere, from the seaside jollity of Portmeirion’s luminous planting and warm Mediterranean colours right through to the quirky signage. Round a corner, to the base of the Campanile, you’ll find an indignant plaque proclaiming that the 1928 tower ‘embodies stones from the 12th-century castle of his ancestor Gruffyd ap Cynan, King of North Wales.’ After years of searching for the legendary castle, the mystery was finally solved when it was discovered it had been razed around 1869 by the then owner Sir William Fothergill Cook, “‘lest the ruins should become known and attract visitors to  the place.’ This 19th century affront to the 12th is thus piously redressed in the 20th.”

Portmeirion has grown and changed through the 20th century, driven by Sir Clough’s determination to “cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future”. Above the old Welsh Wool Shop, now a tearoom, hangs the black sheep sign designed by Sir Clough’s daughter Susan Williams-Ellis, founder of the famous Portmeirion Pottery.

And, just as Sir Clough had hoped, his descendants have added their own gifts to his project. A Chinese bridge and pagoda, classical temple and pergola to the Gwyllt, or wild place, with its swathes of rhododendrons, camellias and tree ferns were added by Susan.

Sir Clough’s grandson, Robin Llywelyn, who, as an eight-year-old avidly watched the filming of The Prisoner, now runs Portmeirion, and his sister, Menna Angharad, brings her own creativity to the gardens.

“Clough wanted to show that architecture could be fun, and could enhance and not spoil a beautiful site,” says Robin, “and as a conservationist, he was often ahead of his time. Portmeirion just goes on evolving while remaining faithful to the vision,” he adds “one day, Sir Clough’s dream of an opera house, or a Lion cottage to sit beside Unicorn, might just come true.”

And while Portmeirion has gone on evolving, Sir Clough’s elaborate plans, stored in London and at Portmeirion, mean  the growing village continues to remain true to his dream.

Indeed, following a disastrous fire at The Hotel Portmeirion in 1981, the creator’s designs were followed and the re-built hotel lobby (with the atmospheric 60s Prisoner ball chairs a new addition) was opened by long-standing Portmeirion visitor and musician Jools Holland.

Visitors to Portmeirion today either stay in the hotel, with its exquisite cuisine and dining rooms overlooking the estuary or in the historic cottages created by Sir Clough.

Sir Clough set out to recover some of the elegance of the past, fighting for the beauty he called “that strange  necessity”, and show that good architecture could enhance a beautiful site without damaging it. And the result is the magical landscape that is Portmeirion, filled with colour and humour and which Country Life once called “a pirate’s lair, drawing together romance and baroque with little bits of Italy, Cornwall and Wales too”.

Discover our editor’s favourite places to visit in Snowdonia!

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