What Travel Writers Say


Portmeirion, Welsh Xanadu

© By Mary Alice Downie
  "Beauty - that strange necessity"
                Sir Clough Williams-Ellis

Hotel Portmeiron from Watch House Not many young British officers ask their mates for money to build a watchtower as a wedding present, but that is exactly what Clough Williams-Ellis did in 1915. He was later to become a visionary architect, despite only three months of formal training. Williams-Ellis was well-connected, which helped. (The family claimed descent from a Welsh prince, Owain Gwynedd.) When he asked for the hand of Amabel Strachey - Lytton was a cousin- her father sighed "I'd rather hoped she'd marry a duke," but gave his permission. Wise choice, it was to be a long and successful marriage.
     Portmeirion was the most famous achievement of this early conservationist, (1883-1978) who was also deeply involved with British National Parks, and the National Trust. In 1925 he bought "a neglected wilderness," an overgrown peninsula on the coast of Snowdon for less than 5,000 pounds. He believed that "the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement" Entrance Archway and created a fanciful holiday village unlike any other.
     This is not your average seaside resort. It has been called "the last nobleman's folly "and "a Welsh Xanadu." People claim that it was inspired by the Italian village of Portofino, but Williams-Ellis said no, he was paying tribute to the Mediterranean atmosphere.
     He became an artistic scavenger, rescuing endangered structures and fragments from all over Britain for his "Home for Fallen Buildings." Work began in 1926, was interrupted by World War II and completed in 1976 when he was in his 90s!! From the start, it was meant to be sustainable. Now every building is listed and the site is a conservation area.
     As I wandered up and down and around and about, getting gloriously lost, I wondered if I might come upon a duel or hear a ringing soliloquy - the atmosphere is definitely Shakespearian. There are towers, turrets, archways, grottos. A wishing well with dolphins, and a campanile. Palm trees and gardens flourish among the pink, orange, ochre and turquoisey 'Portmerion Green' cottages. A colonnade (1760) rescued from Bristol stands in front of the domed Pantheon. The barrel-vaulted Jacobean ceiling of the town hall came from a country house in Flintshire, the statue of Hercules on the Piazza from Aberdeen. Burmese goddesses, two-tailed mermaids, anachronisms and trompe l'oeil co-exist amiably in this architectural Peaceable Kingdom.
     Portmeirion was a success from the start. Noel Coward, a frequent guest, wrote Blithe Spirit in five days! (Should you wish to be inspired, ask for Fountain2/Upper Fountain, the suite where he stayed.) Frank Lloyd Wright came in 1956 to see what it was all about - and approved. George Bernard Shaw, H.G.Wells and Bertrand Russell holidayed here and George Harrison celebrated his 50th birthday in these exuberant surroundings.
     And then in the 1960s, an unexpected sort of fame. Patrick McGoohan persuaded Williams-Ellis to let him film Portmeirion as the sinister Village in The Prisoner. These days, members of Six of One: The Prisoner Appreciation Society, enthusiastically retrace the steps of their tormented hero and hold their annual conference. In the Prisoner Shop, located in the Round House where #6 lived you can buy the official Prisoner black blazer with white trim and a #6 badge, a satin Prisoner cloak/cape, or a baseball cap. The original jacket is on display in the store.
     There's more. Head gardener Arwel Hughes and his staff devotedly tend the Gwyllt, 70 acres of subtropical wild gardens. There are Victorian trees, an Azalea Walk, giant ferns, pools, gazebos, a Chinese bridge. Many exotic plants were imported by a previous owner. Red rhododendron petals brighten the pathways. Nature's confetti. In the Dog cemetery pets of the family, staff, and even visitors, are buried under the kindly gaze of a canine statue.
     There's one problem in this paradise. The handsome Rhododendron ponticum is entrenched. It is invasive, spreads everywhere, choking out native flora and fauna. Gentle Arwel suddenly began to steam, resembling a small Welsh dragon as he described its evil ways. During Rhodie-bashing weekends they chop them down, set fire to them and assault them with syringes.

Dog Cemetery  Peacocks  Pink House  Rock  Street Scene 

     There are ¼ million day visitors a year. People get married here, celebrate wedding anniversaries, write books about it. Photographers create websites, there's even a set of tarot cards.
     Twelve thousand guests a year stay in cottages tucked about the village and the hotel. The original villa (c. 1850) transformed by Williams-Ellis burnt down in 1981, but re-opened in 1988 retaining its eccentric glory - massive fireplaces, all rooms with a view, and their own colour scheme. The pheasant tiles in the washroom are particularly fetching.
     I was lucky enough to be on the heights in Y Ty Gwilo (Watch House) one of the first to be built in 1926. After a long ramble through the woods and around the village, I collapsed on my brass bed on a platform, above the sitting area, watching the tide sweep in. For a change, I lounged on a couch sipping sherry (complimentary.) admiring the orchid on the coffee table. No wonder I felt decadent. I learned later that Noel Coward had stayed here too - there's a picture of him sitting on the patio, contemplating the view - and that scenes from Brideshead Revisited had been filmed around it.
     Jan Morris, who lives nearby, described Portmeirion as "A floating fantasy above the sea. The whole thing... clustered with an airy flimsiness on its steep slope, as though one day it might slide all on top of itself into the water."
     I hope not!

Mary Alice Downie writes for Kingston Life Magazine and contributes to Fifty-five Plus, Good Times, Forever Young and many other magazines as well as a food blog, 'Edible Souvenirs' on the website www.kingstonlife.com. She is the author of 28 books for children and adults.

Photo Credits
Mary Alice Downie

If you go
Portmeirion, Wales
as seen on
YouTube
Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Portmeirion
Wikitravel: http://wikitravel.org/en/Portmeirion
www.portmeirion-village.com The village is open all year except for Christmas Day from 9.30 to 5.30 p.m. Grounds are open until 7.30 p.m. Some of the shops and cafes are closed in winter.

What's happening, money, distance, time?
Media Guide: http://www.abyznewslinks.com/
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Transportation, visas, health, maps and temperature
Airlines (Wikipedia): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_airlines
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Health precautions (WHO): http://www.who.int/ith/en/
Google interactive map: http://maps.google.com/
Temperature (Temperature World): http://www.temperatureworld.com/




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