1925, Clough Williams-Ellis spent less than £5,000 buying a parcel of land, which he described as “a neglected wilderness.” Today, 96 years later, we know it as Portmeirion. Williams-Ellis was an architect by trade and had a vision for creating a coastal village. Born in 1883, he trained as an architect between 1903 and 1904, and secured his first commission soon after.
The land he acquired in 1925 was originally called by its Welsh name Aber Iâ, which means ice estuary. Williams-Ellis changed this to Portmeirion, to reflect the village’s position beside the stunning River Dwyryd estuary, giving it a port-like feel, and to acknowledge its location in the old county of Merioneth (which disappeared during the UK’s 1974 local government re-organisation).
Wander casually around Portmeirion today, and Williams-Ellis’ sense of setting and his understanding of the location is apparent. But explore deeper and his true appreciation of the best of British architecture, along with its history, really shows.
Williams-Ellis believed in beauty, both natural and man-made, and that they could co-exist. His personal motto was, “Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future.” Portmeirion encapsulates that.
Williams-Ellis saw his village as his “home for fallen buildings,” because much of what we see today originated elsewhere. He was forever recycling bits of buildings, and up-cycling salvaged pieces to show that discarded architecture had beauty that could be cherished again and enhance his village.
Portmeirion was built in two stages: between 1925 and 1939, and then from 1954 to 1976. Some buildings already existed on the site when Williams-Ellis bought it in 1925. The Hotel beside the estuary, for example, was the original mansion of the Aber Iâ estate, although it was derelict and overgrown. Realising he needed cash to build his village, he quickly renovated it, and opened to paying guests in Easter 1926, less than a year after acquiring the site. But even during this early stage of the village’s development, Williams-Ellis was using pre-owned materials to augment his development.
Inside the hotel, drinkers at the Cockpit Bar could lean against timbers from the last armed sailing ship to go to war: HMS Arethusa. Sadly, these were lost when the hotel caught fire in 1981.
The Bristol Colonade, which overlooks the central Piazza, was originally built around 1760 and stood in Bristol, over 170 miles away. It suffered from bomb damage and the associated Bath House had deteriorated so badly it couldn’t be saved. In 1959 the Ministry of Works gave Williams-Ellis permission to dismantle it, and rebuild it at Portmeirion.
Just off from the Piazza is The Town Hall, built between 1937 and 1938. Originally, Williams-Ellis planned to build a theatre here, but when flicking through the pages of Country Life magazine, he spotted an article announcing the demolition and sale of the assets of Emral Hall in Flintshire.
He dashed across Wales, arriving just in time for the start of the sale, where he bought the ballroom ceiling for £13, and then went on to buy the rest of the room, including the mullioned windows, oak cornices, and fire grate. To make use of these purchases, he dropped his theatre plans and built the Town Hall instead.
Emral Hall is not the only building to help form part of this amazing building. To the left of the Hall’s main doors is an oval grille in the wall, which used to be part of the old Bank of England building in the City of London.
At the other end of the Piazza is The Gothic Pavilion, which also originated from Flintshire. “This was a generous gift to me from Nerquis Hall,” Williams-Ellis wrote, where it was a porte cochère — a covered entrance which is wide enough for vehicles to pass through. During the dismantling process, it was badly damaged, but this didn’t deter Williams-Ellis, who insisted on making use of the material.
“In the end,” he added, “we built up, not the original portico, but an amended version which, with its more attenuated proportions and slender pinnacles, is generally held to have gained in elegance whatever it may have lost in authenticity.”
Williams-Ellis used salvaged items on several properties across the village. The bandstand, just off the Piazza, was designed to cover up the village’s electricity sub-station. Between each of the bandstand’s arches is a series of mermaid panels, rescued from an old seaman’s home in Liverpool. Eagle-eyes visitors will also spot some of these panels on The Gloriette, on the Gazebo in the grounds behind the village, and even on the balustrade around the building called The Anchor.
Pieces were often acquired on spec in the hope they might come in useful one day. When he built The Pantheon in 1960, Williams-Ellis added the ornate Gothic porch, which he’d picked up 20 years earlier, from Dawpool, a Cheshire property. Although used as a porch for The Pantheon, at Dawpool, such was the scale of the building, it was originally an interior fireplace.
It doesn’t end there. The Bhudda below The Pantheon is left over from a film shoot for The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, staring Ingrid Bergman, and The Gloriette uses four Ionic columns from a batch of eight Williams-Ellis had rescued 30 years earlier. He’d completely forgotten about until they dug up a garden within the grounds and rediscovered them.
Williams-Ellis’ home for fallen buildings has certainly stood the test of time. In the time since he acquired the site, Portmeirion proves that if you cherish the past, adorn the present and construct for the future, it is possible to create something stunningly beautiful.
In a 1976 article in Country Life magazine, the phrase “Cloughing-up” was used to denote something that had been lifted from dullness. Well, you can’t get more “Cloughed up” than Portmeirion.
For more information about Portmeirion, including renting some of the properties as holiday accommodation, visit: https://portmeirion.wales
Simon Whaley is an author, writer and photographer based in Shropshire, on the Welsh Borders. His travel features have appeared in UK publications such as The People’s Friend, BBC Countryfile, Britain, Cumbria, This England, The Countryman and Coast, as well as in foreign publications, including Australia’s Great Walks, the USA’s British Heritage and Canada’s Celtic International. He’s also a regular contributor to Country Walking and since 2014 has written the Business of Writing column for Writing Magazine. As a keen photographer, many of Simon’s images have been used by the travel sections of the national press, including The Guardian, The Observer, The Sun and The Independent, and appeared in many regional and national calendars.