Heritage weekend... Portmeirion
Follow the mermaid motif to find an eclectic haven of colourful architecture, a coastal Little Italy with plenty of scenic Welsh charm
We discover the history, plus where to stay, eat and shop in this picturesque corner of Wales
‘Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future,’ was the motto of Sir Clough Williams-ellis, visionary creator of Portmeirion – the whimsical clifftop village set on its own tranquil peninsula just south of Porthmadog. Overlooking the beautiful Dwyryd estuary on the North Wales coast, the village is a fantastical curation of colour and Italianate styling, a project that Sir Clough had conceived some 20 years previously, before coming across the Aber Iâ estate near his home – ‘a neglected wilderness, long abandoned by those romantics who had realised the unique appeal and possibilities of this favoured promontory, but who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping…’
A founding member of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales in 1928, it was the architect’s devotion to showing how a naturally beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it that saw him acquire and rename the resort Portmeirion – ‘Port’ to signify the coast; ‘Meirion’ the correct spelling of Merioneth, the county in which it’s located – for around £5,000 in 1925. Surrounded by 70 acres of woodland gardens and sandy beaches, the village was built in two stages, from 1925 to 1939, then once post-war building restrictions had been lifted, from 1954-76. Gate House, which straddles the driveway beyond the old tollgate, was Sir Clough’s first building, and made a feature of the rugged rock formations upon which the house was constructed. The deep arch, floodlit at night, contains a stunning Baroque ceiling mural by German painter Hans Feibusch, who painted several others at Portmeirion. The second phase of building featured classical and Palladian constructions that contrast with the Arts and Crafts style of earlier structures in the village.
With its scaled-down mansions, quaint cottages, grottoes and towers all grouped around a central piazza, Portmeirion feels almost like a stage set where you can immerse yourself in iconic architecture and scenic views. Indeed, the village formed the surreal set for cult TV series The Prisoner, from 1966 to 1967 – and fans still gather here for annual conventions. The giant plaster of Paris Buddha also featured in 1958 film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman.
Sir Clough collected all manner of curios from disintegrating stately properties and set them alongside his own creations to build a unique seaside utopia and, 50 years after he began,
aged 90, he deemed Portmeirion to be complete. Now owned by a charitable trust, the buildings are all heritage listed and the site is a Conservation Area – Sir Clough’s life’s work today standing as a testament to beauty, something he described as ‘that strange necessity’.
Only 20 miles from Snowdonia National Park, and with Caernarfon Castle a 40-minute journey away, Portmeirion is now one of Wales’ loveliest and most popular tourist attractions. A network of walking paths thread along the coast and through the forested peninsula, which includes the ruins of a castle, and a profusion of exotic plants, nourished by the warm microclimate. Free guided tours of the village are held most days, the ‘forest train’ touring the woodlands from April to October. For real railway buffs, the Ffestiniog and Welsh Highland Railways take in nearby Porthmadog, whose steamtrain line is also connected to a rail heritage centre. And for more contemporary pursuits, Portmeirion offers a spa and wellness centre, as well as being home to arts event Festival N°6 every September. For a characterfully nostalgic day out taking in the scenic beauty of the Welsh coastline, there really is no other more fanciful and romantic a backdrop.
Portmeirion is open every day from 9.30am to 7.30pm. Admission: adult £12, concession £10.50, child £8.50 (under-5s go free). Please note, no dogs are allowed on site. Tel: 01766 770000. For more information, visit portmeirion-village.com.
Above: An aerial view of Portmeirion, the tightly grouped coastal village on a romantic clifftop site that its creator, Sir Clough Williams-ellis, had always envisaged
Clockwise, from above: A fabulous viewpoint from one of the many painted archways in the village; enjoy a stay at the Castell Deudraeth, where you’ll find Welsh oak, original slate floors and a contemporary seaside motif; the Round House was used as No6’s apartment in The Prisoner
Clockwise from above: The piazza in bloom; The Pagoda is one of the unique architectural structures built by Sir Clough; tourists enjoy Portmeirion’s sandy beach