In 1925, Clough Williams-Ellis spent less than £5,000 buying a parcel of land, which he described as, “a neglected wilderness.” Today, on its 90th anniversary, we call it Portmeirion.
He 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 Aber Iâ, which means ice estuary. Clough 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 it’s location in the old county of Merioneth (which disappeared during the 1974 local government re-organisation).
Wander casually around Portmeirion today, and Clough’s 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.
Clough 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.
Clough saw his village as his “home for fallen buildings,” because some of what we see today originated elsewhere. He was forever recycling bits of buildings, and upcycling 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 Clough 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, opening 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, Clough 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 Clough permission to dismantle it, and rebuild it at Portmeirion.
Just off from the Piazza is The Town Hall, built between 1937 and 1938. Originally, Clough 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 Walbrook, in the City of London.
At the other end of the Piazza is The Gothic Pavillion, which also originated from Flintshire. “This was a generous gift to me from Nerquis Hall,” Clough 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 Clough, 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.”
Clough 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, Clough 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 Clough had rescued 30 years earlier. He’d completely forgotten about until they dug up a garden within the grounds and rediscovered them.
Clough’s home for fallen buildings has certainly stood the test of time. In the 90 years 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. You can’t get more Cloughed up than Portmeirion.
Some 240,000 visitors explore Portmeirion each year. Noël Coward wrote Blythe Spirit in five days while staying in the village. Many of the properties can be rented as self-catering holiday apartments. Clough’s daughter Susan, and her husband Euan established Portmeirion Pottery in 1960.
For more information visit: http://www.portmeirion-village.com
Born 28th May 1883, died 9th April 1978. Married Amabel Strachey one hundred years ago in 1915. Founder member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England. Founder member of the Council for the Protection of Rural Wales. Influential advocate of the establishment of national parks in England and Wales.
© Simon Whaley