Picturesque Portmeirion

The People’s Friend – 13th April 2024

“Is this your first time at Portmeirion?” The receptionist hands me my ticket and a handy village map.

“No, this must be my fourth visit,” I reply. “But I always see something I haven’t seen previously!”

The receptionist giggles. “I know what you mean! Have you seen the oval grille on the Town Hall?”

The frown on my face gives away the answer.

“Takes a bit of hunting, but it has some fascinating history behind it. I only discovered it myself the other day, and I’ve worked here for ten years! Enjoy your day.”

Portmeirion is the Italianate-style village built by the architect Clough Williams-Ellis during the 20th century. It’s a riot of colour in any weather, but today I’m blessed with blue skies and sunshine. The buildings are practically iridescent.

Although it became famous in the 1960s, thanks to Patrick McGoohan and the highly popular television series The Prisoner, the village began life a hundred years ago.

Clough bought the site in 1925, when it was known as Aber Iâ, which means Glacial or Ice Estuary. He wanted to build a coastal village here, believing it was possible to create something beautiful, occasionally using salvaged materials.

His motto was “Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future,” and he often described Portmeirion as “a home for fallen buildings.”

Following the main path down to the village, I pass through the Gate House. This was the first building Clough built here after planning restrictions were lifted following the Second World War.

Many of today’s visitors point at the rugged rock in the tunnel, upon which the Gate House was built. Few look up, but those who do can see a wonderful painted mural on the tunnel’s ceiling. It just shows how important it was to Clough to make everywhere look beautiful.

That’s why it takes more than one visit to see everything Portmeirion has to offer. There are murals, ornaments, statues, and architectural details adorning every building, alcove, balustrade, chimney, roofline, and wall.

The explorer in me spots a tiny path to the left, so I follow. This diversion drops me through some hedges to a circular grotto. The roof provides the perfect viewing platform over the Dwyryd Estuary.

The village takes its name from its location. When the tide is in, it feels like a small port or harbour. From here, it’s only a short sail round the peninsula to Tremadoc Bay and the Irish Sea. And although it’s now part of Gwynedd, the old county name was Merioneth—hence Portmeirion.

From here, the views are stupendous. Across the estuary are the mountains of Eryri, or Snowdonia, National Park, and down by the water’s edge it looks like there’s a boat moored at the quayside.

Dropping under the viewing platform, I stumble into the grotto. Lining this Mediterranean blue-walled grotto are large scallop shells collected from the local beach.

Retracing my steps, I reach the Battery Square. From a platform beside the Toll House, a statue of St Peter reads from a scroll. 

Apparently, the canopy above St Peter’s head should have been bigger, but the foundry got the measurements wrong! Typically, though, Clough wouldn’t waste it.

Opposite St Peter, is a shelter housing a large gold painted Bhudda. It was made for a film called the Inn of the Sixth Happiness, starring Ingrid Bergman, which was filmed nearby. Clough rescued it, determined to use it in Portmeirion. 

Above the Bhudda stands an imposing building called The Pantheon, crowned by a dome reminiscent of St Paul’s Cathedral. But what’s more fascinating is the vast gothic porch, topped with two bird statues, on the front.

The porch was originally part of a vast fireplace and minstrels’ gallery at Dawpool, a large country house on the Wirral. It was owned by Thomas Ismay, who controlled the White Star Line shipping company. Unfortunately, Dawpool fell into ruin in the 1920s after Ismay’s death in 1899.

Prior to Dawpool’s demolition in 1927, Clough bought the fireplace and left it in Portmeirion’s grounds until he worked out what to do with it. It was thirty years later, when Clough built The Pantheon, that he decided the fireplace would make a great porch!

A stone’s throw from The Pantheon stands the Bristol Colonnade overlooking the Piazza. This is another of Clough’s salvages, because it came from Arnos Court in Bristol, two hundred miles away.

Built in 1760, it sustained bomb damage during the Second World War and, as a scheduled monument, it was only granted permission to be moved to Portmeirion if it was painstakingly repaired.

Every stone was individually numbered, creating a rather complicated three-dimensional jigsaw puzzle.

Cutting down the path from The Bristol Colonnade, I pass The Gloriette. This intricate construction was rescued from Hooton Hall in Cheshire in the 1930s. Just like The Pantheon’s porch, when he bought it, Clough did not know what to do with it, so he left it in Portmeirion’s seventy-acre grounds, while he considered his options.

Later, Clough wrote, “For nearly thirty years I forgot all about this rather rash and extravagant purchase until I had my Gloriette idea, by which time these bits and pieces could nowhere be found.”

He located them, eventually. They were buried underneath a garden that had been built on top of them!

I’m wondering if Clough was a bit of a hoarder, saving bits of buildings, just in case they came in handy sometime. Glancing around Portmeirion, the village wouldn’t be what it is today had he not done so.

Looking across The Piazza, opposite the Gloriette, is the Gothic Pavilion. This came from Nerquis Hall in Flintshire. It was originally created as a covered entrance, or porte cochere, but in hindsight was deemed to be superfluous and rather oversized in proportion to the rest of the hall.

So Clough arranged for it to be dismantled and transported to Portmeirion. Unfortunately, the dismantlers were rather more heavy-handed in their work than needed, forcing Clough’s stonemasons to amend the design. The result probably looks more impressive than the original.

I can’t help but notice the metal mermaid panels adorning the Pavilion and many other buildings dotted around the village. I’ve a feeling they were rescued from somewhere. I’m right! He acquired thirty of these as a job lot from the old Liverpool Sailors’ Home in 1954, when the building was being redeveloped.

More of these panels have been used on the bandstand, which, like everything else here in Portmeirion, is more than meets the eye. It hides the village’s electrical substation.

Next to the bandstand is an impressive statue of Hercules with the world on his shoulders. Cast in 1863, Clough acquired him in 1960 from Aberdeen, and brought him back to Portmeirion on the back of a pickup truck.

Ahead is the Town Hall, and I’m intrigued by the grille the receptionist mentioned, but the sun is making the estuary sparkle, so I decide to drop to the quayside first.

The Hotel overlooking the estuary was the original mansion for Aber Iâ, when Clough acquired the land. It needed renovating, but he knew once he’d got it up and running, it would provide a useful income stream to help him further develop the village.

Even here, Clough reused materials. Timbers in the Cockpit Bar came from HMS Arethusa, the last of Britain’s man-of-war naval ships to sail into battle. A huge fire gutted the hotel in 1981, and it took seven years to refurbish it.

There’s a splendid view of the quayside from the terrace, and that’s when I spot the boat I thought was moored here is actually part of the quay! Another of Clough’s cunning design tricks. There was once a real boat anchored here, but a vicious storm tore it from the quayside and destroyed it.

Heading back up the hill, I arrive at the salmon-pink-painted Town Hall. Its grandeur comes from another of Clough’s salvages. He read about the proposed demolition of Emral Hall, near Wrexham. Parts of the building were being sold off in lots. 

He acquired the Jacobean ceiling from the Hall’s Banqueting Room for a bargain of thirteen pounds. Unfortunately, the rest of the room, including the wooden panelling and the vast mullion windows, cost considerably more to acquire.

But on the exterior wall, sandwiched between the ground-floor windows and the shed containing the fire engine, I spy a large oval-shaped decorative grille. Although it looks part of the building, its life journey began a long way from here.

It used to be part of the previous Bank of England building in London’s Threadneedle Street before it was demolished in 1926 to make way for today’s current building.

That’s why Portmeirion is so fascinating. Clough salvaged bits of buildings from all over Britain, yet they look like they’ve always belonged here.

No matter how many times I visit Portmeirion, I always see something I haven’t seen before. I wonder what I’ll see next time?

(c) Simon Whaley