07 Portmeirion

Historic background

Clough Williams-Ellis had long been nursing the idea of creating a village which would consist of good buildings but not in any consistent style, in order to prove that modern buildings need not be ugly and a hotch-potch of styles could work – in other words, that a village did not need a core of old buildings all in similar style to be attractive. In 1925 he spotted, from the sea, the perfect site, and was lucky to be able to acquire it. At that time there was a house, Aber-lâ, on the shore, with a basically 19th-century garden, of which much, on the Gwyllt peninsula, was semi-wild, and on higher ground above it Castell Deudraeth, a battlemented 19th-century house and its grounds.

From the start the village had to contribute to its own upkeep and so it has always been open to visitors, from the time the original house was converted to a hotel. The stream of visitors has included many notables – Noel Coward, for instance, wrote Blithe Spirit while staying there – and more recently the village provided the setting for the cult TV series The Prisoner.
Over the next forty-five years, excluding the period of the second world war, Williams-Ellis converted the existing buildings (Aber-lâ is now the Portmeirion Hotel) and added many others in various styles. A ‘Home for Fallen Buildings’ was maintained, where various architectural fragments were kept until he could find a use for them. The village is often referred to as ‘Italianate’, but this is a superficial and incorrect assessment; in fact there is an eclectic mixture of styles, according to Williams-Ellis’s original plan.

Key historic landscape characteristics

Gardens, hotel, architectural whims, associations

The village occupies a small valley to the north and north-west of the hotel, which is right on the shore, and in this area are mainly public gardens planted exuberantly with a wide range of plants and shrubs; the favourable climate allows many half-hardy varieties to thrive. There are also specimen trees which pre-date the village. The Piazza, in the middle of the village, on the site of the kitchen gardens of Aber-lâ, has a large, shallow, formal pool with formal gardens around it, and west of this is a pond of completely different character which dates from around 1850 and was part of the ornamental garden of Aber-lâ. On the steep slopes behind the village and leading down to the sea, natural vegetation mixes with planted elements in varying degrees.

The much more extensive Gwyllt gardens, to the west, have always been semi-wild, but contained an important collection of rhododendrons amassed, and bred, by the previous owners of Aber-lâ in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Many of these rhododendrons survive, as do older plantings, and Williams-Ellis also planted parts of this area, for example the Ghost Garden in the extreme west. He added a few buildings as well, and there are also more recent ones including a gazebo in the style of a classical temple designed by his daughter Susan Williams-Ellis in 1983. By the ponds, also recently created, are a modern pagoda and summerhouse.

Development of this part of the garden continues, partly because the conditions allow interesting and exotic species to be grown and partly in order to provide more of interest for Portmeirion’s many visitors. There is a pet cemetery, originally relating to Aber-lâ but still in use, a children’s playground, and miles of paths, mostly pre-dating the building of Portmeirion < back to the map
© Crown copyright. All rights reserved, Gwynedd Archaeological Trust, 100017916, 2005