Portmeirion: The no-fly slice of Italy in rural Wales that puts sustainability first

ONE steeple perches on a hillside. Closed houses and palace in pink sorbet, violets and lemons swirl in a domed basilica atop a rock. A graceful colonnade rises above a fountain splash, broad with palm trees. Stone-paved paths dance through ornate gateways and arches, past stucco busts, shell caves, Ionic columns and Burmese dancers, a bronze of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders. Walled terraces and loggias descend to the sparkling sea. Hot-pink camellias bloom at the first whisper of spring.

Walking through the gates of Portmeirion is a moment when Dorothy arrives in Oz: Wales in Technicolor. Italy on acid. If I squint a bit and process the cold, spitting drizzle of a late February day, the sheep, the beckoning rows of daffodils and the dark peaks of Snowdonia looming on the horizon – because yes, it’s almost the Amalfi Coast. But I honestly wouldn’t want to imagine myself anywhere else.

Camp, kitsch, ridiculously over the top – call it what you will, Portmeirion was the life’s work of architect Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), a Northhamptonshire-born reverend’s son, who dreamed up this little Italy when he was just 23 years old. In 1925, he finally took out a £5,000 loan from the Midland Bank to buy a “neglected wasteland”, six miles from his family home on the North Wales coast, depicting a village perfectly attuned to nature. With its tide-shaped cliffs and sandbars, Duaryd’s sheltered estuary was perfect for his grand plans.

Portmeirion: Wales’s answer to Italy

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Portmeirion: Wales’ answer to Italy

(Kerry Walker)

Clough made Portmeirion a ‘home for fallen buildings’, rescuing ornate windows, paneling and ceilings, ironwork and coats of arms, sometimes whole buildings from demolition sites. The result was a pastiche of Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Palladian and Arts and Crafts styles – an “architectural mash-up” designed for dramatic effect in trippy colors reminiscent of warmer Mediterranean shores. One look at Portmeirion and you might think William-Ellis was mad. Not so much. The man was seemingly insensible and humble. But in architecture he unleashed his eccentric dreams and fulfilled his romantic vision.

“Clough Williams-Ellis worked with nature, embracing botanical hedges and arches to make things look bigger, using the topography of the cliffs to frame the estuaries and mountains,” enthuses estate manager Meurig Jones, with such passion that barely stops breathing. “Portmeirion was his amphitheatre, designed as a series of spectacles. It showed how a beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it. Visitors always say ‘I got the most amazing photo’, but no wonder – it did all the hard work for you.”

It showed how a beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it

Meurig Jones

Is it a Marmite attempt; you either love it or hate it. I love it. And plenty of stars have fallen hard for Portmeirion over the years, too: Frank Lloyd Wright, HG Wells, George Bernard Shaw and Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who brought the Fab Four here. Being such a visual feast, the village has often been used as a film location – in Danger Man (1959), cult television series from 1967 The prisoner, Doctor Who (1976) and, in 2023, My happy ending.

Exploring further, I learn that the 1928 belfry was inspired by the one at Portofino (which Clough had so admired on his travels), that its old turret clock came from a demolished London brewery, and that the base stones were original Castell Deudraeth of the 12th century. The dome-topped dome was added in the early 1960s as Williams-Ellis felt the village suffered from a “lack of a dome”. The square followed soon after, replacing a tennis court. Built in 1976, the tollgate was Clough’s last work – still polishing his masterpiece at the age of 93.

“Buildings that were trash to others were gold to Clough,” Meurig continues. “He wanted people to see new things every time they visited. His attention to detail was incredible – the fake windows, the stepped panels – some with four shades of the same color to make them look old and damp. The light is special at dawn, with the sun rising from the other side of the estuary, making the colors pop. Dusk is also wonderful, when everything is subtly lit.”

Portmeirion is a pastiche of Italian Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, Palladian and Arts and Crafts styles

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Portmeirion is a pastiche of Italian Renaissance, Baroque, Neoclassical, Palladian and Arts and Crafts styles

(Kerry Walker)

The weather is too bad for alfresco dining today, but I’m still determined to enjoy more of the taste of Italy, so I pop into Caffi Glas pizzeria and order a surprisingly authentic diavola, fresh from the wood-fired oven. I top it off with a homemade gelato from Caffi’r Angel. Portmeirion is overrun in the summer, so I’m told, but today there are only a few other visitors and no one else is eating ice cream (more fool them).

Built deep in the forest, the original site of the medieval castle is now a wildly verdant spot with a magnificent view of the river estuary. Castell Deudraeth is a lavish Victorian mansion built by David Williams, the first Liberal MP for Merioneth. It is a beauty, with an immaculately restored walled garden and neo-Gothic interiors. In the new, huge, luxurious Ricardo Pearce Suite, I sit on the balcony as the rain eases, listening to a woodpecker drum as the clouds begin to lift to reveal twisting estuaries and peaks I didn’t realize were there. .

Nature mattered to Clough. He was a tireless campaigner for the environment, a founder member of the Council for the Protection of Rural England and a long-time chairman of the Campaign for the Protection of Rural Wales. It defined the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park. So it makes sense that Portmeirion has impeccable green credentials, with its own biomass plant providing 85 per cent of its energy, eco-friendly trolleys that transport guests from hotel to village and electric car chargers.

Portmeirion was designed as a series of vistas

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Portmeirion was designed as a series of sights

(Kerry Walker)

Then, of course, there is Y Gwyllt (Wild Wood), the 70-acre sub-tropical forest that thrives in the local microclimate and is home to some of Britain’s rarest and largest ‘championship trees’. Planted by Victorian botanists, it is what Clough called “the finishing touch of magic to the place I found so moving”.

I walk for an hour. you could walk for much more on the 19-mile trails, clambering over cliffs and eventually emerging at the secluded golden arch of Whitesands Bay, which disappears at high tide. Camellias are dripping color on rocky paths, the first rhododendrons are blooming and the magnolias are already in bud as I reach the Japanese temple and lake. But it’s the trees that really grab me: giant redwoods, maidenhair trees and tulips, conifers, ginkgos and giant rhubarbs from the Brazilian rainforest grow luxuriantly here, sending down tentacle-like roots from deep into the moss-furred and ferny forest floor.

The light is special at dawn, with the sun rising from the other side of the estuary, making the colors pop

Meurig Jones

In the blue dusk, I head to the Portmeirion Hotel for dinner by the sea. Built as a seaside village in 1850, it was renovated by Clough in 1926, who put his own curvilinear modernist design into the dining room, and later art deco by Sir Terence Conran in 2005. Thinking back to summer nights in Italy, I can’t to resist a glass of Portmeirion rosé next to a huge open fire. With chef Mark Threadgill (of Great British menu fame) at the helm, dinner is a knockout. Seasonal Welsh produce is adapted into dishes such as rib-eye beef with cep duxelles, crispy layered potatoes and black garlic, and single-origin chocolate tart with butternut squash ice cream.

The rain-washed cobblestones glisten as I walk out, satiated, into the night, listening to the lapping of the sea, and let my gaze drift to the steeple shining gold on the hillside. It’s Italy momentarily, before a gust of cold wind makes me shiver and pull my coat tighter – Wales again. But it is all the more impressive for this dual personality. and all accessible without flying.

The essentials for the trip

Staying there

Castell Deudraeth has doubles from £244, B&Bs and suites from £344.

More information

Book tickets in advance for visits during the main season (March to early November). Day tickets cost £18/11 per adult/child. You can download apps and maps online. Go to portmeirion.wales

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