Updated: Nov 1, 2021
The holiday village of Portmeirion is one of Wales’ most popular tourist attractions. The architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, built the village in an eclectic Mediterranean style. He worked on for fifty years eventually stopping, in 1975, aged ninety one. Although Williams-Ellis was born in England, his family came from Welsh stock and he claimed to be a direct descendant of Owain Gwynedd a 12th Century Welsh prince. He was educated at Oundle School, Northamptonshire and went on to study at Cambridge but never graduated from the University. After leaving Cambridge he spent a few months studying architecture followed by a brief period working for an architectural firm before setting up his own practice. In 1908 William-Ellis’ father died and he inherited the family home ‘Plas Brondanw,’ where he built his first folly, known as ‘Folly Castle.’ During World War I, Williams-Ellis served with the Welsh Guards and won a Military Cross. Returning to civilian life after the war his architectural practice prospered and he designed many notable buildings. One of his less successful creations was a building on the summit of Mount Snowdon. By the 1960s, it was dilapidated and Prince Charles, rather unkindly, described it as, “The highest slum in Wales.” It was replaced by a new visitor centre in 2009 at a cost of £8.35m. As well as taking design commissions in his business, Williams-Ellis began work, in 1925, on what would become his most enduring creation; Portmeirion.
His new village incorporated a medieval castle, boatyard, an 18th century foundry and buildings, which formed part of an estate known as ‘Aber la’ or (Ice Estuary). Williams-Ellis disliked the name and, having bought the estate, changed its name to Portmeirion to indicate that the village was by the sea and in the county of Merioneth. One of the first buildings to be completed was the Portmeirion Hotel, which opened in 1926. More buildings followed and, as they did, Williams-Ellis’ vision of a continental town complete with plazas and swaying palm trees was revealed. Taking ideas from across the world and willing to include parts from demolished buildings he mixed Burmese statues with Greek gods, Corinthian columns with modest bungalows and created a magical vista of symmetry, illusion and interest. As well as looking attractive, many of the buildings were designed to be functional, some becoming holiday cottages. Because of its stunning beauty, Portmeirion has been used as a film and television set for a variety of productions most notable of which was the, 1960s, cult television series ‘The Prisoner’ starring Patrick McGoohan.
In addition to developing Portmeirion, Williams-Ellis was a prime mover in the creation of Snowdonia National Park. He ran a long campaign to preserve Snowdonia and donated 300 acres of land, towards the creation of the park. In 1972 he was knighted for ‘services to architecture and the environment,’ the oldest person ever to be knighted, aged 88 years.
The biggest building on the Aber la Estate had been Castell Deudraeth and Williams-Ellis planned to use the building as part of a hotel complex. Sadly, he never saw it completed. Sir Clough Williams-Ellis died aged 94, in April 1978. Following his death, his body was cremated and, according to his instructions, the ashes were incorporated in a large rocket, later used during a New Years Eve fireworks display at Portmeirion.
Although William-Ellis is no longer alive, his legacy continues to grow. Castell Deudraeth was completed and opened as a hotel in 2001. Today, Portmeirion is administered by a charitable trust, used as a holiday complex, is a popular venue for weddings and the home of a variety of festivals.
An extract from 'The Welsh Folly Book'