Funny village, folly good idea

Portmeirion is a quirky, imaginative place you have to visit, John Maddocks writes.

AS I WALK into Portmeirion village I do a double take. Have I suddenly skipped North Wales by some magical process and arrived in Portofino, Italy? What on earth is this Italianate town doing on the coast of Snowdonia?

The answer lies in the eccentric vision of architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who created Portmeirion over 50 years on a private peninsula. Williams-Ellis turned an overgrown area into a quirky, imaginative village constructed from salvaged materials. Now 240,000 people come every year to see the result, and some even stay there on holiday to absorb the unique atmosphere.

Bertrand Russell once said that you only have to sit in Portmeirion long enough "and the whole world comes by". Everyone from Kate Bush to King Zog of Albania has paid a visit, and many like Noel Coward and Beatles manager Brian Epstein stayed. When Patrick McGoohan's 1960s cult classic The Prisoner was filmed here, Portmeirion became a must-see destination overnight.

The fascination begins in the archway entrance at the Gate House when my guide Mike points out a superb Baroque mural on the ceiling.

"It was painted by the German Hans Feibusch, who was rather obsessed by pagan gods," Mike tells me.

But I am already looking ahead to the amazing spires and domes beyond the entrance. The eye-catching Bell Tower or Campanile is definitely the focal point. Williams-Ellis built it in 1928 to draw attention to the village.

"The need for the Campanile was obvious enough," he wrote. "It was imperative that I open my performance with a dramatic gesture of some sort."

The tower, which houses an old chiming clock from a demolished London brewery, is certainly dramatic and sets the tone for Portmeirion. It is obvious that Williams-Ellis took his inspiration from a variety of architectural styles, but the great achievement lies in the fact that those diverse styles don't clash.

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"The Dome or Pantheon is a good example of how Williams-Ellis put things together," Mike says of an imposing building near the entrance. "He found a huge ornate Gothic fireplace in Cheshire and brought it here in 1958. Then he decided that the village suffered from 'dome deficiency' and designed and built the Pantheon behind it."

So many people thought that the dome was a religious temple that they pressured Williams-Ellis to dedicate it for that purpose, but he refused. Many feel that his secular attitude led the church in Wales to refuse permission for his memorial plaque to be hung in a nearby chapel.

Williams-Ellis's visionary enthusiasm led him to search far and wide for materials that could be recycled. In some cases he imported whole structures. The fabulous Colonnade, which was originally built in 1760, was carried 320 kilometres by road from Bristol to Portmeirion. This involved dismembering 100 tons of finely wrought masonry stone by stone and reassembling it at the village.

Sometimes buildings were so badly damaged during their dismantling and removal to Portmeirion that Williams-Ellis nearly gave up. He transported the Gothic Pavilion from Flintshire only to find that the demolition contractors had delivered a heap of rubble. Rather than abandon his plan, Williams-Ellis employed some skilled masons who used the remnants to build one of the town's most beautiful small structures.

But Williams-Ellis's vision encompassed much more than putting together an eclectic collection of salvaged buildings. The heart of Portmeirion is his Piazza, which is entered through a portico aptly named the Gloriette after a building at the Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna.

"The amazing thing about Portmeirion is that inspiration came from everywhere and anywhere and it all works as a coherent whole," Mike points out as we look out over the Piazza's pond and fountain.

Two tall Ionic columns flank steps leading down from the pond. On top of each column is an exquisite gilded Burmese dancing figure in a 19th-century Mandalay style.

"Only Clough Williams-Ellis could make that Greek and Burmese combination work so spectacularly," Mike claims. "And when you look around, you'll find that it's the ornate statuary, frescoes, murals, facades, carvings and trompe l'oeil that make this such a special place."

Some of the statues are very impressive, particularly those of Hercules and the Buddha. The Buddha statue was originally used as a prop in the 1958 film The Inn Of The Sixth Happiness, which starred Ingrid Bergman.

The whimsical carvings and motifs that greet me unexpectedly as I walk around - such as the image of Shakespeare looking over a veranda railing - make me smile. After all, Portmeirion is a folly on a grand scale, and it's the sense of fun so important to the vision of its creator that makes a visit worthwhile.

TRIP NOTES

*Getting there: Portmeirion is near Porthmadog on the coast of North Wales. The nearest airport is Manchester. You can drive from Manchester in three hours or from London in about five hours. Train and coach services are also available from London.
* Opening hours: Every day from 9.30am to 5.30pm.
* Cost: Adults $14, children $7.
* Accommodation: Portmeirion has hotels and 17 self-catering cottages sleeping from two to eight people.
* See http://www.portmeirion-village.com and www.visitwales.com.

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