Portmeirion: The Architecture of Happiness

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Earlier this month we visited Portmeirion, a coastal village in North Wales exclusively for the use and pleasure of holidaymakers. I can’t remember the last time I was so enchanted with a place. A passion project of architect Clough Williams-Ellis that first opened in the 1920s, Portmeirion remains true to the description Lewis Mumford gave it in a 1962 issue of The New Yorker: “…a gay, deliberately irresponsible reaction against the dull sterilities of so much that passes as modern architecture today.” It is also an entirely enjoyable place to spend at least one day and night, as we did, and I suspect a week would pass just as easily.

Employing the landscape to create a liminal state, Portmeirion ingeniously prepares you to experience it on your inbound journey. Located on a peninsula off Cardigan Bay, your arrival requires an hour’s drive through the stark Welsh countryside of Snowdonia National Park—the land for which was secured for public use by Williams-Ellis—which is just enough time for your mind to absorb the natural landscape and unravel itself from the day-to-day grind. You descend into the village via a private road, then on foot under the thresholds of a Gatehouse and a Bridge House. The sum total effect of this mode of arrival reminded me of an explanation I was once given for the tunnel-like entrance to a mosque in Cairo: to prepare the person for a transformation once he or she arrives in the inner sanctuary.

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The inner sanctuary of Portmeirion is a jolly cliff-side Italianate village populated by tasteful tat boutiques, a bookstore (I like to think this is because Williams-Ellis thought no village complete without one), an ice cream shop, and several cafés and restaurants arranged around a central square. There are cottages where guests can stay for the evening as well as a small art deco-style hotel and restaurant at the bottom of the village with a sweeping view over the tidal estuary. Buildings and follies are adorned with idiosyncratic details, many of which Williams-Ellis rescued from distressed, once-grand British homes and buildings. Staff are uniformed, plentiful, and extraordinarily friendly, all seeming to have undergone Disneyland-style hospitality training. The Welsh accent helps; Mumford aptly described it by saying “…in a country that still does homage to its bards and orators, where every countryman still speaks in a soft singsong, as if verse were more natural than prose.” Fittingly, the bookstore is well stocked with volumes by Dylan Thomas and other Welsh poets should you wish to heighten the mood.

The original impetus for our visit was my husband’s interest in the village that had been the set for the 1960s cult-classic television show, The Prisoner. For me, Portmeirion had vague associations with mid-century pottery made by Williams-Ellis’ daughter, the designer Susan Williams-Ellis, which was enough to rouse my interest. We weren’t sure what to expect and only booked a single night on the theory that if it was all kitsch and irony, 24 hours was about how long we could sustain the joke without growing weary. As Christopher Hussey wrote in a 1930 issue of Country Life, “a pastiche conglomeration such as the acroplois at Portmeirion might easily have been an architectural horror. Set down in words, the idea of dumping a bright Italian village on the Welsh coast is scarcely promising.”
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As it turned out, our fears were completely unwarranted. Perhaps helped by the generous appearance of the sun for what locals told us was the first time this spring, Portmeirion was a joy. It was just busy enough to have interesting people watching but not to be overrun. There were several well-situated watering holes to engage in such people watching and one Prisoner-themed shop to entertain my husband. Should you tire of the village, Deudraeth Castle is a five-minute walk that’s just uphill enough to make the garden an excellent vista point from which to enjoy an apertif (they also have a brasserie and hotel). We ate dinner at the hotel restaurant in the village, which was exceptional, and the next morning we walked one of several trails behind the village through a spectacular forest of rhododendron and camellias. The hydrangea weren’t yet in bloom, but I’m told they’re something to see.

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Despite tremendous competition from the various amusements on offer, my greatest discovery of the visit was Clough Williams-Ellis, with whom I’ve developed a minor obsession. I’m compelled by his singular vision and commitment to creating something for no other reason that pure aesthetic pleasure for the public. Unwittingly I’ve been tracing a thread of such pioneers on my recent visits to the UK. Three weeks before going to Portmeirion I visited the former country home of William Morris, the man most associated with the Arts and Crafts movement. His famous quotes include “Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful,” and “I do not want art for a few any more than education for a few, or freedom for a few.” Both apply equally well to William-Ellis’ creation of Portmeirion. These days this same thread is being woven by people such as the philosopher and writer Alain de Botton, the creative director of Living Architecture, an organization that commissions exceptional modern architecture for the purpose of holiday rentals. The artist Grayson Perry designed one of their projects, and his House for Essex seems a logical next stop on my informal journey along the British trail of beautiful things. But first I want to go back and spend that week in Portmeirion.

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