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Portmeirion: The flight-free slice of Italy in rural Wales that’s putting sustainability first

Portmeirion: The flight-free slice of Italy in rural Wales that’s putting sustainability first

A campanile perches on a hillside. Shuttered houses and palazzi in sorbet pinks, violets and lemons swirl up to a bauble-domed basilica atop a cliff. A graceful colonnade rises above a fountain-splashed, palm-rimmed piazza. Cobbled paths dance through ornate gates and arches, past stucco busts, shell grottos, ionic columns and Burmese dancers, a bronze of Hercules carrying the world on his shoulders. Walled terraces and loggias trip down to the glinting sea. Hot-pink camelias are blooming with the first whisper of spring.

Walking through the gates of Portmeirion is a Dorothy arrives in Oz moment: Wales in technicolour; Italy on acid. If I squint a bit and edit out the cold, spitty drizzle of a late-February day, the sheep, the rows of nodding daffodils, and the dark peaks of Snowdonia popping on the horizon – why yes, it’s almost the Amalfi Coast. But frankly I 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 wilderness”, six miles from his family home on the coast of North Wales, picturing a village wholly in tune with nature. With its cliffs and tide-shaped sands, the sheltered Dwyryd Estuary was perfect for his grand plans.

Portmeirion: Wales’s answer to Italy

(Kerry Walker)

Clough made Portmeirion a “home for fallen buildings”, salvaging ornate windows, panelling and ceilings, ironworks and coats of arms, sometimes entire buildings from demolition sites. The result was a pastiche of Italian Renaissance, baroque, neoclassical, Palladian and Arts and Crafts styles – an “architectural mongrel” designed for dramatic effect in trippy colours recalling warmer Mediterranean shores. One glance at Portmeirion and you might think William-Ellis was nuts. Not so. The man was apparently unemotional and even-tempered. 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 estuary and mountains,”…

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