Arch Wizard of Wales: Clough Williams-Ellis “Architect Errant”

Surely only a wizard could have conjured this  place – or so I thought, aged six, when we, the Ashford family first made pilgrimage to Portmeirion on the North Wales coast.


“Cherish the past. Adorn the present. Construct for the future.” This was the life-long credo of Clough Williams-Ellis, the man who dared to build an Italianesque village on a beautiful Welsh headland.


It was like stepping into a living picture book or melting through the mirror into Looking Glass Land. The houses were the rich, powdery, pastel shades of Loveheart sweets (does this strange confection still exist?). There were mythic frescoes in places were a child might least expect them, and best of all, a shell grotto that was just like the Little Mermaid’s deep-sea garden.

It was enchanting from the moment we stepped through the gatehouse entrance. How could there be so much colour, so many decorative flourishes to catch the eye, so many mermaids – here on a wooded Welsh headland with the lowering grey sky above? And the weather was gloomy on that first visit; I was forced to wear my dull brown mac over my pretty summer dress. The photos taken that day show me looking pensive and withdrawn. But I did love the place, and was quick to register the tones of admiration in my parents’ voices whenever they uttered the name of the man who had conceived this folly to beat all follies – Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, self-taught architect and champion for the preservation of rural Britain.

Clough Williams-Ellis (left) with Frank Lloyd Wright at Portmeirion in 1956


Of course he built Portmeirion to prove a point: that a beautiful site could be developed without wrecking  it. When he bought the land in 1925  he described it as “a neglected wilderness.” There was “a pale mansion, a hundred years old, spread along the balustraded terrace on the sea’s edge.”

That house became the Portmeirion Hotel, and some of its associated cottages were integrated in the village plan. The two previous owners from the 1850s onwards had planted the site extensively with specimen oriental trees and exotic plants, many of which still survive. The planting, along with the building of a close-knit hillside village continued from 1925 under Clough’s direction for the next fifty years.

Many of the original plans still exist. The first phase of development was influenced by Clough’s interest in the Arts and Crafts movement. Later buildings followed Classical lines. He also made use of what today we refer to as architectural salvage, and indeed he called Portmeirion  “a home for fallen buildings.” With this architectural bricolage are references to some 5,000 years of architectural history from around the world. Critics of modernist inclination thus tend to overlook Clough’s contribution to architecture. This is a mistake. On our most recent visit to Wales we discovered his Caffi Morannedd Cafe at Criccieth, a few miles north of Porthmadog.


Caffi Morannedd by the sea at Criccieth


Of course it was at Portmeirion that I first learned there was such a thing as architecture, and that this was something altogether more momentous and wonderful than drawing pictures of “our house” as one endlessly did at primary school.

Clough was also intent on giving people pleasure. He fought all his life to create and preserve beauty, which he called “that strange necessity.” But this did not mean that he was against development. “Enterprise by all means,” he said in 1931 when he was Chairman of the Council for the Rural Protection of Wales, “but reasonable, seemly development where it is in the public interest and nowhere else.”

And oh how fine it would be if English planning authorities were ruled by such objectives, instead of developer aspiration.


As a child, I liked the way the houses seemed to have grown out of the rocky hillside, and that there was a mysterious “smugglers’ path” through a tunnel of overgrown rhododendrons that led to a secret sandy cove and the little tin lighthouse on the headland. It was all such fun, and created by a man who, like any magician, or indeed a wizard, wanted everyone to take delight in his illusions.

And now, since this post was prompted by Sue Llewellyn’s Word A Week arch challenge, here are some more views of Portmeirion – naturally with arches of all kinds in mind – all taken last week in Wales under mostly sunny skies.



Unicorn Cottage: this illusion of a stately home is in fact a bungalow



Arch with a view: glimpse of the estuary below the village





In the foreground, behind the palms, is the colonnade from a Bristol bathhouse built in 1760. Another view below.




There are cafes and restaurants in the village, and cottages to let.



Mermaid Cottage was already on the site when Clough bought the land. It was built in the 1850s, and Clough adorned it with the canopy and added the palms for the Mediterranean look.






The Hercules Gazebo, complete with cast iron mermaid panels, serves to disguise a generator.







The Prisoner, the cult TV series of the late 1960s starring Patrick McGoohan, was filmed at Portmeirion. It put Portmeirion on the map and its association with the place is still celebrated.



Arches at all angles.



Archway to the Piazza and (below) the Piazza itself below.




The village from the estuary.


The arc of the Dwyryd Estuary taken from the esplanade at the Portmeirion Hotel



Clough Williams-Ellis 1883-1978  Photo: Polandeze Creative Commons

A man who lived creatively in all senses, and whose work has delighted millions.

copyright 2013 Tish Farrell


66 thoughts on “Arch Wizard of Wales: Clough Williams-Ellis “Architect Errant”

  1. Lovely! Thanks so much for sharing and helping me feel like I’ve been transported there. I especially love the photo (4672?) of the window in the red wall protected behind a teal-blue railing, with white flowers growing up the right corner. It is spectacular! I could have it framed and look at it all day ;). Thanks so much for sharing this delightful post. Cheers, Gina

  2. I could spend hours reading this.I love the walls built up with layers of stone…and it gave me a reminder of my visit there many years ago.I like the pottery too

  3. Bonjour Tish

    Fabulous post – ever since watching The P have wanted to visit. Your wonderful narrative about the origins of the village and Ellis took me on a journey full of great pictures and evocative words. Now l feel l’ve been there and seen it.

    Thank you so much

    Warmest regards


  4. What a fascinating place and wonderful post, Tish. Your photos make this delightful place come alive, and I like the views of and through the various arches.

  5. That’s why I recognized the buildings–The Prisoner! Thanks for sharing this. And thanks for the follow! Great hearing from another SCBWIer.
    Blue Skies

  6. Thanks Tish; this is a lovely informative post – wonderfully illustrated – about a place I fell in love with when I first saw ‘The Prisoner’. Definitely on my list of places to go on my next UK trip.

  7. What an interesting place with an interesting history. I can see where it would a fantasy world for a child. Interesting about the Prisoner television show too, I watched it as a child.

  8. What an interesting place Tish – thanks so much for taking us there. I especially liked the first photo and the Arch with a View. Can just picture you at 6 exploring!!!

    1. Thanks, Tina. It was definitely a favourite childhood place to go when on our Welsh holidays, made even more enticing one year with the purchase of a lovely Polish rag doll bought from the gift shop that used to be there. I wonder where she went.

  9. Such beautiful photos of a truly enchanting place. Thank you so much for taking us there and sharing this talented architect’s work. I love that he used architectural salvage and that he called Portmeirion “a home for fallen buildings.” I thoroughly enjoyed your wonderful description of how seeing this place as a child “was like stepping into a living picture book or melting through the mirror into Looking Glass Land”. A fantastic post on so many levels. Thank you!

  10. I was only there once, Tish, and long ago, but it left a lasting impression. Lovely to revisit it with you. Amazing to me that anyone could be a self-taught architect and make such a wonderful job of it.
    That last shot along the estuary is so inviting. 🙂

    1. So glad you enjoyed the second visit, and yes the self-taughtness, I guess he just had very keen sensibilities and intuition; perhaps that’s why it works, despite in some ways Portmeirion being a pastiche.

  11. Tish, I don’t know how I missed your post on Clough Ellis. I’ve been to Portmeirion many times and loved it from just about every angle metaphorically. Your photos are the best I ve seen.
    So glad I found it on you lovely site. Thanks

    1. Thanks all round, Tony. The Portmeirion post seems to have become ‘sticky’. I’ve no idea what that means. As to the photos, the light was fantastic that day, and I’m good at cropping!

  12. I’ve only driven past Portmerion and I’m always fascinated. I watched the entire series of The Prisoner about ten years ago, so for me it exists in my mind like a brightly-coloured children’s storybook with Yellow Submarine-ish illustrations. I don’t really want to go there and get that image shattered… holiday lets, takeaways and plastic windows perhaps, though your photos look hopeful!

    1. I think you would still find Portmeirion an interesting place, (and there’s no denying its original surreal quality still persists) especially in low season. There are shops and cafes, but then there always was a gift shop and café. Its commercialism is fairly discreet and National Trustish, and it is still a beautiful unspoiled setting. Originally the site was something of an arboretum and sanctuary for plant-finders’ discoveries, and this has been much developed although we didn’t go and look, which I regret.

  13. I remember love hearts and the prisoner (had a crush on Patrick McGoohan) but did not realise that there was such an architectural confection to be had here. Thank you for the fascinating in-depth background and stunning images

    1. Dear Cee, thank you so much for your very kind words and the nomination. I’ve rather avoided accepting nominations so far, not because I don’t appreciate the sentiments, I do. It’s the participating bit I have problems with. Very many thanks, though. It’s definitely one you deserve yourself with all the inspiration and help you give to us all. Tx

    1. That whole corner of North Wales is pretty spectacular, but Portmeirion is well worth a visit. You can stay there too – in village rooms or at the hotel by the sea, or at the castle nearby. They have also reinstated acres of the earlier Victorian garden which you can view while riding a miniature ‘train’.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.