Ghosts and Legends in Wales – Portmeirion
The brainchild of architecture’s answer to Picasso, Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis. Instead of haunted houses, we found a haunted shop and learned about a haunted mine while at Portmeirion, WalesVia Magic Carpet Journals. Story and Photos by M. Maxine George
We traveled along the west coast of Wales to visit Portmeirion, advertised as an Italianate Village. The descriptive blurb I read goes on to say that Portmeirion’s beautiful location defies description. That is true. Nestled into a rocky prominence, on the coast of Snowdonia, the combination of the sea, craggy rocks and forested hillsides make a attractive setting for this unusual village. The first known record of construction on the peninsula was in 1188. However, construction of this unusual village did not begin until the site was bought by Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis in 1925. A fairytale or a fantasy I could not quite comprehend which – wherever I turned it seemed to assault my senses. Bits and pieces gathered together from far and wide joined together with construction built to suit the tastes of Clough. Looking around I see columns, arches, towers and statues; a Buddha and a Christian saint with no real connection to their surroundings; and central to it all we see a swimming pool surrounded with palm trees. I wondered what was the theme? Was there a unifying concept to bring this all together? To me Clough’s whims appeared to have no common thread – a mishmash of structures and colours; designs all thrown together as the “master-painter” imagined it – rather like an architectural Picasso.
There was a derelict mansion on the property at the time of the purchase, which Clough immediately set about restoring. For this one building, Clough seems to have kept pretty much to the original style of architecture. The appearance of the white mansion overlooking the sea, appealed to me. It was originally built in 1850 and prior to Clough, had last been owned by an elderly lady with a love of dogs. During the years she and her dogs resided in the mansion – the dogs lived in the room known as the Mirror Room. During our visit there a very nice tea was set for us in the elegant Mirror Room, a tastefully decorated room featuring a fireplace surmounted by a large mirror. The mantle was held by an original pair of carved saints and inlaid parquet tile, which the dogs apparently did not defile. We were also told that the old lady allowed the property to grow neglected, so that on her death, woodsmen had to be brought in to chop out a path by which her body could be removed from the area.
The restoration of the mansion was Clough’s first project. Clough realized that the property was going to have to produce income to help finance continuation of his building projects. Therefore he decided to turn the mansion into a hotel. From that time on he considered himself a hotelier and looked to his various projects to bring in money for the further construction of the village. The hotel opened in 1926. It seems that Portmeirion has attracted paying visitors since that time. Some of his visitors were amongst the rich and famous. Portmeirion was the set for the TV show – The Prisoner in the sixties. Noel Coward wrote the play Blithe Spirit during a stay at Portmeirion in 1941, appreciating the peace and serenity of the peninsula, after trying to write in wartime London. Brian Epstein, the manager of The Beatles, often took The Gate House for the summer season in the sixties. The attraction must be the tranquility of the setting, as it is off the beaten path, however the garish appearance of the place in March does not lend itself to make me personally think of peace and serenity.
Born in Northamptonshire, England in 1883, Clough moved with his family to Wales, his father’s birthplace, at the age of four. He went to Trinity College, Cambridge, but did not graduate. Following a three month stint at the Architectural Association School, he threw caution to the wind and began to pursue his obsession to build his dream village. (I am still not convinced it was a dream, but suspect it may have been a cross between a fantasy and science fiction.) Searching far and wide for a suitable place to begin, he eventually chose Aber Ia, a neglected wilderness close to his home. He purchased the private peninsula in Merioneth county for under £5,000. He changed the name to Portmeirion and set to work designing his village. He moved from one project to another, according to his whims, from 1925 until he completed his village in 1973, when he was ninety years old. Clough acquired further pieces of property throughout the years, including one know as Y Gwyllt, a wild garden with a multitude of exotic plants and pathways. Clough renamed it Ghost Garden to commemorate a lost garden. So much for any ghost stories that may have come from that source.
Clough’s daughter Susan was an artist whose Portmeirion Pottery became famous throughout much of the world. During my second stop at Portmeirion I went into the Seconds China Shop. While there a staff member told me that people have told her they saw someone in that shop, long after it closed for the night. They’ve never been able to account for the late night visitor and believe it to have been a ghost. Coming out of the shop, I met a friend who was traveling with another group on a three day tour of Wales. He told me that while their group was visiting a mine, they had scattered a bit while taking pictures. One of our mutual friends was looking at something when she felt someone grab her elbow. She looked around and realized there was no one there. She had a very eerie feeling so left the mine quite hurriedly. After the group gathered together on top, the guide told them that the mine was believed to be haunted because people have reported they felt someone grab their elbow. That group had not been looking for ghosts or ghost stories.
Anyone looking for a Welsh wilderness retreat will be in for a real surprise at Portmeirion. To arrive there we passed through some very scenic countryside. Visitors to the place will find there is much to explore, as each building is different or unusual. You won’t find historic Wales in Portmeirion!
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Story and pictures by M. Maxine George
Last Updated on January 15, 2021 by Matthew George – Webmaster