On September 21st 2018, about 45 members and friends of the History of Deganwy Group braved the wind and rain to hear a fascinating talk at Peniel Chapel by Meurig Jones. Meurig organises filming, photoshoots, VIP visits and many other events in his role as Location Manager of Portmeirion. And what a stunning location to manage!
Meurig revealed the lesser-known history of the area, including the story of Adelaide Haigh, the eccentric owner of the house (then known as Aber Iâ) which became the Hotel, who used to stand behind a screen whilst reading the Bible to her 15 dogs. Sir Clough Williams-Ellis bought the site after her death, and began to combine his love of architecture and nature.
Sir Clough incorporated many tricks in his wonderful buildings, such as trompe l’oeil windows and ‘tiered painting’ to make them appear older. Some have small windows to make them appear bigger, and Bridge House has two entirely different styles of architecture on either side of the same building. There are many vistas framing statues, spires and views, and the mixture of architectural styles is brought together by the Mediterranean colour scheme.
Sir Clough saved and rebuilt several features, including the Bristol Colonnade, formerly the entrance to a bathhouse (no prizes for guessing where…) and damaged during the war – shrapnel marks can clearly be seen on it. The Gothic Pavilion came from Nerquis Hall in Flintshire, and columns from Hooton Hall in Cheshire were salvaged and buried in the woods until they were needed – 32 years later! The lower half of the Campanile was built using stone from the 12th century castle in the woods, which had been built by the Princes Gruffydd and Maredudd ap Cynan, and was demolished in the mid-19th century. When he acquired a reclaimed feature, Sir Clough sometimes said that he needed to ‘Clough it up’ – for instance the Town Hall bears a crown made from a water boiler. Ingenuity is also evident in the tower of White Horses: this contains a working camera obscura, the lens and control of which came from a U-boat.
Famous inhabitants and guests over the years include Noel Coward, Brian Epstein (who lived in the Gatehouse for seven years), Jools Holland and George Harrison. Film connections include the giant Buddha, which was a prop from the Ingrid Bergman film ‘The Inn of the Sixth Happiness’, and parts of ‘Under Suspicion’ with Liam Neeson were filmed on the stone boat by the hotel.
Patrick McGoohan both starred in and was executive director of ‘The Prisoner’; this was preceded by ‘Danger Man’, episodes of which were also filmed at Portmeirion. The popular series, which tapped into Cold War paranoia in the late 1960s, doubled visitor numbers to 100,000; an annual convention is still held every April, complete with re-enactments of favourite scenes. More recently, the last episode of Cold Feet was filmed at Portmeirion; despite featuring a funeral, it led to a 17% increase in wedding bookings.
Sir Clough was not a qualified architect; nevertheless, he designed many wonderful buildings in addition to Portmeirion, ranging from a wing of Battersea Dogs’ Home to Plas Rhianfa on Anglesey. When he died in 1978, his request to have his ashes fired up in a rocket over Portmeirion was fulfilled in spectacular style. The village is now owned by a charitable trust, and is still a hands-on family business.
Next time you visit, look out for the 33 metal panels featuring twin-tailed mermaids which Sir Clough acquired from an old seamen’s mission in Liverpool and which are dispersed throughout the village. Also keep an eye out for half an onion dome (built to hide an ugly chimney), a gargoyle bearing Sir Clough’s face, and the enormous fireplace which forms the square white frontage of another building. And don’t forget to leave time for the 70 acres of woodland, containing many rare species – some of which inspired the best-selling ‘Botanical Garden’ range of Portmeirion Pottery created by Sir Clough’s daughter Susan.
The evening ended with an exclusive sneak preview of ‘The Village’, a fly-on-the-wall documentary which will be aired on ITV next year. Many thanks to Meurig for providing such an entertaining and informative talk, which left us all eager to visit, or in many cases to re-visit, this very special place.
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