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In a forest of tangled trees on a long peninsula by the sea, a visionary named Sir Clough Williams-Ellis spent nearly half a century building his own Camelot of brick, stone and eccentric dreams : Welsh Fantasy

December 31, 1989|LISA MARLOWE | Marlowe is a Malibu free-lance writer

PORTMEIRION, Wales — While the upper reaches of Wales' highest peak are frequently lost in mists, stone farmhouses far below stand out against the hillsides--their slate roofs glistening in a driving rain that turns the sod a shocking green.

Swollen streams cascade over rocks, and waterfalls tumble into lush valleys. Such is the scene in North Wales, with monuments as old as the Pyramids, a land where Druids and Celts built megaliths to a vanished golden age and the legend of King Arthur was born. No country in the Western world has an older language--still spoken--or an older literature.

It is here, in a forest of tangled trees on a long peninsula by the sea, that a visionary named Sir Clough Williams-Ellis built his very own Camelot and named it Portmeirion.

He put together this enclave, piece by piece, like a jigsaw puzzle.

It took Williams-Ellis, an architect, nearly half a century to create his dream, a dream he fashioned after his own eccentric whims. One house led to another until an entire village appeared.

When Williams-Ellis purchased the site in 1925, only a single mansion overlooked Traeth Bach, an estuary that flows to the Irish Sea.

After this, Williams-Ellis traveled across Europe, rescuing buildings from destruction and incorporating them into his unique village.

From 1925 to 1972, when the last building was set in place, Portmeirion became his not-so-private passion.

After converting the original old mansion, with its sea-washed terrace, into a hotel, now known as Main House, he built his first guest cottages. This was in 1926.

Today, travelers seek shelter in rooms, suites and small apartments whose names (Royal Dolphin, Anchor and Watch House) relate to Portmeirion's proximity to the Irish Sea.

Sun-washed, pastel-colored towers co-exist with Georgian houses, and with twilight, Portmeirion takes on the soft shades of Portofino, that distant Italian village which inspired Williams-Ellis to create Portmeirion.

Yet Portmeirion projects its own peculiar personality, what with peacocks parading under peppermint-striped awnings, and dwarf-size doorways and staircases that end abruptly. Everything is slightly askew, and the closer you look, the more surreal it becomes.

A bristol colonnade rises dead center of the cobblestone village, and gilded Burmese dancers from Asia perch atop Ionic columns not far from a giant Buddha.

If all this strikes you as some sort of Mad Hatter's dream, then the picture is emerging.

Earlier, Portmeirion was the site of a castle, which a Welsh prince owned--an ancestor of Williams-Ellis. By 1851, the mansion called Main House took shape, featuring a garden profuse with Oriental blooms.

The Portmeirion created by Williams-Ellis was intended to stand as a "living protest" against the havoc being wreaked by modern developers.

Considering the indiscriminate development pursued throughout the world today, Williams-Ellis without question was a visionary, a rebel who was years ahead of his time.

Following the development of Portmeirion, a number of artists were attracted. Bertrand Russell became a resident; Frank Lloyd Wright paid a visit. Years later, Noel Coward was inspired to write his other-worldly work, "Blithe Spirit."

It also was in Portmeirion that the cult-classic 1960s television series, "The Prisoner," was filmed. As a spinoff to the series, a village shop does a lively business selling "Prisoner" souvenirs.

While Portmeirion was being developed, Williams-Ellis continued to travel, collecting exotic flora.

Violet and rose-colored rhododendrons bloom alongside azaleas, feral lilies and magnolias. These same gardens inspired the internationally known Portmeirion pottery pattern that is locally made and sold at village shops.

Visitors, though, are drawn to the Main House with its 18th-Century oak staircase, its elaborate bar decorated in fabrics from India, and its great stone fireplace.

Each of its 14 guest rooms is styled differently; dinner in the white, antique-filled dining room is replete with silver service and harp accompaniment, and sweeping views of the estuary add to the magic of the moment.

Today, 250,000 visitors travel to Portmeirion each year to see Williams-Ellis' creation. It is up to the visitor to interpret for himself this uninhibited symbol of one man's dream.

Getting There: By car, Portmeirion is 4 1/2 hours from London. Take the M1, M6 and M54, then the A5 as far as the Bala exit (three miles past Corwen). Follow the signs for Porthmadog. Portmeirion is one mile beyond Penrhyndeudraeth.

By rail, leave London's Euston Station for Bangor, which is a four-hour journey. From Bangor, Portmeirion is about a 45-minute drive. Alternately, change at Llandudno Junction for Blaneau Ffestiniog, which is near Portmeirion.

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