Saturday, February 12, 2011

The Free Man

Spent a lovely week in Portmeirion.

I was fascinated by Clough Williams-Ellis, the village's creator. He comes across as carefully eccentric - everything about the place was invented, even the name (it was originally called something like Chilly Mouth, but Clough picked something a bit grander, but couldn't quite decide on a pronunciation).

Clough built it on a patch of land near an Uncle's estate, and made the most out of the microclimate, creating England's first purpose-built holiday village. Royalty came, Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit there, everyone was charmed by the basket-weaving hermit in the woods. It was a nice little folly that Clough picked away at in between proper work.

Then the bombshell dropped. The resort was actually making a lot of money. Wife and daughter tactfully realised that, as it was a business, it should behave like one. The dour cheese-pairing hotel manageress was replaced with a flamboyant man with a parrot called Agatha who worked the guests with charm.

Portmeirion already had a shop, but the takings tended to disappear - this was probably related to the discovery that the charming Moroccan barman slept there at nights. Instead, private garages in the villas were done away with, replaced with shops. But what were the shops to sell? Clough's daughter had a brainwave and invented Portmeirion Pottery, which soon became an internationally famous Welsh pottery brand. Curious, as she had it all shipped in from Stoke-on-Trent.

Clough was a great proponent of proper town design. Stalin offered him the role of his chief town planner, but Clough was disturbed by how much he liked the great dictator and instead contented himself with creating Stevenage. He did more than anyone else to create laws for listed buildings and planning permission - but at the same time made sure he was able to work without them at Portmeirion. Similarly, he established the Snowdownia National Park to preserve the Welsh countryside... but ensured that its borders skirted around Portmeirion.

There is a convenient fiction that it was originally established as an artisan's community, but it was always a holiday resort, and one that daytrippers flocked to. The entry price fluctuated according to demand, with a sign outside saying "In order to discourage visitors, the entry price today is __. If you wish to avoid this impost, kindly turn around".

The idea for a holiday resort was ripped off by Billy Butlin, who established a cheap-n-cheery version at Pwllheli. This was requisitioned from him during the war, and afterwards the Pwllheli town council used Clough's planning laws in order to block its reopening. They'd never cared for Butlins, and invited Clough along to the subsequent enquiry - Butlin had nicked his idea and built a tawdry resort, surely he'd be against it? Instead, Clough announced pointed out that Butlins' customers had been through a horrible war and surely they deserved a holiday? To each according to his need, and all that...

Mind you, when Clough discovered the trustees of his Uncle's estate was planning on turning the castle bordering Portmeirion into a home for wayward youth, the businessman in him swiftly decided it would be much better as another hotel.

Clough was a Welsh noble of a certain era that never actually spoke the language. Nowadays the resort is proudly Welsh and staffed by the nicest, most crisply-efficient people you could wish to meet. It's also baking hot in February. Which is surely impossible, but also beautiful.


DDKK said...

'cheese-pairing' - my mind is boggling!

Lucky you to get such unseasonal weather - but even in the rain it's still a beautiful place in a stunning location.

Skip said...

You're right, you know. I wonder what the origins of that as a phrase is.
Stares in the direction of google.... nah. I'll maintain my ignorance and the mental image of a mouse trying to match up different blocks of cheddar.