PORTMEIRION HISTORY

- The Place and its Past -

A look at more than a century of the resort's past and its early years,
using old pictures and maps, together with a thousand year historical account.

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Launched 10/12/02, updated 09/29/12.


JUNE 2004 INTRODUCTION - WELCOME TO THIS PORTMEIRION HISTORY WEBSITE. ITS PAGES HAVE 120 PHOTOS AND SO LOADING TIME WILL VARY, ACCORDING TO CONNECTION SPEEDS. ALL IMAGE DIMENSIONS AND FILE SIZES HAVE BEEN REDUCED AS MUCH AS POSSIBLE, BUT TO PRESERVE VISUAL QUALITY THEY HAVE NOT BEEN DOWNSIZED TOO FAR.      Roger Langley.

HISTORY MAIN WEBLINKS 1861 ESSAY

PATRICK McGOOHAN BIOGRAPHY

PATRICK McGOOHAN BIO WEBSITE

PETER WYNGARDE BIOGRAPHY

online articles by Roger Langley
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        Portmeirion is a coastal hotel resort in North Wales, first established in 1925. The small settlement which existed there previously was known as Aber Iā (referring to the nearby estuary, or "mouth" of the passing tidal river). In about 1840, a mansion was built there and took the place's name, sometimes seen on later postcards as "Aberia". This splendid residence became Portmeirion's main hotel building when the site's new owner, architect Clough Williams-Ellis, acquired the estate. He soon began building or converting a few additional cottages, to give extra accommodation.

        Today there are many more buildings of all shapes and sizes within Portmeirion's grounds. The place became most famous as "The Village", the setting for the 1967 TV series "The Prisoner". The aerial pictures on this page are from that series and are © Carlton International Media Ltd. This website has been created to look at Portmeirion's past and also to study the history of some significant buildings.

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        In the first picture, Portmeirion is seen to be located on a peninsula. It lies just south east of the town of Porthmadog. To the left of the picture is Tremadoc Bay, nestling in the far larger Cardigan Bay. The River Dwyryd passes by Portmeirion, leaving at low tide wide expanses of sands. At high tide, the waters reach right up to the coastal paths, giving the cut-off land an 'island' effect. The small white 'dot' on the left is a dummy lighthouse. This is shown in the picture, above right and was created by Clough Williams-Ellis in the 1950s and was given the title by him of "The Round House". Some earlier construction had appeared at this spot on maps since the latter part of the 19th century.

        Just right of centre on the shore line is a small cottage and tower. Originally the dwelling was on the site of a foundry and the cottage was known as "Tan-y-Castell" (meaning 'below the castle'). There are 3 castle sites mentioned on this website. One shown in the next 2 pictures below is a latecomer, built in the mid-19th century. Although it is still called Castell Deudraeth, it is not connected to the ancient structure of that name, which once stood on the peninsula at the end of the 12th century.

        In fact the modern building (part of Portmeirion today and used as an elegant restaurant, with hotel suites and rooms) cannot be seen in the large photo above. It is located about a kilometre to the north east from the estuary. It is described after the next 2 photos, purely for elimination purposes. The reason for this is that the main concentration of this website is the ancient castle and its 're-emergence' 600 years later in records. See the History Main page and the early sub pages for more description. 

        While on the subject of the 12th and 18th century incarnations of the 'other' Castell Deudraeth, there is no fully conclusive evidence regarding the building's history. One medieval source describes the general area, while others, taking up the story hundreds of years later, talk of a 'motte' (claimed to be on the site of the old castle). In fact 2 different locations for the castle have been specified. By far the main location referred to in recent years is the 'motte' position, close to the Portmeirion village. The other is a higher position, which would be at the very centre of the large photo above. The reasons for the divergence of opinion are discussed on the History Main page. For now, a few words about the 'new' Castell Deudraeth, seen below.

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Portmeirion's Castell Deudraeth, as it appears today. The building underwent major renovation and reconstruction at the end of the last century and re-opened in 2001. The building was used as the 'Hospital' in "The Prisoner".

      
The modern building came into being mid-19th century and is pictured in this engraving c. 1855, by T. Hobbs. The home was that of local MP David Williams, mentioned later. However, this 'castle' need not be detailed again.

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Portmeirion Hotel with the water at high tide. The tower seen on the left is visible in the first photo on this page. Clough Williams-Ellis, who was later knighted, greeted many famous personages at his exclusive resort.

      
Clough Williams-Ellis (right) with fellow famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright during his visit to Portmeirion in 1956. Other past staying luminaries included Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw and Bertrand Russell.

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More of Clough Williams-Ellis and Frank Lloyd Wright. Clough lived not far from Portmeirion, at his home at Plas Brondanw. The architect died in 1978. In 1983 a new Gazebo was erected to mark his centenary. The location of this, on the hill overlooking Portmeirion's village, is where the 'motte' remains are to be found (see History Main page).

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In the woods to the left in this photo is where the hillside castle or fort is said to have stood. It is now marked by some remains which a recent survey found to be of modern origin and 'not of importance'. However, the site is shown on today's maps (see History 1 page).


The 'other' ancient castle site would be above the hotel (left) at the highest point, on the top of the tree line. Following the trees down to the sea reaches the cottage (now called "White Horses") which used to be known as "Tan-y-Castell", or 'below the castle'.

 


Mediaeval Deudraeth Castle and Aber Iā Estate - a summary from reported accounts.

pre- 1700

See text above and on History Main and History 1 pages.

1700

The castle of Aber Iau (another alternative spelling) is mentioned by Edward Lhuyd.

1795

A map by John Evans map shows only two farm buildings (contrasting with Clough Williams-Ellis' description as having been a little hamlet lying in a cove by a waterfall with shipyard, foundry and watermill, plus a cluster of cottages).

1804

An attempt was made to clear up the mystery as to whether any remains of Deudraeth Castle existed but without success.

1816

The course of the River Dwyryd moved from south of the small estuary island "Ynys Gifftan", bringing the channel closer to Aber Iā.

1819

OS drawing shows "Castell Deudraeth" and a shaded area and also a place name at the site where Bron Eryri (the present Castell Deudraeth) was later developed. The 1821 map repeats the 1819 content.

1828

Captain Barton built on the foreshore at Aber Iā a quay where he intended slates would be transferred from River Dwyryd boats to ships. He had built the Bron Eryri villa (later bought by David Williams in 1841 and remodelled and renamed Castell Deudraeth).

1829

The quay was enlarged and in 1834 larger ships were able to visit. There are rope marks on foreshore rocks confirming the quay’s extent for slate loading.

1834

The vessel '"Progress" was launched from Aber Iā, being a larger ship able to carry over 60 tons. The would-be trade did not last long because of the poor approach from the sea and the rival Porthmadog port.

1835

Not until the 19th century was there any evidence of designed landscaping. There is evidence of slight industrial activity, with relics of shipping, mining and a foundry. David Williams purchased a part of the peninsula and would continue to expand and consolidate his estate over the next 22 years.

1836

An Admiralty chart shows a foundry at Aber Iā and nearby a ventilation shaft to a mining chamber below. A century or so later Clough Williams Ellis fashioned a dovecote structure around this, converting the chimney over the defunct mining chamber's ventilation shaft.

1838

The OS map shows a road or track extending south west and a lodge being marked near the Minffordd junction, plus the main drive going past (forking with one arm going to Aber Iā and the other going further inland around a knoll to the southern tip of the promontory). The foundry was no longer shown and must have ceased to function.

1840s

The Aber Iā estate began to receive some grooming, with lawns, terraces, fountains, rockeries, grottoes, paths and drives being provided as an appropriate setting for the elegant new stuccoed mansion built there. Reputedly fortunes were spent on plantings and embellishments.

1851

The Bron Eryri residence was converted into a castellated mansion and was renamed Castell Deudraeth by 1858.

1861

Aber Iā was sold (leasehold) with a sale catalogue describing an extensive garden. A journalist described crossing the wooded area (the Gwyllt) and finding a walled garden beyond which was a house. On view were a number of foreign waterfowl on a tiny pond and two monkeys, the garden walls being netted and bearing fruit trees. A raised terrace in front of the villa (or mansion) had shrubs, statuettes and other ornamental appendages. To the northern end of the terrace was a miniature raised pleasure ground, bounded by rocks and abounding in cascades, water jets, romantic footpaths and a variety of foreign shrubs and flowers.

1861

David Williams was appointed High Sheriff of Merioneth

1867

(As later recalled by an octogenarian resident of Minffordd in 1927): The old Castell tower was about 10 feet tall with a platform on the top from which the castles of Harlech and Criccieth could be seen, there being no trees then to obscure the view. The ruinated tower was semi-circular, 10-12 feet in diameter. See other pages within this site for more comment.

1869

The ancient Deudraeth castle was finally razed by Sir William Fothergill-Cook (inventor of the electric telegraph) to prevent the ruins becoming known and attracting visitors. The stones were later used to build the Portmeirion campanile in 1925. (But see comment on other pages).

1889

An admiralty chart shows ‘boat house (foundry)’ indicating that the boat house had overlain the site of the foundry. Also noted around this time newly planted woodland "Coed Aber Iā" surrounding the main house with a network of paths plus views from some cliffs. An enclosed south facing area of shrubs existed north and east of the house, plus a large walled garden and gardener's cottage lay in the sheltered valley, with a large pool fed by a stream (the present day fishpond and Mermaid cottage).

1914

An inventory for the county of Merioneth by the Royal Commission on Ancient Monuments in Wales described the site of a castle at Aber yau (as it was also called). It mentioned a hillock in the grounds of the residence where there was a small structure which might have been exaggerated into a "castle". The surviving remains rendered it by no means certain. The site was a roughly circular plateau of rock, the centre of which had been hollowed out into a kind of pit. The diameter of the plateau was 60 feet and the pit was 8 feet deep. There was mention of remains of a wall and that a considerable quantity of stone had already been removed from the place to erect a modern house. (More comment on this appears on later pages).

1914  to 1918

Mrs. Haigh (Adelaide Emma Jane  Haigh), who had been tenant at Aber Iā, died during the First World War. She lived reclusively at Aber Iā, preferring the company of dogs for whom she created the Dogs’ Cemetery. Subsequent tenants took a lease during the next decade or so. During this time George Henry Caton Haigh (who retained the lease until his death in 1940) continued to develop earlier work and as a breeder of rhododendrons began introducing some unusual varieties (he being an authority on Himalayan flowering trees and exotic plants).

1925

Clough Williams-Ellis bought Aber Iā from his uncle, Sir Osmond Williams. He was inspired by the Mediterranean-like setting, not dissimilar to Portofino, in Italy, a particular favourite place of his. His Portmeirion hotel was opened in 1926 and the name Aber Iā was dropped. The Mermaid and White Horses cottages were improved and a main programme of building commenced until the Second World War, continuing in the mid fifties until 1970. (The remains of the semi-derelict harbour structure Fort Henry of around 1928 still exists, it being once designed by Clough for sunbathing, bathing, boating and barbecues.)

1931

A prep school was evacuated to Castell Deudraeth for a while. The building was restored by 1939, the park, lawns and terraced flower gardens being brought back to their previous century perfection. The building received central heating and mains water plus electricity and bathrooms. "In some respects it actually surpasses Portmeirion itself as a place to stay", it was once said.

1939

Portmeirion's "famous gardens" were described and credit was given to Caton Haigh whose "adjoining gardens can be freely enjoyed by all visitors to Portmeirion".

1954 - 1970

Daughter of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, Susan Williams-Ellis and her husband Euan Cooper-Willis took an increasing role in maintaining the hotel and improving the cottages and village as Clough became more senior. Today their son Robin Llywelyn is managing director of Portmeirion.

1981

Main Portmeirion hotel building destroyed by fire.

1988

Main Portmeirion hotel building reopened, after renovation and reconstruction.


Conclusions, in summary:

The historic landscape of the Portmeirion Estate is properly regarded as two sites rather than just one. The Aber Iā landscape was laid out over quite a short timespan but had drives extending as far north as Boston Lodge (on the Porthmadog side of the peninsula). The second phase of exotic planting by Caton Haigh is identifiable, closely followed by Clough Williams-Ellis' own transformation of the place into Portmeirion. The second site, Castell Deudraeth, has a separate, different and distinct history. Now that this building has been renovated and restored in 2001, the entire Portmeirion grounds contain a vast area and varying hotel accommodation, nowadays of international importance. With Conservation Area status and buildings designated so as to curtail further development, the nature of the present day complex is limited to ongoing maintenance rather than development. Fires in the main Portmeirion building and a fire at Plas Brondanw have destroyed many old records and a documented history of the estate is no longer possible. In more recent times, given the move towards providing Welsh language versions of many of the hotel buildings' names, the resort is sometimes referred to as "Porthmeirion".

  • Castell Deudraeth mentioned first as a stone castle in 1188 with adjacent spring which survives to this day.

  • Castell Aber yau (an alternative spelling) noted in 1699 and Motte first mapped in 1819.

  • Mineral prospecting was recorded in 1820 and the foundry flue recorded in 1836. Old Deudraeth castle reputedly demolished in 1869 finally. At this late stage it was not made clear whether reference was being made to the ancient Castell Deudraeth, or a much later construction. One early reference to the medieval castle described it as "North facing", suggesting an aspect looking away from the river estuary, which seems difficult to reconcile.

  • The present day Castell Deudraeth was probably built by Captain Barton after 1819 (its core being said to have been a 17th century cottage). There are further cottages and the plant nursery as part of the estate which are not covered by these notes. Fort Henry initially had a horseshoe harbour with sunbathing terrace and fireplace. The cliff top path to Fort Henry (Balldress Point) has been abandoned for decades.

Cottage by Ghost Garden – shown on a recent surveyor's report and map as being present and in need of repair, having existed prior to 1909. However, it is not shown on any of the older maps and it may just have been a cottage where some worker lived who was employed by somebody who owned the particular farm or piece of land. As to the medieval Castell Deudraeth, this has been stated authoritatively as being located behind the large pond where there is a Chinese bridge. The large rock face has some steps going up which is where the structure once stood.

Motte - there is a third pond which is below a raised position near Susan Williams-Ellis' designed Gazebo. Here stand some apparent remains, but which have been discounted by recent surveyors as being pre-1930s, showing modern building aspects and not thought to be of significance. The structure near this pond is at the site of what is still referred to on maps as "motte".

Sites and Monument records about the old Castell Deudraeth say that the stone tower still stood in 1867 to a height of 3.3 m but was demolished, although a 19th century painting of the tower is preserved at Portmeirion. This painting appears not to exist today, sadly. The building is referred to in records as Castle Aber Iā or Castell Gwain Goch. The top of the motte is stated as 25 metres in diameter.

Further Sites and Ancient Monuments records refer to: " A level platform at the end of a short rocky ridge across the neck of which a ditch has been cut. A short length of masonry revetment still remains on this side. The top of the motte 25 metres in diameter is now overgrown and its height from the bottom of the ditch varies from 3.3 metres to 6.6 metres. The ditch is 8 metres to 10 metres wide and bounded by a rock ridge of the same width. There is no sign of a bailey. The stone tower on the summit still stood 3.3 metres high in 1867 but was demolished to discourage visitors. A 19th century painting of the tower is preserved at Portmeirion. This is also referred to on the Bell Tower (Campanile) plaque inscription" (which used to exist as a longer inscription).

From gardener’s section of recent survey report: "In the 1840s John Barton, a local farmer, built a house by the quay. It was then acquired by David Williams, who lost enthusiasm for it as it must have presented itself as a very exposed and bleak outpost for year-round living. Instead he built the Welsh baronial Castell Deudraeth. It was his tenants, H.S. Westmacott and Sir William Fothergill-Cook who made many improvements. Subsequently a tenant, Mrs. Adelaide Haigh (later a widow), preferred wilderness with extreme seclusion and consequently allowed complete overgrowth which was well established by the time of her death in 1917. In the meantime, her son Caton Haigh had bought the northern and western part of the woodland area and began his plantings until he died in 1940."