Oh Portmeirion, how I love you! I think this week’s visit was maybe my 6th or 7th. The previous three times had been for Festival No.6. Fun though those weekends were, it has to be said that Portmeirion is a far lovelier proposition when it is not swarming with 10,000 bearded hipsters. On that most perfect of things, a British summer’s day – warm but not hot, hazy sunshine, a light breeze – we this time pottered around with toddler in tow.
For those who are unfamiliar, Portmeirion is a village on the coast of North West Wales which was designed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis. In setting about this project he reportedly wanted to show how a naturally beautiful location could be developed sympathetically in the hope that others would follow suit. The village was built over a period of 50 years in an Italianate style with a central piazza, colonnades and terraces. Like many people my first introduction to Portmeirion was via 1960s surrealist spy thriller The Prisoner, having something of a penchant for such programmes. The Village (as it is simply known in the TV series) providing the perfect distinctive background to such a stylised creation.
Portmeirion then is not primarily a garden but more a curious architectural experiment. However, planting and other garden features are definitely and deliberately used to enhance the overall appearance of the village and complement the buildings. The most striking element of the planting in mid-summer is the Hydrangea. As you drive up towards the village along a narrow meandering lane the route is edged with long rows of Hydrangea in fruity pinks, cobalt blue and crisp white. This is replicated in various locations throughout the village, including providing a colourful frame for the fabulous vista of the Afon Dwyryd estuary. I don’t know about you but I find whenever I see a plant at their absolute peak it makes me instantly feel the urge to go out and buy one for my own garden, and the Hydrangea were no exception.
Trees are also an integral part of Portmeirion, not least the woods (Y Gwyllt) which are home to follies, sculptures, a Chinese influenced area and a dog cemetery – no photos since on this occasion we were wedged into the the little road train that bumps its way through periodically. Elsewhere there are huge towering pines stretching up from the hillside to epic heights. The central piazza is edged on one side by a row of pleached Lime, while cloud pruned specimen form statuesque features on the other side of the adjacent pathway, framing the bell tower against the blue sky.
The planting is an idiosyncratic hotpotch of styles. Mixed borders of Roses, Campanula and Veronicastrum evoke the English (or perhaps Welsh) country garden. A turquoise pool in the central piazza is bookended by Victorian style bedding displays of red and white Pelargonium. In the areas of shade created by the canopies of the many mature trees there is woodland planting comprising ferns and Hosta, also in full flower during our visit. In contrast, against the technicoloured render of the network of buildings there is sub-tropical planting of palms, Phormium and Canna.
All of these different elements are perfectly at ease in the unique environment of Portmeirion. A place which is beautifully photogenic with quirky features in every corner and perfectly framed views at each turn. A magical, whimsical, theatrical setting – a little bit toy town if the truth be known, but all the more magnificent for it.
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