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Early History of Portmeirion


Gerald of Wales  recorded the construction of the original Castell Deudraeth on a rocky outcrop above the present village. It was established by the sons of Gruffudd ap Maredydd ap Cynan around the time of his visit in 1188.

Gerald of Wales wrote:  "We crossed the Traeth mawr and the Traeth Bychan. These are two arms of the sea, one large and one small. Two stone castles have been built there recently. The one called Castell Deudraeth belongs to the sons of Cynan and is situated in the Eifionydd area, facing the northern Mountains."

 The castle of Aber Iau is mentioned by Edward Lhuyd in Parochalia II (1700). Edward Lhuyd, the 17th century philologist, geologist, natural historian and keeper of the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford recorded the name as "Aber Iau". At that time (around 1690) the Castle of Aber Iau yet stood in ruined form overlooking the south western extremity of the peninsula.

"Iau" in Welsh comes from the Latin "Jove" (or "Jupiter") the supreme god in the Roman pantheon, who gave his name to Dies Iovis (Thursday) which in Welsh is Dydd Iau. The Welsh language has roughly 2000 words borrowed directly from the Latin during the period of Roman rule in Britain from AD 43 to AD 410, e.g. ffenestr (window), eglwys (church), pysgod (fish), pont (bridge) and so on, most of which are also found in Cornish and Breton which underlines their antiquity.

Aber Iâ had a foundry, small shipyard and a few cottages. In 1814 its most infamous inhabitant, yr Hwntw Mawr, was publicly hanged in Dolgellau for the murder of a local maid. However by the 1850s gentrification had set in.

In 1861 Richard Richards wrote a description: "Neither man nor woman was there, only a number of foreign water-fowl on a tiny pond, and two monkeys, which by their cries evidently regarded me as an unwelcome intruder. The garden itself was a very fine one, the walls of which were netted all over with fruit trees...Aberia, then, gentle reader, is a beautiful mansion on the shore of Traeth Bach, in Merionethshire." 

 Clough acquired the site in 1925 for around £20,000. It was then, as Clough wrote, "a neglected wilderness - long abandoned by those romantics who had realised the unique appeal and possibilities of this favoured promontory but who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping...into sorrowful bankruptcy." Clough immediately changed the name from Aber Iâ (Glacial Estuary) to Portmeirion: Port because of the coastal location and Meirion as this is Welsh for Merioneth, the county in which it lay.

The first article about Portmeirion appeared in The Architects Journal (January 6 1926) with photographs of scale models and preliminary designs prepared by Clough to impress potential investors. In this article John Rothenstein writes: "On the sea-coast of North Wales, quite near his own old home, Plas Brondanw, he has acquired what he believes to be an ideal site, and he is engaged upon plans and models for the laying out of an entire small township. The results of his scheme will be significant and should do much to shake the current notion that although houses must be designed with due care, towns may grow up by chance."

The concept of a tightly grouped coastal village had already formed in Clough's mind some years before he found the perfect site. Clough sometimes later suggested the development was unplanned but these drawings and models suggest otherwise. It appears that he had quite a well defined vision for the village from the outset and that to a large extent he stuck to it. Portmeirion was built in two stages: from 1925 to 1939 the site was 'pegged-out' and its most distinctive buildings were erected. From 1954-76 he filled in the details. The second period was typically classical or Palladian in style in contrast to the Arts and Crafts style of his earlier work. Several buildings were salvaged from demolition sites, giving rise to Clough's description of the place as "a home for fallen buildings".

"An architect has strange pleasures," he wrote in 1924. "He will lie awake listening to the storm in the night and think how the rain is beating on his roofs, he will see the sun return and will think that it was for just such sunshine that his shadow-throwing mouldings were made." His last building, the tollgate was built in his 93rd year. Portmeirion gave Clough pleasure during his life and he hoped that it would give pleasure to others. His motto was "Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future." He fought for beauty, "that strange necessity".

Portmeirion is owned by a registered Charity called Ymddiriedolaeth Clough Williams-Ellis Foundation.

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