The gardens at Portmeirion don’t usually get as much attention as the whole fantastic (a proper use of the wood) ‘village’. Christopher Hussey described the spirit of the place in Country Life as ‘ebullience, gaiety and joyous freakishness’. Its creator, Clough Williams-Ellis, who died in 1978 aged 95, carried his boyhood dream to its successful conclusion, seeing it solidly established as a resort like no other; a baroque pastel sketch of a village on the Italian Riviera, a mock Portofino with powerful Welsh characteristics on one of the loveliest and most sheltered spots on the coast. His guest-list in the ‘30s included most of the A-list of the day, from Bertrand Russell and G.B.Shaw to the inevitable Edward and Wallis.
We went last weekend and found the garden that encompasses the whole village in fine fettle. The whole estate has been gardened, off and on, for perhaps a hundred years, perhaps more. The typical Welsh coast woodlands, largely of oak, are full of the tender species only the west coast can grow, the legacy of a rhododendron fanatic called George Caton Haigh who inherited what is now the extremely comfortable hotel in the 1890s.
Sir Clough claimed or admitted that even he got lost in these exotic woods, that stretch out among granite crags and outcrops along the coast, their endless serpentine paths often blocked by massive plants. There are rhododendrons forty feet high, many of them ultra-rare: the maddeni varieties among them.
In and around the village, though, the gardens are more kempt than I have seen them for years. October is filled with hydrangeas, of course, in long tumbling hedges down the roads and along the seashore. Standard H. paniculatas are grandly formal in the central square among roses still in flower. Elsewhere the gardeners take full advantage of steep beds and crannies among the towering black rocks. Everywhere beds and rocky slopes show signs of interesting new planting, and the mulching is prodigious.