Welsh Whimsy Eccentricities delight visitors to this corner of the United Kingdom. Take, for example, the town that was saved from ruin by . . . old books.

April 13, 1997|By Robert Levine | Robert Levine,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Eminently civilized, but not as buttoned-down as England; fanciful, but not as ephemerally as Ireland; witty, but not as barbed as Scotland, Wales has its own buzzwords.

Portmeirion Hay-on-Wye Cardiff Castle.

These are just three of the whimsical and amazing landmarks you'll find in this part of the British isles that will tickle your fancy in ways you won't find anywhere else. And many of these locations have a man-made wackiness and inventiveness about them that reveal imagination, wit and the occasional sense of sheer lunacy.

A week spent driving here and there around Wales (it's only 150 easily driven miles from north to south and 115 -- at its widest -- from east to west) will reveal them and much more. An under-traveled, under-populated, under-commercialized land of great mountains and waterfalls, wide open spaces, and red and green earth, Wales features a frequently changing landscape of ruined churches, castles and eccentric locales.

Take Portmeirion. You've probably seen it before but presumed it was a theatrical put-on: It was used as the setting for the 1960s TV show "The Prisoner," which was filmed on location. But it's a real place, a small private village set on its own wooded peninsula overlooking Cardigan Bay in northern Wales, and it was the idea, the zany pipe dream, of one man.

In 1925, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, an eccentric architect who had established his own practice at the age of 22 (after only three months of formal training), was searching for an area in which to conduct what he called an "experiment in sympathetic development." This "experiment" was to build his own village in harmony with the surrounding land rather than by destroying it. And so he bought a private peninsula five miles from his ancestral home and proceeded to realize his dream. The village was finally completed in 1973, and when Sir Clough died in 1978, he was content in the knowledge that his dream had become reality. And one man's reality is now our fantasy land.

Surrounding the village on three sides are 145 acres of woods and farmland, and the whole peninsula is girded by miles of sandy beaches. Portmeirion's sheltered coastal location coupled with the warming influence of the Gulf Stream result in mild, frost-free winters that enable many rare subtropical trees and shrubs to flourish there.

Walking along the grounds, you get the sense that this place doesn't belong here; it would appear to be a quaint Mediterranean village that was somehow airlifted to rural Wales. Beautiful, but not quite right. All of the buildings in the village were created using only Sir Clough's freehand sketches, and his originality shows in every square foot of the grounds. The city center has not only a Roman-style colonnade but also English hedges and miniature palm trees. Then there is the Town Hall, which looks borrowed from a 19th-century British estate. Just beyond the city center is the French colonial style Dome, with its surrounding cottages in various shades of pastel.

The centerpiece is the hotel, which opened for the first time in 1926 and was soon a favorite getaway for the likes of George Bernard Shaw, Bertrand Russell and H. G. Wells. Playwright Noel Coward wrote "Blithe Spirit" here during a two-week stay in 1941. Guests can stay in either the main hotel building or in the surrounding rooms, suites and cottages. All of these cottages have their own unique appointments, with the same quirky feel as the rest of the village. The entire complex is so popular that it is now open all year, with the exception of January.

Portmeirion enchants; it's sort of "the Land that Time Forgot." It manages to be somehow completely alien to its environment and still feel as if it were an organic part of the natural landscape. The juxtaposition is delicious.

'Book town'

Travel southwest a couple of hours and come upon gently rolling hills, in the midst of which is Hay-on-Wye, the world's first "book town." Hay is situated on the River Wye under the edge of the Black Mountains, once considered among the most beautiful regions in Britain. It boasts steep streets, a magnificent town hall, a ruined castle and Victorian-era gabled cottages. Despite its charm, however, Hay never attracted many visitors, and by the mid-20th century had started to decline.

To its rescue, in 1961, came Richard Booth, who used a small inheritance to buy the only movie theater in Hay. Converting it into his first bookshop, Booth was soon calling it the largest second-hand bookshop in the world.

The success of the shop allowed him the opportunity to buy more property in Hay, including a former fire station, an old warehouse, even Hay Castle, all of which he filled with old books. By the late 1970s, the biggest bookshop in Britain had become the world's first "book town."

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