architecture, bath house, Bristol, Folly, garden history, Gwynedd, Summerhouse

The Bristol Colonnade, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

When Barbara Jones published Follies and Grottoes in 1953, she made no mention of the coastal village that architect Clough Williams-Ellis had been creating at Portmeirion since 1925. Reviewing the book for the Times Literary Supplement, Laurence Whistler thought this was a ‘curious’ omission as he believed the whole conception could be described as folly.

Clough, as he was always known, had bought a hillside site on the Welsh coast and extended an existing house as a hotel. On the slope down to the sea he developed a village of houses and pavilions in a variety of architectural styles. Some of the buildings were rescued from houses facing the wrecker’s ball and Clough himself described the place as a ‘home for fallen buildings’.

Laurence Whistler’s description of the site in 1953 perfectly catches the atmosphere of the village:

‘In gaiety of colour, in exuberance of design, in its complete indifference to the surrounding slate-grey Puritan world of the mountains (and in the frivolity of some of the materials employed) Port Meirion is a folly on a generous scale, expressive of the cultured Briton’s perennial craving for Mediterranean warmth.’

Portmeirion on a day sadly lacking in Mediterranean warmth.

Jones took note, and Portmeirion featured in the 1974 2nd edition where it was described succinctly as ‘a complex of hotel buildings and ornamental conceits, new and re-erected, most beautifully arranged around a small bay’. She was particularly interested in the Bristol Colonnade, a structure added to Portmeirion in 1959, but which she had written about in its previous incarnation.

John Buckler (1770-1851) watercolour view of The Bath at Arno’s Vale near Bristol, 1827. William Salt Library, BV XXII.4. Courtesy of the Trustees of the William Salt Library.

The Bristol Colonnade started life in the middle of the 18th century as a garden building housing a cold bath. It stood in the grounds of Arno’s Court at Brislington near Bristol, the seat of William Reeve, an iron smelter.

Buckler’s watercolour view of Arno’s Court near Bristol, 1827. William Salt Library, BV XXII.5. Courtesy of the Trustees of the William Salt Library.

Reeve’s estate featured a number of other fanciful buildings including a triumphal arch and battlemented stables known as the ‘Black Castle’, but as Barbara Jones scrawled in her research notes, the ‘Bath House’ was ‘Mr Rs most charming whim’.

Façade of the Bath House at Arno’s Court, Brislington, by Thomas Leeson, c.1827. K4881. Courtesy of Bristol Museums.

By the 1830s the ‘gardens and cold baths’ were being operated by a Mr Clark as a ‘delightful retreat for the Gentry and Public in general’. In 1912 the antique dealers Little & Barber took over the Black Castle as a showroom for their wares. Visitors could explore the surrounding lawns and gardens where a ‘special feature’ was the classical building with bath.

Part of an advertisement in the Bristol Times and Mirror in August 1912.

The elegant building contained a central chamber with sunken bath, and a fine plaster work cornice and ceiling. In August 1939 Lord Derwent, Chairman of the Georgian Group of the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings (the group would later become a charity in its own right: the Georgian Group) wrote to The Times asking that ‘this unique building be scheduled’. Sadly, world events got in the way and the bath was damaged by bombs during the Second World War.

The Bath House in around 1950. Note a turret of the Black Castle in the background. Photo from Barbara Jones’s research files, courtesy of a private collection.

Jones described it in the 1954 edition of Follies & Grottoes as ‘delicate and pretty’ with plasterwork that was a ‘wreathing of waves and masks, shells and dolphins’. She concluded it was all of the ‘greatest elegance’ and regretted that by then the  building was only of interest to the local vandals.

The photographs in her files show that the plasterwork was already badly damaged when she was researching for her book, and by the time it was published she had to describe the decoration in the past tense ‘for a later visitor reports that now the plaster is down.’

The crumbling plasterwork of the bath chamber in around 1950. Photo from Barbara Jones’s research files, courtesy of a private collection.

A 1954 article on the follies at Arno’s Castle (prompted by the publication of Jones’s Follies and Grottoes) warned that the building needed ‘attending to very soon’ or it would be lost. But, despite protests from the Council for the Preservation of Ancient Bristol, the local council decided to demolish the scheduled ancient monument to allow a road-widening scheme.

Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978) came to the rescue. After negotiation with the building’s then owner, the Bristol Tramway and Carriage Company, the Ministry of Works agreed that the facade of the bath house could be moved to Portmeirion to join what the writer Jan Morris called the ‘merry architectural jumble’.

In 1957 Clough commissioned ‘devoted’ Bristol architects Burrough and Hannan to produce a plan and elevation of the ‘Arno’s Bath House’, with each stone carefully numbered. The exterior masonry was taken down stone-by-stone by a builder who specialised in church restorations and taken to Wales. Clough chose a site in the heart of his village for his new acquisition, and then stood back and admired the work of his Master Mason, William Davies, as he turned the ‘intimidating stone heaps’ into what became known as the Bristol Colonnade. The building was complete in October 1958 when the Bristol Evening Post sent a photographer to capture the ‘really magnificent’ colonnade. It was officially opened in 1959, and was listed at Grade II* in 1971.

As Portmeirion grew to its ‘intended size and shape’ with Clough’s ‘imagined picture being gradually filled in and realised’, the guidebooks were constantly updated. They were just as colourful and charming as the village itself.

Photo courtesy of Janette Ray Books. The Fifteenth edition appeared in Spring 1965.

The Bristol Colonnade was only a little over a decade old when it appeared in two television broadcasts. Bird’s Eye View: the Englishman’s Home was first shown in April 1969 and was filmed entirely from a helicopter. The commentary, in verse and prose, was by John Betjeman who asks ‘What fair Mediterranean port is this, stumbling to the sea?’

Producer Edward Mirzoeff had so much material from filming the Portmeirion section that he created a ‘little spin-off using the trims and out-takes’. This was shown on BBC2 in June 1969 with a commentary by Clough himself. The good news is that both are available to watch today, as is a later tribute by musician and folly-fan Jools Holland.

For Bird’s Eye View: the Englishman’s Home see

And for Bird’s Eye View: Portmeirion visit

And equally enchanting is Jools Holland’s 2002 film with boogie-woogie soundtrack

Thank you for reading and do please share any thoughts in the comments box at the foot of the page.

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14 thoughts on “The Bristol Colonnade, Portmeirion, Gwynedd”

  1. Steven Martin Myatt says:

    Brilliant and fascinating as ever. I’ve been to Port Merion but didn’t of that. And the Jools Holland clip is great fun. Thank you.

    1. Editor says:

      Good morning Steven. Thank you so much for your appreciative comment. All of the films are a real treat, pleased you enjoyed the vintage Jools.

  2. Gand says:

    A different take on a well known village.
    We were ‘prisoners’ there for our Silver wedding anniversary.
    We really didn’t want to be released.
    Your blog brought back some happy memories.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Gand. I am longing to return and explore further and I think an overnight stay might be in order to fully appreciate the village. I’m very pleased that you enjoyed your temporary incarceration and that this post reminded you of your visit. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

    2. Moira Garland says:

      I cannot separate a visit to Portmeirion many years ago, which was delightful, from avidly watching ‘The Prisoner’ on TV even longer ago. It was only when visiting that I realised that’s where it was filmed!

      1. Editor says:

        Hello Moira. I confess to never having seen The Prisoner. Many. many years ago a family friend went on a cruise and brought me back a signed photo of Patrick McGoohan, who must have been a fellow passenger, and I never had the heart to admit that I had no idea who he was.

        1. Moira says:

          It had a real cult following in its time i.e. when it first came out, in my youth 😅

  3. TOM GARDNER says:


    1. Editor says:

      Thank you Tom. I do appreciate your kind words.

  4. Garance Rawinsky says:

    Lovely to be reminded of a place I have visited twice – once with a friend who is no longer with us. We were walking along the estuary and just wandered in and wondered! Then, more recently with the daughter of that friend to stay for a weekend. Absolutely magical.

    Like Gand, The Prisoner TV Series is how I found out about it – number nine! number nine!

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Garance. Lovely to hear that you have memories of Portmeirion, although some are tinged with sadness. It’s an unforgettable spot.

    2. Moira Garland says:


  5. Julia Abel Smith says:

    Thank you so much, FF.
    Another piece of architectural salvage was The Pantheon at Portmeirion. Its porch was originally part of the vast fireplace in the picture gallery of short-lived Dawpool, Richard Norman Shaw’s house on the Wirral for Sir Thomas Ismay, founder of The White Star Line.
    The fireplace front was re-erected at The Pantheon by Clough Williams-Ellis in 1957; it is similar to that at Cragside, Northumberland.

    1. Editor says:

      Hello Julia. Yes, the village has so many architectural fragments, each with a fascinating story to tell. There is far too much to take in on one visit (especially with rain pouring down) so I plan to return as soon as I find a moment.

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