My summer holiday this year was four days at the caravan in North Wales, just outside Machynlleth. It’s a place I’ve been going to for a very long time, so driving down the overgrown single car track and seeing the view of green hills opening out felt like putting on an old jumper that’s been forgotten to the back of the wardrobe. Oh yes, this feeling.
The city days have been long, I haven’t seen beyond it’s borders for a while and I have started to grow accustomed to it. I have tricked my brain in to believing this is okay. But it’s not okay, not really. Not all the time. As I saw those green hills I realised once again that there is another side and it is good to go over to it every once in a while. I find time to be inspired by the city, but something about the hills and the green and the sheep says breath. And it is good to breath fresh air.
Everyday of the holiday I woke up early (partly because the downside to caravans is that they get very stuffy in the morning sun) and enjoyed the quiet zen of boiling water on the hob for tea and reading with a view. Actually, the view was not very dissimilar to my view at home, but there were no police sirens or bin lorries bleeping. Somehow it just felt different.
As ever when I visit somewhere new (as in, not the somewhere I spend most of my time), I thought about place and what it means. I thought about the ties of long association and whether I would love this place quite so much if I hadn’t been coming here since I was a child. If I couldn’t point to the rusty nail in the tree and say here, here is where I tried to build a tree house. Or the tattered piece of rope, that was the rope swing we played on, remember that time I fell off? Would it mean as much or inspire such strong feelings without those memories? Almost certainly not. After all, objectively it’s not the most stunning place. The hills are cut bare in places by logging, most of the land is grazed by sheep and there is the roar of RAF planes training overhead. But there is some part of me that owns it. Or, perhaps, some part of it that owns me.
On day 3 of the holiday we visited Portmerion, which really got me thinking about place because in a way it is a non-place. Portmerion is a holiday resort that was designed by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and the building of it was completed in 1975. Williams-Ellis designed the “village” with the intention of showing that it is possible for a built environment to enhance, rather than detract from, the beauty of its natural surroundings. It is a collection of various buildings inspired by different idylls, such as Italian villas and thatched country cottages, overlooking the estuary of the River Dwyryd.
Before we arrived at Portmerion I wondered is it possible to design and build a sense of place? Clearly this is something that Williams-Ellis was trying to achieve. He was trying to enhance the natural beauty of the landscape by cherry picking the best of various architectural styles. It sounds like a great premise to me, but I’m not sure if Williams-Ellis achieved his goal. I didn’t think Portmerion was ugly, but I didn’t think it was beautiful either. I neither loved nor hated it. I just couldn’t seem to get my teeth in to it and I think it is because it lacked a sense of place. Despite the old-style buildings, it lacked the weight of history. Tourists wandered round the village in the way that people only do when they are at a tourist attraction and trying to get their money’s worth. The only locals are the people staying in the self-catered holiday homes, beyond the No Entry signs. And a lot of the buildings have been turned in to gift shops, all selling the same things (although I quite like looking round gift shops, so I didn’t mind so much).
One of the attractions put on for visitors was a band performing in a band stand. As they started playing the sun emerged and everyone gathered round to watch. Children ran around on the grass and rolled down a small slope. It was the one moment during my visit when I began to feel that sense of place, of a memory forming. It was as though at last we were no longer disparate tourists, but all together enjoying the sun and the music. At least it felt as though that elusive sense of place was being forged and it had nothing to do with the idyllic architecture.