Clough Williams-Ellis

Here is my column from the current issue of the Countryman.  

I wrote a few months ago about the architect Clough Williams-Ellis, an early propagandist for CPRE and one of the founders of our sister body in Wales, CPRW.  Among his many colourful turns of phrase was this description of ribbon development in England and the Octopus, the ‘denunciatory, angry’ book he wrote for CPRE in 1928: ‘The disfiguring little buildings grow up and multiply like nettles along a drain, like lice upon a tapeworm.’ 


But while he enjoyed excoriating ugliness and squalor, and shaming towns ‘into a livelier care of their amenities and a general pulling up of their sagging municipal socks’, he was also for something, namely beauty: ‘A happy awareness of beauty about us – the normal, visible setting of our everyday lives – should and could be the everyday condition of all of us.’  It was this spirit that animated his contribution to the National Parks, particularly Snowdonia, and his architectural achievements in preserving Stowe and creating Portmeirion.


Clough Williams-Ellis died in 1978 at the age of 94.  According to a newspaper profile a couple of years before, where he is described as ‘a tall, craggy Welsh aristocrat given to knickerbockers and yellow knee socks’, he wanted his last words to be ‘cherish the past; adorn the present; build for the future’.


I have been reading his autobiography, Architect Errant, and it is full of pithy one-liners.  However, one of the most thought-provoking lines is not his but the Queen Mother’s (when she was Queen) on the National Parks: ‘It’s fine your preparing this splendid countryside for the people, but are you doing anything about preparing the people to make proper use of it?’ 


I draw two main conclusions from Williams-Ellis’s book.  First, that protecting the countryside is about much more than stopping things being built.  ‘“Development” even of a place of great beauty can and should be an enhancement and not a desecration’ – but this requires great care and an active role for the state.  Second, though his language is old-fashioned and sometimes florid, Clough Williams-Ellis writes in clear and powerful English.  It is a depressing thought that the beauty he promoted, and its role in enriching lives, is now has been reduced to the jargon phrase ‘cultural services’, a subset of the equally obscure ‘ecosystem services’.   





1 Response to “Clough Williams-Ellis”

  1. 1 andrew needham November 8, 2013 at 8:32 am

    Portmeirion is brilliant.
    It was built before Planning Control and Building Regs etc. Unfortunately it couldnt happen now

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