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.

THE BALTIMORE 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."

The town achieved national and international fame partly because of the novelty of the book-town concept, but equally due to the flamboyant personality of the omnipresent Booth, who in 1977 (not insignificantly on April 1) declared "home rule for Hay" and appointed himself king. Though the whole thing started as a joke, it was taken so seriously by politicians and the media that Booth, never one to shun publicity, began naming Cabinet members and selling royal titles, which you can still purchase today.

Unlike other "theme" towns (such as Branson, Mo.), it doesn't have a Sheraton or a McDonald's. Part of the reason Booth declared independence from Wales was to protest the bureaucracy of "big government," which, he felt, was supporting the corporate takeover of the trade in food, drink, clothing, energy and other essentials. A man with a mission, that Richard Booth -- not unlike Sir Clough.

Hay now has more than 30 bookshops and attracts more than 500,000 visitors annually, from serious bibliophiles to tourists lured by the novelty value and a desire to spend some time amid beautiful countryside. In 1988, the town established the Hay Literary Festival, which attracts 25,000 visitors during its 10-day run in late May and early June.

The success of Hay-on-Wye has inspired an international movement, with book towns now springing up all over the world. There are already more than a dozen in 10 countries, and more in development. But none of them will have Hay's inimitable, crackpot charm, and none will have HRH Richard Booth.

A capital castle

The final leg of this tour is Cardiff, Wales' capital city of about 300,000 in the country's southeast, and its amazing castle.

As it exists today, the castle is made up of three different areas. There is the Roman fort that forms its foundations, the medieval keep built by the Normans and finally the outrageous 19th-century Victorian mansion, which was the vision of the third Marquess of Bute and was created between 1868 and 1900. The marquess, who at the time was one of the wealthiest men in the world, spared no expense in reconstructing the castle and hired the Gothic-obsessed, eccentric-genius architect William Burges to oversee its design.

Forget Disneyland, forget even Hearst's San Simeon: As an exercise in over-the-top-ness, Cardiff Castle is unbeatable.

Together, Bute and Burges combined styles from across history and continents -- medieval England to Arabia, for example -- and themes as varied as the Old Testament, English literature and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson. It's beyond kitsch; it's bonkers.

The attention to detail in the castle's vast apartments and public rooms is almost manic. Burges left no surface bare. If it could be tiled, painted, inlaid, wallpapered or otherwise decorated, he did it. The library -- built to hold Bute's huge, multilingual book collection -- has elaborately carved bookcases and is filled with paintings, sculpture and intricate inlaid moldings and wall-coverings. Above the fireplace is the "chimneypiece of the ancient tongues" with statues of five very serious -- indeed, Biblical -- looking men with clay tablets. Built into the library tables are the radiators for the central heating that Burges designed for the castle. Off the library is the banquet hall, with its ornate, wooden, cathedral ceiling, extensive murals and still more sculpture and carved moldings.

If you think you've had enough, you're wrong: There is the Herbert Tower, which houses possibly the most outlandish area of all, the Arab Room. It is a shrine to Islamic influence, with a brilliant green tiled fireplace and cedarwood and silver-lined walls that rise to a gilded ceiling resembling an M. C. Escher engraving. The guide describes it with the same reverence allotted Paris' Notre Dame cathedral.

And what about the Clock Tower, which was built as the ultimate "bachelor pad" (the guide's words)? The vast bedroom is complete with an elaborate Roman bath. The Summer Smoking Room features a bronze model of the world inlaid into a tiled floor and a huge chandelier representing the sun, all guarded by a sculpture of a chained dragon. Of course, if you have a Summer Smoking Room you need -- you guessed it -- a Winter Smoking Room. Burges outdid himself with this room, using gilded accents on black walls for maximum effect.

The rooms in the Bute Tower, where the Marquess lived after his marriage (what did he do with the Bachelor Pad, one wonders) are equally flamboyant. The main bathroom, for example, is lined with 60 different kinds of marble, with a mermaid-shaped sink inscribed with a poem by Alfred Lord Tennyson. The Bute Tower is topped with a tiled and fountained roof garden, intended to evoke the atmosphere of medieval Provence.

Bute's and Burges' vision is in keeping, it would appear, with Welsh whimsy, but it's more selfish. But judgments don't count here -- or in the countryside. Just experience the comfortable oddness and enjoy it.

If you go...

For information about Wales, call Wales Marketing USA at 800-462-2748, Ext. 4. Ask for the Wales Vacation Planner and information on hotels and places to stay. Virgin Atlantic, 800-862-8621, flies from Dulles Airport to London/Heathrow daily. British Rail, 800-677-8585, has trains departing for Cardiff every hour -- the trip takes two hours.

Pub Date: 4/13/97

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