Wales already pays homage to Italy with its famous tourist village, Portmeirion, renowned for recreating the Mediterranean atmosphere.
But now an abandoned “mini Portmeirion” has appeared deep in the nearby forest of Gwynedd.
Mainly hidden from public view, he is now crumbling and is slowly being reclaimed by nature – but plans are in place to change his fortunes.
Lovingly built over decades by a former chicken farmer, as a nostalgic sanctuary for a lifetime of Italian vacations, the place is little known but has been called a ‘national treasure’.
North Wales Live caught up with the people trying to save this gem. A trust was put in place to conserve and maintain the large-scale building complex, which is believed to be less than a decade from being lost forever.
Among the Italian monuments arranged across the terraced hillside garden near Corris, between Dolgellau and Machynlleth, is an ivy-covered Leaning Tower of Pisa.
Further up the slope is a 6-foot model of Venice’s Rialto Bridge, not far from an almost hidden version of the Spanish Steps.
And looking across the valley below is a pint-sized representation of the Duomo in Florence.
Another masterpiece is the Maritime Fortress of Venice, with a crenellated wall, arms ports and a lagoon blocking chain.
Together there are over 30 aftershocks. Unlike a model village, not all are reproduced on the same scale: some dominate others.
But taken together, the “collage” of Italian architecture is a monument to the obsession, love and creativity of their builders, Mark Bourne and his wife Muriel.
The couple spent a quarter of a century crafting ‘Little Italy’ next to their 19th-century cottage, now dominated by the majestic Siena Bell Tower.
Before he died in 2009, Mr Bourne explained his motivation to transplant memories from Italy to Wales.
“Italy is a beautiful but impossible mistress – and Wales is the woman I love to leave,” he said.
In an attempt to save the cottage and gardens, the site was placed in trust ahead of the Covid pandemic.
Its trustee is Richard Withers, a longtime acquaintance who took on the role of custodian of the site.
A few years ago, he persuaded his gardener, Jonathan Fell, to coordinate the rescue of a place which, among those who knew Mr. Bourne, is called “Mark’s Folly”.
The 60-year-old previously worked as a designer and conservationist at the Royal Pavilion in Brighton, which gave him the perfect credentials to take on the role of restoration. He is now an expert in re-wilding, eco-construction and off-grid living.
From the start, he was determined to keep Mark’s legacy alive. The Garden’s Trust has shown great interest in the site, but Jonathan is not interested in preserving the facsimiles.
“Big organizations tend to bring out the lawn mower and Mark would have hated that,” he said.
“They always want to tidy up the place. Mark’s vision was to have a jungle garden with an ancient civilization hidden inside.
“So we just want to be sympathetic to the guy’s original view.”
Mr. Bourne, who before his retirement owned a caravan site and a poultry unit, would often disappear in Italy for weeks at a time, returning home with sketchbooks filled with architectural drawings.
In his baggy corduroys he would then get to work, helped by Muriel and, on occasion, enthusiastic local volunteers.
Each project lasted about four to six weeks. The approach was improvised: armed with netting, the Bournes carted buckets of ballast from the Dulas River to be mixed with concrete to make mortar.
“Muriel still wore bags of cement on this hill in her 80s,” Jonathan said.
Mr. Bourne used whatever was lying around as models. On one occasion it was a washing basket, another a car wheel hub.
To mold the dome of his Tempietto, he used an old Welsh washing boiler.
In addition to the sometimes naive replicas of Italian monuments, more than a third of the site is made up of Renaissance architecture that is not inspired by any building in particular.
There is also a healthy nod to Welsh heritage. Among the crazy cobblestones, original exhibits and farm memorabilia is a Welsh brick museum built into the hillside.
According to Mr. Bourne, his designs amused local planners. Intrigued by his project, they visited him at first but then left him to continue his labor of love.
Slowly, inevitably, buildings and facades crumble and crack. Vegetation encroaches and tree roots sink underneath.
But Jonathan thinks they must be saved. “In Welsh terms they are a national treasure,” he said. “At the British level, they are still Division One.
“We may have a decade to stabilize them before they are lost forever.”
Modern conservation approaches mean invisible charges will not be used to repair buildings.
“I’ll use white lime as a mortar,” Jonathan said.
“This will leave white cobwebs on the repaired structures, but over time these will turn green and wither.
“It’s important that we leave a custodial fingerprint so that we know exactly what has been done while still staying true to the original designs.”
Last November, Jonathan called in volunteers to help prepare the site. He now has eight regulars and four part-time employees who come on weekends every fortnight, all year round. The work can take years.
More volunteers are welcome, if they are committed and genuine – for details contact Jonathan via his Facebook page.
As the work goes on, visitors are discouraged. Mr. Bourne himself never wanted his gardens to become a tourist attraction, although he rarely turned away anyone.
Right after the turn of the century, following a TV profile, there was a surge of visits, but interest waned in a site that never courted publicity.
It is sometimes “rediscovered”: barely three weeks ago, the very first opinion was published on Google.
For now, the Little Italy trust is asking people to stay away.
“Some paths are not too bad but the buildings are fragile and the steps are deadly,” Jonathan said.
“The structures that I can put together, but I can’t do that to people.”
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However, people can help by staying in the old Bourne chalet. Now a Airbnb location, it is touted as the ultimate hideaway: don’t expect wifi, TV, or even a phone here.
His grades are high and the profits are donated to the trust for ongoing conservation work.
Despite comparisons with Portmeirion, the Italian-style village designed by Sir Clough William Ellis 30 miles away in Porthmadog, the reference is illusory.
It is believed that Mr. Bourne was motivated more by an innate love of Italian architecture than by a desire to ape his most illustrious neighbor.
Despite his passion for the country, he never considered moving to Italy to be surrounded by its original gems.
Instead, he preferred to materialize his memories at home.
“Wales is a wonderfully untouched country,” he once said.
“The landscape is much more beautiful than that of Italy.”