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Britain's secret 'little Italy' discovered in wood with miniature buildings and statues

Jun 18, 2023

An astonishing "little Italy" has been uncovered in north Wales after years hidden away in undergrowth with around 200 statues, buildings and other artwork now discovered at the site

An amazing 'little Italy' with around 200 statues, buildings and other pieces of art has been found hidden in undergrowth in north Wales.

Everywhere there are iconic Italian buildings, from Florence's Duomo to Venice's Rialto Bridge and a Venetian canal that was possibly once filled with running water.

Volunteers investigating the site have been left shocked by the sheer number objects hidden in woodland that has been dubbed the "little Italy" of Snowdonia.

"Every time I pulled away more ivy, I thought, bloody hell, there's another one," said Jonathan Fell, the site's flamboyant curator.

At the last count, around 200 "objects" had been unearthed – not just buildings but statues, plaques and curios as well. Before conservation work began, a few years ago, only around 30 structures were known.

Mark Bourne and wife Muriel created the site as shrine to Italian architecture, on the outskirts of Corris, between Dolgellau and Machynlleth.

But Mr Fell sniffs at people who call it a model village and claims it is very different to Portmeirion, the Italianate village in Porthmadog, reported NorthWalesLive.

"I absolutely love this place," said Jonathan. "I don't like to call it folk art because it's much more than that. It's such an important site, one of the most important in Wales – far more so than Portmeirion, which had all that money thrown at it."

Before he retired, Mr Bourne owned a caravan site and poultry unit. Often he would disappear off to Italy for weeks at a time, returning home with sketchbooks full of architectural drawings.

In his trademark baggy corduroys, he would then set to work on his recreations, sometimes helped by local volunteers. Old materials, from wash boilers to hub caps, were recycled to provide structure, then encased in moulded chicken wire ready for concreting.

Over 25 years, Mr Bourne carted thousands of buckets of water and ballast from the Afon Deri in the valley below, to be mixed with concrete to make mortar. An underpowered Datsun 4x4 and trailer did some of the heavy lifting but, for the final stretch, up though the garden, muscle and brawn was needed.

"This guy spent 25 years carrying hundreds of tonnes of concrete, water and ballast up a hillside with a slope that ranges from 30 to 45 degrees," said Jonathan.

"At its steepest, it's hard to walk up, and he had to build paths up there before erecting a workshop, laying foundations and starting on the objects.

"With a job like this, I would have used winches and flywheel to lift everything up the slope. I certainly couldn't have carried all those buckets up there. It was a huge amount of work just building the steps.

"Probably his wife helped him. I remember Muriel still walking up the track from Corris, carrying two shopping bags, at the age of 84.

"Maybe he had a mixer for the concrete rather than doing it by hand. But if I was taking a mixer up there, I’d need six people – two for lifting, two for braking and two on drag lines. How he did it I’ve no idea."

In an attempt to safeguard the cottage and gardens, the site was placed in a trust prior to the Covid pandemic. Its trustee is Richard Withers, who persuaded family friend Mr Fell to co-ordinate the rescue of a place known locally "Mark's Folly" – because people in the village thought him "crazy".

Jonathan, now 64, previously worked as a designer and conservationist at Brighton's Royal Pavilion. The job he faced in Corris was huge as not only was the site like a jungle, structures were crumbling and tree roots were burrowing underneath.

With helpers, shoring up work has begun, using lime mortar to repair cracks and so leave conservation "fingerprints". Jonathan estimates it will take a decade.

"At least you can actually walk around the place now," he said. "You could never do that before. A lot of buildings still need stabilising and conserving, and we need to identify the materials needed to achieve this."

One discovery was an Italian "street" lined with a row of diminutive houses and all were in perfect perspective.

Another surprise was a chocolate box English hamlet found under ferns and ivy. Months later, the team realised the church and timber-framed thatched cottages matched exactly the scene on red Stafford teacups arrayed on a concrete shelf built elsewhere in the garden.

"There are hundreds of objects there – at least 200 – and there still might be more to be found," sighed Jonathan. "But I pretty confident we’ve found most of what he built. At least 95% of the garden has now been uncovered.

"The site is much bigger than we thought it was. As we cleared it, we found half-finished buildings, like he's started and stopped because he wasn't happy with them – the f**k-ups, as I call them."

Just as exciting were the "ghosts" that were discovered. This is Jonathan's term for tell-tale signs of the site's working life and conditions, from the children's spades found discarded to the unused drill holes now capped with moss plugs.

These were found near the Duomo. "The cathedral is twice the size of my washing machine," said Jonathan. "It was built on a big sloping rock. As a museum curator, you look got things that shouldn't be there, a bit like an archaeologist.

"On the rock, I noticed small round mossy mounds. Under them were holes into the rock, about the diameter of a 50-pence piece. They were drill holes, about six or eight of them, which he must have used for steel reinforcement pegs to hold the structure in place. Incredible!"

Detective work revealed more details about the building's construction. "I pulled away some ivy nearby and found hardboard moulds used to make its roof," said Jonathan. "He must have cut the moulds, filled them with sand and concrete and made individual panels to be fitted above the archways."

Besides replicas of Italian landmarks, more than a third of the site is comprised of Renaissance architecture of unknown provenance.

"The whole project involved an enormous amount of expertise and grunt," said Jonathan. "This was the work of an obsessive. There's so much detail: one 7ft tower has a tiled roof where no one can see the tiles. He didn't take any shortcuts.

"Neither is there a plan to it. Some structures are bigger than others and there's no obvious order. My gut feeling is that he had Aspergers."

From some of the objects, it's clear he had a sense of humour. Some are clearly playful, from nods to Andalucian castles and Arabesque castellations. One structure had a life-size female dummy inside.

For now, conservation work is on hold. The Bournes’ old white-washed cottage was turned into an Airbnb rental by the trust to help with its conservation work. Recently, the property was sold, having been placed on the market for around £280,000.

Jonathan is waiting to hear what their plans are for the place. Naturally, he hopes these will be benevolent for a site that he believes belongs in "division one" of Welsh architectural heritage.

Little Italy was not built to attract visitors but Mark Bourne rarely turned them away. Opinions differ on where he built his hillside village purely for his own enjoyment, or to share with others.

Jonathan believes it was a mixture of both, and he hopes it stays that way. For now, the site is off-limits. "Mark Bourne meant the site to be seen," he said. "I don't think he wanted it hidden away – that's why it was built on a hillside that was originally visible from the main road below. Drivers used to slow down to see it."

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