'Little Italy' hidden in Welsh jungle with 200 replica buildings and Venetian canal

A scale replica of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore - the Duomo Cathedral in Florence
A scale replica of Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore - the Duomo Cathedral in Florence -Credit:Ddraig Wen

A hidden gem engulfed in greenery has revealed more of its mysteries as volunteers uncover hundreds of ornate Mediterranean-style structures. Volunteers at the site, dubbed the "Little Italy" of southern Eryri , have been astounded by the number of replica buildings nestled within a small woodland.

"Every time I pulled away more ivy I thought: 'Bloody hell, there's another one'," said Jonathan Fell, the site's colourful curator. To date approximately 200 "objects" have been discovered a collection that includes not only buildings but also statues, plaques, and various curiosities. Before the conservation efforts started a few years back only about 30 structures were visible.

The area is dotted with iconic Italian structures ranging from the Duomo of Florence to the Rialto Bridge of Venice. Among the more recent finds are some unexpected elements: a miniature English village, a cat cemetery, and what appears to be a Venetian canal, which may have once carried flowing water.

Each discovery further amplifies the admiration Jonathan holds for the site's creators, Mark Bourne and his wife Muriel. He views their homage to Italian architecture, located on the fringes of Corris, between Dolgellau and Machynlleth, as a testament to their obsession, perseverance, and creativity.

He dismisses those who refer to it as a model village and has little patience for any comparison with Portmeirion, the renowned Italianate village in Porthmadog. "I absolutely love this place," Jonathan said. "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."

Mr Bourne previously ran a caravan site and poultry unit. He would often vanish to Italy for weeks on end, coming back with sketchbooks brimming with architectural drawings. Donning his signature baggy corduroys he would then get stuck into his recreations, occasionally aided by local volunteers. Old materials, from wash boilers to hub caps, were repurposed to provide structure then wrapped in moulded chicken wire ready for concreting.

Over a quarter of a century Mr Bourne hauled thousands of buckets of water and ballast from the Afon Deri in the valley below to be mixed with concrete to make mortar. A modest Datsun 4x4 and trailer did some of the heavy lifting but, for the final stretch, up through the garden, sheer physical strength was required.

Jonathan still finds it hard to grasp the magnitude of the task. "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," he said. "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."

Battling nature is a constant challenge
Battling nature is a constant challenge -Credit:Ddraig Wen

In an effort to protect the cottage and gardens the site was placed into a trust before the Covid pandemic hit. The trustee, Richard Withers, convinced family friend Jonathan to coordinate the rescue of what's known locally as "Mark's Folly" because villagers thought the creator was "crazy".

Jonathan, who previously worked as a designer and conservationist at Brighton's Royal Pavilion, faced a monumental task in Corris: the site resembled a jungle, structures were falling apart, and tree roots were undermining foundations. With a team of helpers, they've started shoring up the site, using lime mortar to mend cracks and leave behind conservation "fingerprints". Jonathan believes the project could take 10 years to complete.

"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."

The team stumbled upon a miniature Italian "street" complete with a row of perfectly proportioned houses. It took them some time to understand what they had found.

Evidence suggested that the street was once water-fed from a small spring. Jonathan, unable to contain his excitement, said: "I ran down the slope shouting: 'I've found Venice!' It looks like it was a canal, not a street, but I can't prove it.."

Every nook and cranny is filled with treasures
Every nook and cranny is filled with treasures -Credit:Ddraig Wen

Another unexpected find was a quintessential English hamlet hidden beneath ferns and ivy. Months later the team realised the church and timber-framed thatched cottages were an exact match for the scene depicted on red Stafford teacups placed on a concrete shelf 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." Sign up for the North Wales Live newsletter sent twice daily to your inbox.

Equally thrilling were the "ghosts" they unearthed. This is Jonathan's term for the remnants of the site's working life and conditions, – from discarded children's spades to unused drill holes now filled with moss plugs.

These discoveries were made near the Duomo. Jonathan said: "The cathedral is twice the size of my washing machine. It was built on a big sloping rock. As a museum curator you look for 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."

Further detective work shed light on how the building was constructed. Jonathan said: "I pulled away some ivy nearby and found hardboard moulds used to make its roof,. He must have cut the moulds, filled them with sand and concrete, and made individual panels to be fitted above the archways."

In addition to replicas of Italian landmarks the site boasts over a third of its area dedicated to Renaissance architecture whose origins remain a mystery. Amid the eclectic pathways and exhibits lies a Welsh Brick Museum seamlessly integrated into the hillside.

Jonathan reflected on the sheer effort involved. "The whole project involved an enormous amount of expertise and grunt," he said. "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 Asperger's."

Intricate details in a coloured concrete relief
Conservation efforts are being led by Jonathan Fell

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. And while the focus is Italian there's little uniformity. "Some objects are as big as a stand-up freezer," said Jonathan. "Others are shoebox-sized."

Little Italy was not built to attract visitors but Mr Bourne rarely turned them away. Opinions differ on whether 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. "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."