On the southern coast of northern Wales lies the magical village of Portmeirion … and I couldn’t wait to visit. As a subscriber to many travel magazines, Snowdonia and Portmeirion always seemed to pop up as a feature in one or another. The photographs looked amazing, but I must admit I had never bothered to delve into the articles. Many friends have visited and told me if we were going to visit Wales, I had to put Portmeirion on my “must visit” list. We did.
If you happened to be around in the 60’s, then you know Portmeirion was the location for the short-lived, cult tv series THE PRISONER, starring the oh so handsome Patrick McGoohan. That’s where my knowledge ended.
We had been staying in Snowdonia National Park for the week and, now I’m ready to visit this “interesting, but-not-really-sure-what-it-is” place. Armed with only a map, no travel brochures to be found, we took an afternoon to visit … again not really sure what it was we were going to. Easy enough to find, but signage made it appear to be some sort of amusement park … ‘where to park’ and ‘where not to park’, admission times and prices, ‘no dogs allowed’. This ‘lack of welcome’ was a little off putting. Still confused about what type of place this was … a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum? After parking our car, paying the admission and picking up a couple of brochures, we walked down the path into the village … and this unique, quirky, colorful little village unveiled itself.
Inspired by the Portofino village which lies on the Amalfi coast in Italy, Portmeirion was the brain-child of Welsh architect, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who set out to recreate his own personal idyllic community.
A very successful and ambitious architect as well as avid sailor, Sir Clough’s dream was “to erect a whole group of buildings on my own chosen site for my own satisfaction – an ensemble that would in fact be me.” Since the age of 6, he had imagined “creating clusters of architecturally imaginative buildings”, which is a great description for Portmeirion’s charm. The footpaths crisscross from this way to that and what appears to be one thing from a distance, is actually something else entirely when you get closer to it. Windows are painted on. Doors lead to nowhere. A boat which appears to be docked, isn’t a boat at all. The colors on the buildings are bright, warm and Mediterranean. The gardens, of which there are many, from the small, clipped formal gardens to a 70-acre sub-tropical forest, are truly magnificent. All of this lying on a small sandy peninsula overlooking the Traeth Bach tidal estuary, in northern Wales.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis began looking for the perfect site years before buying this location and, after visiting 22 islands some as far away as New Zealand, ended up finding the perfect spot not far from where he lived. The ideal location was a private peninsula off the coast of Snowdonia, where a neglected hundred-year-old mansion on an overgrown, weed-choked plot of land was for sale.
Clough bought this “neglected wilderness” in 1925 for £20,000 and spent the next 50 years creating the place of his dreams. It was never easy. World War II saw a ban on all building. Finding, buying and transporting the glorious buildings, columns, ceilings, plasterwork, stones, all took time and money. He knew that eventually the only way this place was going to succeed financially would be with tourist dollars. He was right.
This unique, little hamlet of tranquility attracted quite a few creative people seeking refuge and solace. Noel Coward, George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell were frequent guests. But the one who is responsible for unveiling this idylic retreat was Patrick McGoohan, who hid away in Portmeirion while writing his new tv series, The Prisoner. When Portmeirion was given credit at the end of the series as the filming location, fans of the series thronged to this village, and they haven’t stopped.
We were there for the day, but for those wanting a longer stay, there is the Hotel Portmeirion, where you can choose from a lovely room overlooking the estuary, or perhaps one of the 13 cottages. If you are there for the day, and are not planning to have a (rather expensive) meal at the (rather expensive) hotel, there are a couple of eateries, The Town Hall Cafe, Caffi Glas and Caffi Sgwar. They do get quite busy, so plan in advance.
For shopping, of course there is Portmeirion Pottery. In New England you can find world-class Portmeirion pottery in every high-end gift shop. But, honestly, I wasn’t quite clear on the connection between “Portmeirion the village” and “Portmeirion the dishware”.
Portmeirion Pottery was founded by Sir Clough’s daughter, Susan Williams-Ellis. As artistic as her father, Susan graduated from the Chelsea Art School and began by working as a book illustrator, but pottery was soon to become her passion. At a small pottery shop in Stoke-on-Trent, Susan began by applying her designs to other people’s pottery. Portmeirion the village wasn’t quite the tourist attraction it is now, but it did have a small souvenir shop, which was doing poorly. Susan and her husband took over the running of this small shop in 1953 and began creating the iconic designs we have all come to love and recognize.
Do I recommend a trip to Snowdonia National Park? Absolutely! It is magnificent in its steely greyness, mirror blue lakes, wooley pine trees and rocky coastline. And while there, do I recommend a trip to Portmeirion? How could you not visit this unique little peninsula of creativity. And if I were to define Portmeirion … would I say it’s ‘a residential village, an amusement park, or a museum’? I’m still not sure. What I do know is that it is an elegant, strange, magical place that, once you grasp its meaning, leaves you in childlike wonder.
Clough’s motto “Cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future” lives on at Portmeirion.