Portmeirion: A taste of Italy in Wales

You needn’t journey to Genoa for a taste of the Italian Riviera. Head instead to north Wales, where a man with a dream built the most beautiful tourist and holiday village in Britain. It looks like Portofino, but this is Portmeirion, and it has enchanted millions of visitors since it welcomed the first in 1925.

Portmeirion piazza. It looks like the Italian Riviera, but it’s in north Wales

Portmeirion is in the parish of Penrhyndeudraeth, where supporters of the local rugby team are famed for their chant: “Give us a P, give us an E, give us an N . . . ah, here, give us a break.”

The village was the setting for the 1960s British television drama The Prisoner, which starred Irish-American actor Patrick McGoohan. Today, Portmeirion is a star in its own right, attracting 235,000 day visitors and overnight guests every year.

Many are far-flung fans of the show, who travel from all over the world to see the exterior locations from their favourite science fiction-cum-spy series. Most, however, are excursionists from Britain and Ireland, who come to goggle at the eclectic yet harmonious collection of architectural oddities and marvels, with every turn of a corner bringing an appreciative gasp and each archway situated to frame a delightful view.

Unsurprisingly, Portmeirion’s town hall hosts two or three weddings a week during the summer as couples take advantage of the fairy tale backdrops for enviable photos of their big day (a survey for publishers Mills and Boon named it among Britain’s top 10 romantic places).

View from the window of my room in Portmeirion. Below, a plaque commemorates TV drama The Prisoner

The Prisoner made its UK TV debut in September 1967 and quickly attracted a cult following that has never waned. Over 17 episodes, it follows an unnamed British agent who angrily quits the intelligence service, but is rendered unconscious by knockout gas while packing to leave his apartment and his old life behind. Outside, a hearse parked behind his yellow and dark green Lotus Seven SII awaits to spirit him off to a sinister police state called The Village, where surveillance is constant.

Known only as Number Six, which pleased tobacco company John Player & Sons, which at the time produced the top-selling cigarette of the same name, McGoohan’s character is followed around by a big white weather balloon named Rover (a sentry programmed to capture or kill anyone trying to flee) and subjected to mind-control experiments.

The chief baddy is the mysterious Number One, whose lackey, Number Two, does his damnedest to find out why Number Six resigned and extract secret information from him using dream manipulation, indoctrination and hallucinogenic drugs, but to no avail. He should have tickled his feet with a feather – that always works.

The Portmeirion Hotel, where it all began

While McGoohan created The Prisoner, Portmeirion was created by visionary architect Clough Williams-Ellis (1883-1978), who was a tad eccentric – he owned nine identical tweed jackets and matching pairs of knickerbockers, complemented by knee-length yellow socks, so he didn’t have to waste time wondering what to wear each morning.

That was perfectly normal behaviour when compared with Mrs. Adelaide Haig, who lived in the manor house, which is now the Portmeirion Hotel, from 1870 until her death in 1917 – every day, she sat behind a screen and read passages from the Bible to her adopted dogs, of which she had 15 or so at any time.

Scripture knowledge was no guarantee of a place in pooch paradise, but at least when one of her pets died it was buried in its own lovingly tended grave in the dogs’ cemetery in the woods, where Irish wolfhound Boru, several boxers and umpteen poodles and terriers are among the scores resting in peace.

When Mrs. Haig died, the hearse sent to collect her remains couldn’t reach the house as the driveway was a mass of overgrown shrubbery. As a nature lover, she had forbidden her groundsmen from harming any growing thing, so they had to hack a path to the door to get the coffin in and the body out. It was the first bit of gardening they had done in years.

Eccentric architectural genius Clough Williams-Ellis in his trademark tweed suit and yellow socks

Vicar’s son Williams-Ellis’s motto was “Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Construct for the Future”. Over the course of half-a-century, from 1925 to 1976, he remained true to the tenet as Portmeirion took shape on a wooded promontory overlooking Tremadog Bay, although there was an enforced 15-year break from the start of World War II in 1939 until 1954 because of a national building embargo.

He had surveyed a site on a Scottish island, but decided that while it was exactly what he was looking for, the logistics of getting there would have deterred potential visitors. Perhaps he recalled the words of 18th century essayist Samuel Johnson, who, when asked if the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim was worth seeing, replied: “Worth seeing, yes; but not worth going to see.”

Williams-Ellis was no stranger to Antrim. He designed the Causeway School, now a museum close to the Giant’s Causeway Visitors Centre; the arts and crafts-style houses, reminiscent of a Cornish fishing village, on Cushendun Square; and in Belfast, the white-painted First Church of Christ, Scientist, on University Avenue.

His early life was as colourful as his socks. As an officer in the Welsh Guards and later the Royal Tank Corps, he served with distinction in Flanders during World War I and survived unscathed. That was quite an achievement – for a period, he was an observer sent up in a tethered hot air balloon to take a peek at what the Germans were up to beyond No Man’s Land. Fortunately for him, the basket was metal-lined, and bullets fired at him from behind enemy lines ricocheted off it.

Williams-Ellis’s after-life was even more colourful – his ashes were stored away for 20 years after his death at the age of 94 in 1978, but on New Year’s Eve 1998 they were decanted into a rocket that was sent skywards from Portmeirion’s central piazza during a fireworks display, as per his wishes. If anyone ever went out with a bang, it was him.

Palm trees, ornamental shrubs and (below) statues abound

The micro-climate that sees subtropical plants and eucalyptus and palm trees thrive reinforces the impression that Portmeirion is in Italy – until you hear that lovely Welsh lilt from the busy tour guides.

There’s nothing they don’t know about Williams-Ellis and the weird and wonderful buildings he designed and constructed on the land he bought for £5,000 in 1925, which was then, as he recalled, “a neglected wilderness – long abandoned by those romantics who had been carried away by their grandiose landscaping into sorrowful bankruptcy”.

Determined to avoid following the previous owners into penury, he turned the dilapidated manor house into a hotel, which opened in 1926, to help fund the development of the village.

By the early 1930s, the hotel had become a magnet for moneyed visitors, mostly from London. It was a lengthy drive in those pre-motorway days, so Williams-Ellis bought a private residence in the village of Atcham, near Shrewsbury, and converted it back to the inn it once was to serve as a halfway house. He named it the Mytton and Mermaid, and it’s now one of the poshest hotels in Shropshire.

The Portmeirion Hotel’s most famous guest was Edward, Prince of Wales, who visited in 1934, but only after Williams-Ellis had agreed to knock two adjoining rooms together and install an en suite – the man who would be king, albeit briefly, didn’t want to take the royal wee in a shared bathroom. To further ensure the prince’s privacy during his stay, Williams-Ellis temporarily increased the day admission price to a hefty 10 shillings to reduce visitor numbers.

Playwright Noel Coward checked-in to the village on May 2, 1941 after the Luftwaffe’s bombs had destroyed his London office and flat, and in a six-day creative spurt while staying in the Fountain suites wrote his smash-hit comedy, Blithe Spirit. It went from typewriter to stage in a mere three weeks, debuting at the Manchester Opera House on June 1 before transferring to the West End, where it ran for five years.

Other notable visitors were George Bernard Shaw, HG Wells, Daphne du Maurier and Ernest Hemingway from the world of literature; actors Ingrid Bergman and Gregory Peck; Beatle George Harrison, who held his 50th birthday in the village in 1993; Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who was a frequent summer guest; and a man who needs no introduction, King Zog of Albania.

Visitors to Portmeirion reach for their cameras as soon as they see this statue of Saint Peter. Below, the Pantheon

Williams-Ellis was an early pioneer in the recycling of building materials and ornamental features, often travelling great distances to buy or salvage bits and bobs destined for the dump to incorporate in his existing and planned creations. He called Portmeirion “a home for fallen buildings” and, in a nod to its many disparate styles, including Gothic, Jacobean, Italianate, Palladian, Georgian and Arts and Crafts, “an architectural mongrel”.

Perhaps his most curious acquisition was the periscope from a captured U-boat, which provided the lens and apparatus for the camera obscura in the Observatory Tower next to the White Horses guest cottage, where McGoohan stayed while filming The Prisoner.

By far the quirkiest and most photographed artefact is the antique red and blue painted oak statue of a preaching Saint Peter on the balcony of the Toll House, a self-catering cottage above the Battery Square coffee shop.

The Italianate Bell Tower, which looks as if it has been there for hundreds of years, was built in 1928, using stones from the ruins of the 12th century castle that had stood on a nearby prominence. The castle was demolished in 1869 by the land’s then owner, William Fothergill Cook, the inventor of the electric telegraph, to deter sightseers – the antithesis of Williams-Ellis’s come one, come all ethos.

The domed Pantheon was completed in 1961 and is fronted by a lofty Gothic porch of red sandstone, now painted white, which was once a massive fireplace topped by a minstrels’ gallery in the music room of Dawpool House in Cheshire. Dawpool was built between 1882 and 1886 for Thomas Henry Ismay, the founder of the White Star Line, which commissioned the Belfast-built Titanic. His son, Joseph Bruce Ismay, sailed on the ‘unsinkable’ liner’s ill-fated maiden voyage in 1912 and survived.

In a pantiled loggia directly below the Pantheon, the big gilded plaster statue of Buddha was a prop used during filming in 1958 of The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, based on the true story of English missionary Gladys Aylward, played by Ingrid Bergman. The film was set in China in the years leading up to World War II, and many of the exteriors were shot at Plas Brondanw, Williams-Ellis’s ancestral home, four miles from Portmeirion. When the cast and crew finished their work, he bagged Buddha.

Even the National Benzole petrol pump outside Neptune, one of the first guest cottages built by Williams-Ellis, has a story. The early 19th century painted pine figurehead on top was stolen in 1983 and quickly replaced with a replica. The original was forgotten about until 1996, when it appeared for sale in the small ads in Country Life magazine. A dealer who had bought it at auction for £720 was offloading it, and agreed to sell it back to Portmeirion – for £1,300. The replica remains in place, while the original is among the historical items on display in the Pantheon.

Devoted fans of The Prisoner dress up and descend on Portmeirion for their annual convention

Every early autumn, Portmeirion hosts the four-day Festival No6 celebration of music, arts, comedy and culture. The first was held in 2012 to popular and critical acclaim. In 2014, The Pet Shop Boys described it as “undoubtedly a career highlight”; The Telegraph said it is “still the oddest and most magical of the lot”; and in the 2018 NME Awards, it was named Best Small Festival of the Year.

The annual Prisoner Convention, PortmeiriCon, has been running a lot longer, since 1977. Organised by the Six of One Prisoner Appreciation Society, it’s a spring weekend gathering of diehard fans who dress in colourful costumes to watch episodes of their favourite series, compete in quizzes and other competitions, play human chess on the giant open-air board, empty the village shop’s shelves of merchandise and generally enjoy Williams-Ellis’s creations.

The convention is a strange affair, but nowhere near as strange as Number Six’s incessant attempts to escape from The Village. When I stayed there, escape was the last thing on my mind. If Portmeirion was McGoohan’s idea of a prison, I’ll happily return tomorrow to begin a life sentence.

I travelled from Dublin Port to Holyhead and back on Stena Adventurer

GET THERE: On my visit to north Wales, I was a guest of Stena Line, which operates four daily return sailings from Dublin Port to Holyhead. From Holyhead, it’s just over an hour’s drive to Portmeirion.

VISIT/STAY: Portmeirion is open to day visitors from 9.30am to 5.30pm (book online). Adult tickets cost £12, children £8.50 (under-5s free) and family tickets are available from £23. The admission price includes a free guided walking tour. Overnight guests can stay in the four-star, 14-room hotel with its top-class restaurant, outdoor pool and low-tide beach; the four-star Castell Deudraeth, with 11 rooms and suites and a restaurant; a serviced village room (there are 32); or one of 13 self-catering cottages. For those who like massages and pampering, the village’s Mermaid Spa caters to all needs – and kneads.

WATCH: ITV Wales’s six-part series, The Village, goes behind the scenes over the course of a year at Portmeirion. See itv.com/walesprogrammes

Adrenaline junkies will love scary zip line Velocity 2 on a side trip from Portmeirion. Get a taste of what’s in store from the video below

SIDE TRIP 1: There’s no record of the height or speed reached by the rocket that took Williams-Ellis’s ashes aloft, but it couldn’t have been anywhere near as high or as fast as I went during a side trip from Portmeirion to Penrhyn quarry, near Bangor, for a go on Velocity 2, the world’s scariest and Europe’s longest zip line. The experience sounds expensive at £65 for a minute-and-a-half on weekdays (at weekends it costs up to £89), but the adrenaline rush is worth every penny. Apparently, you can see the Isle of Man from up there, but that’s not easy when your life is flashing before your eyes. See zipworld.co.uk

Speeding along the Menai Strait on a super-fast RIB

SIDE TRIP 2: Only slightly less exciting than the zip line is a high-speed rigid inflatable boat (RIB) safari along the Menai Strait that separates the island of Anglesey from the Welsh mainland. Brothers Charles and Christian Harris are the skippers on these waterborne adventures that bounce along at up to 80kph. It’s great fun, and the boats are often accompanied by playful dolphins. Tickets from £25. See ribride.co.uk

IN GOOD HANDS: Claire Copeman runs North Wales-based Adventure Tours UK, which specialises in outdoor activities for private and corporate groups and organised my zip line and RIB ride experiences. I couldn’t have been in better hands or better company throughout my stay in her neck of the woods and mountains. See adventuretoursuk.com

GET TO KNOW WALES: For more on what Wales has to offer, see visitwales.com

Portmeirion from the air