Wednesday, 21 May 2014

A Visit to Portmeirion, Wales Weekend Part 2. . .

Would you believe these photos were taken in Wales? And what is this village's connection to WWI and to Noel Coward?

This is Portmeirion, just up the coast from Harlech and not too far from the town of Porthmadog.  It was designed by architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who fought in the First World War, was awarded the Military Cross, and lived to the ripe old age of 94. In one of the souvenir booklets I bought (a reprint of a commemorative speech by renowned travel writer Jan Morris who lives nearby and knew him well), there are cheerful photos of him in a tweed jacket with yellow stockings looking distinctly un-Malvolio-like.

He built Portmeirion, starting in 1926, as a response to capital tourism when the railways started bringing daytrippers to the Welsh coast. He wanted to offer a place that was both beautiful and unique. The architecture is quirky and full of visual puns and folly-like structures. There is a lighthouse that doesn't have a light. The grand facade of a large mansion is hiding a humble bungalow when you go around the back. There's a concrete boat which is never going to sail anywhere.  Unfortunately we arrived in late afternoon (although on the plus side, we were told that if we waited ten seconds, the admission would be halved ) and so didn't have time to explore all the odd bits and pieces in great detail. Instead we chose to take a walk along one of the woodland paths filled with colourful flowers and pretty ponds.

As Morris notes, Williams-Ellis, "was a essentially a vista-man. I don't think he was a great architect, but he was a masterly landscaper . . . time and again, when you pause to look at one of the Portmeirion structures, your eye will be drawn away, round a corner, down a flight of steps, to some celestial sea-view beyond. "

And yes, all paths lead to the sea and this stunning estuary. 

I could have spent all day here just watching the patterns in the sand and the waves rolling in. I'd love to come again, perch on a bench with my knitting and a latte, and just watch the tide come in.

And here's the view coming back into the village from the coastal walk. One of the lookout towers is completely embedded with shells on the inside.

Portmeirion is also known as the filming location for a 1960s cult classic television series called The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan, who reminds me a bit of Steve McQueen.  As befitting its setting, it's quite a surreal show about a secret agent held prisoner in a bizarre village where everyone is known by their number (he's number 6 and there's now a No.6 festival held at Portmeirion). Defiant against constant interrogation as to why he suddenly resigned from his job, he keeps trying to escape, not only from his captors but from a huge sinister white ball that appears whenever people stray too far.  I've only watched two episodes out of the seventeen, but I'm strangely hooked.  To my mind, it's a cross between Dr. Who with some of the kitsch of Star Trek, with a great soundtrack.

Portmeirion is such a unique and oddly peaceful place and I didn't find it at all tacky even though there are the inevitable souvenir shops.  Most of the buildings house the hotel, cottages that you can rent, and various shops and cafes.  I definitely want to go back and spend a full day there - well worth a visit if you are ever in that part of Wales.

And the connection with Noel Coward?  In 1941, when his London home was destroyed in the Blitz, he came to Portmeirion and would you believe it?  He wrote Blithe Spirit there!

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