Back in the 1960s, there was a cult TV programme called The Prisoner.
Up until this year, I had only watched one episode (I wasn’t around in the 60s and somehow missed the repeats in later years), and my impression was that it was rather surreal and was about a man (played by Patrick McGoohan) who finds himself trapped in a peculiar but colourful place named only as The Village.
He has resigned from the Foreign Office and it appears that he is involved in espionage, but now, having been kidnapped one night, he finds himself in a seemingly never-ending Kafkaesque nightmare.
Now Number 6, he no longer has an identity or a name. No matter how many times he proclaims, ‘I am not a number!’
But there are questions… Why is he there? Why did he resign? More importantly, how can he escape?
Before our visit to Bethesda in Wales, we realised that the town isn’t that far from Portmeirion, which is actually where The Prisoner was set.
Simon bought DVDs of the series and we watched one episode a night on our holiday to get in the right mood for our visit to the mysterious ‘The Village’.
Funnily, my black and white spring coat, which I had bought from a charity shop a couple of years before, thinking it looked smart, seemed rather reminiscent of the jacket Patrick McGoohan (aka The Prisoner aka Number 6) wore. When I wore it in The Village, I wondered if I would be seen as a ‘super fan’! You can actually buy jackets in Portmeirion just like the one Number 6 wore!
I expected Portmeirion to play on the fact an iconic 60s series was filmed there, but apart from The Prisoner shop (pictured above), it was more about the architecture, atmosphere, nature and the man behind this curious and unique holiday village.
The architect was Clough Williams-Ellis and he acquired the site – then a ‘neglected wilderness’ for under £5,000 in 1925. The area itself – previously called Aber Iau – dates from at least 1188, with a mention of two stone castles by Gerald of Wales. Over time, it gained a foundry, small shipyard and some cottages.
Clough designed his holiday village from 1925 to 1939 and completed the finer details between 1954 and 1976.
As a whole, the village has a feeling of the Italian Riveria. When one looks more closely at the buildings, one sees classical, Arts and Crafts style, Palladian, and so on, with many buildings salvaged from demolition sites.
The Dome is the most memorable, built in 1960/61, and is a listed Grade II monument. There is also The Bell Tower, also called The Campanile, which housed a turret clock from a demolished brewery in London. The Piazza is the centrepiece of the holiday village and can be seen in The Prisoner.
I don’t have space to go into detail about all the beautiful architecture, suffice to say, the more we looked, the more we found. Little details, statues, carvings…
Obviously these quaint, colourful buildings are attractive enough in their own right but there is a beach (also seen in The Prisoner) and a picturesque and varied tree trail, from the Persian Ironwood Tree (apparently its wood is used as toothpicks in Iran) to the St Helena Island Weeping Willow (from a cutting taken from the weeping willow at Napoleon’s Tomb on St Helena) – there is even a Dancing Tree (New Zealand Papauma Broadleaf)!
Disappointingly, it doesn’t really dance, but the nickname is fabulous. Every time he passed the tree, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis thought the rustling shiny leaves sounded like dancing music – and so it became known as the Dancing Tree.
There are other nature walks too, including one to the Ghost Garden! No ghosts though, it was so named to commemorate the garden of the ferry cottage which was once located there.
These days, 200,000 visitors per year flock to Portmeirion. We were day visitors, of which I think most people are, but it is possible to stay at the hotel or in one of the buildings for a holiday. Not the cheapest of places but it would certainly be a unique stay.
I went to Portmeirion thinking of it as a set piece for a 1960s TV series. But I left feeling it was so much more, with something for lovers of architecture, nature, beaches and beautiful places… For The Prisoner, The Village was a hellish experience but for visitors of Portmeirion, it is quite the opposite. We were in no hurry to escape from ‘The Village’!
Be seeing you! 😀 (As they say in The Prisoner’s ‘Village’!)
Fact of the Day
Did you know playwright Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit while staying at Portmeirion?
Background information for this post comes from the guide books, Portmeirion from Robin Llywelyn and Portmeirion Tree Trail