PORTMEIRION

ESCAPE TO PORTMEIRION – A PLACE YOU WON'T WANT TO LEAVE IN A HURRY

The Italianate village of Portmeirion has been ranked as the 18th most popular tourist attraction throughout the whole of the British Isles and the sixth most popular tourist attraction in Wales overall (by Rough Guides). It sees around 250,000 people flock to its site each year, most of whom come to visit the striking collection of neo-classical style buildings in addition to the shops, restaurants and gardens fashioned principally by Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis, and more latterly his family. Famously providing the backdrop to the cult 60s series The Prisoner, the village still has many long-standing associations with the world-acclaimed series and even has its own shop dedicated to the show.

But since its inaugural opening over 80 years ago, the area has changed from an abandoned wilderness into a home for a mix of highly stylised Georgian-type buildings and some careful reconstructions of parts of British stately homes. With a plentiful array of shops housing anything and everything from fine art to pottery, souvenirs, stationery, chocolates and jams, most people should find something to tempt either their taste buds or their wallets during their stay. Indeed whether it's sampling Portmeirion champagne, feasting on local delicacies such as Welsh lamb or seafood from the Lleyn peninsula, the village tries to set the trend in fine dining in Wales; and ultimately offers visitors the chance to escape into a world of fantasy that very few would want to leave in a hurry. What follows is an in-depth look at Portmeirion's association with The Prisoner series, Clough Williams-Ellis' vision for the village and an insight into its development, and an exploration of what tourists and holiday-makers can expect to find at the site today.

THE PRISONER AND PORTMEIRION
When Steed and his karate chop-wielding sidekick Mrs Peel were bringing villains and ne'er-do-wells to justice in cult 60s show, The Avengers, and Captain James Kirk was going where no man had gone before in Star Trek, a corner of Wales became the surprise centre of the universe for one man. The Italianate village of Portmeirion became the world-acclaimed setting for a ground-breaking series that saw secret agent, Patrick McGoohan (or Number Six), imprisoned in a chic Riviera-style village without, it seemed, any possible means of escape.

In the mysterious and abstruse The Prisoner series, McGoohan was seen at the beginning of the show wanting to break ranks with his masters in the shady world of international espionage. However, his former controllers had other ideas and, rather than let him live an normal life, he was condemned to spend what seemed an eternity in a supposedly utopian idyll, which rather unfortunately turned out to be closer to a Dantesque purgatory where his every move was watched and his soul was constantly tormented by the village controllers and its weird inhabitants.

On stepping out of what seemed to be his London apartment, much to his shock and amazement, McGoohan had left swinging 60s London behind and had arrived, he knew not how, at the complete antithesis of his usual environment: Portmeirion.

Through brainwashing techniques and surgery, most of the zombie-like and the other-worldly fellow inmates he encountered, did not seem to want to leave this bizarre, almost Elysian world of neo-classical and Arcadian structures. However, McGoohan's spirit was not to be broken easily and he was the only one who had a burning desire to uncover an escape route back to normality and an ordinary civilian life.

Moreover, the show seemed to be eager to confound and perplex its viewers in that inimitable 60s way, and posed rather more questions than it was willing to answer. The reasons why McGoohan aka Number 6 resigned his post were never made fully clear; and he was continually goaded to reveal secret information, which puzzled McGoohan and viewers alike yet further still. The confessions his jailers wished to prize from him remained as much of an enigma as the series and again viewers were left to draw their own conclusions about the whole essence of the show and what it was really trying to represent.

Some at first felt he was perhaps just being meted out perpetual punishment for his wish to step outside the world of the UK government agency with which he had had so many close and inscrutable ties. Other commentators believe the show was an allegorical tale about society at the time and how personal freedoms were becoming increasingly lost. Indeed some felt it was just a bewildering chronicle of someone in the throes of a nervous breakdown.

'he was condemned to spend what seemed an eternity in a supposedly utopian idyll, which rather unfortunately turned out to be closer to a Dantesque purgatory where his every move was watched and his soul was constantly tormented'


Patrick McGoohan

The village was run by Number 2 whose identity changed from episode to episode. And in another mysterious conundrum, McGoohan also seemed to be on a desperate mission to uncover whom exactly the commander in chief or Number 1 was throughout the whole of the run of the show. His constant refrain was: "I am not a number; I am a free man."

Another of the series' curious aspects was his continual capture by gigantic transparent spheres, known as Rover. Whenever he almost seemed to be able to escape the confines of the village and leave its coastal enclave and make one last final bid for freedom, these sci-fi inspired creations always appeared and thwarted his many break-out attempts.

Conversely, the creator of the whole of Portmeirion Clough Williams-Ellis had rather different ideas about the setting for this internationally-renowned series, which he bought for just under £5,000 in 1925. He actually hoped it would become an homage to outstanding architectural design such as that found on the Italian Riviera like the small resort of Portofino or say in the Tivoli Gardens in Copenhagen. At the very least, he hoped people would be loathe to leave his Georgian architecture inspired creation and that many would be clamouring to be allowed in to see his largely rococo and baroque-styled assemblage of buildings.

He said of the series: "Patrick McGoohan's ingenious and indeed mysterious television series The Prisoner stands alone for its revealing presentation of the place. When seen in colour at the local cinema, Portmeirion itself seemed, to me, at least, to steal the show from its human cast."

And indeed the surroundings seemed to blend perfectly with the 60s psychedelic fashions and the bright primary colours used in much of the styling of the show. Portmeirion with its colourful and unique array of buildings certainly gave the series its trademark appeal; and indeed perhaps an edge over its rivals – whom often had far less opulent a landscape to call their very own.

A great many of the notable buildings and settings used in The Prisoner were in many cases just finished several months before filming actually began. Among many of the most heavily filmed parts of the village were the Piazza, Gothic Pavilion and Gloriette. Fans of the show will recall that games of human chess were often played on the centrally located lawn as one of the many surreal and bizarre rituals.

The Schonbrunn Palace in Vienna was actually said to have been the inspiration for the Gloriette. It had been built in a lesser form and had been known as the Portico prior to 1964. However, Williams-Ellis wanted to make use of eight ionic columns he had rescued from Hooton Hall, Cheshire, in the 1930s. Interestingly, they were embellished with gilded Burmese dancers in a style associated with the 19th century court arts of Mandalay.

He had forgotten exactly where they had been stored, but mercifully a thorough search of the grounds revealed that the columns had been buried in a section of the gardens. Once added to the existing Portico, Williams-Ellis felt a name change was in order in a bid to reflect the grandeur and splendour of the additional ornamentation. From then on it became known as the Gloriette.

An old tennis court stood in front of this building, and it was felt that this should be sacrificed for a new courtyard which, it was deemed would be more in keeping with the new range of enhancements. This was christened the Piazza and also was to contain a fountain and pool.

And in a final move to complete the triumvirate range of improvements, a salvaged pavilion from Nerquis Hall was rebuilt and designated the name: Gothic Pavilion.

Williams-Ellis said of the project: "Unfortunately, the pavilion was badly damaged during its dismantling. Had I not been blessed with inspired masons, I should have just heaped the pieces into a rockery. As it was, we bravely went ahead, and in the end built not the original portico, but an amended version which with its more attenuated proportions and slender pinnacles is generally held to have gained in elegance whatever it may have lost in authenticity."

And visitors today can see all of the buildings involved in the series and several of the later additions when they take a tour of the illustrious estate and gardens.

A great many people actually expect to see the original apartment housed in the Round House, the building that was used as the exterior of his home. However, all indoor scenes were shot at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's studios at Borehamwood.

And today the unit that was used as the village shop on the show (or Lady's Lodge), is now actually called Siop Bach (Little Shop) and is entirely devoted to selling Portmeirion memorabilia and souvenirs. Items can also be bought online by clicking on www.portmeirion-village.com There is also an outlet totally dedicated to selling Prisoner series' collectables and items and is quite fittingly dubbed The Prisoner Shop. McGoohan was apparently a major driving force behind the whole series and was intimately involved in the writing and whole creation of the 17 episodes that still have an international following even today.

He is now the patron of the fan club Six of One that usually meets once a year at Portmeirion for a convention. Typically fans meet former actors and crew involved in the show over several days, and just generally socialise with like-minded enthusiasts. The next convention will be held from March 23-25 2007. For more details e.mail sixofone@netreach.net
www.sixofone.org.uk or www.portmeirion-village.com If you can't find accommodation at Portmeirion, you might like to try staying at Glyn-yr-Aur for the duration of the meeting. Please contact onygena@onetel.com to find out more.

PORTMEIRION'S ORIGINS AND DEVELOPMENT
When Williams-Ellis bought the piece of land in 1925 with which to realise his long-held ambition of creating an architectural masterpiece, it was for the most part a wild and overgrown stretch of land with a few run-down buildings.

When the land was eventually sold off at auction as a tumble-down and derelict shadow of its former self, the site was then known as Aber Iau which means glacial estuary in English.

However, Williams-Ellis decided his fledgling resort would benefit from a name change, which would he hoped encapsulate the exceptional character and progressive design he envisaged in achieving. And so Portmeirion was born. Port was used to denote the coastal location and meirion was added as a derivative of Merioneth, the Welsh county in which it was then located, which has now become Gwynedd.

Incidentally, the site was not just close to the seat of his historic forebears, but was also close to his more recent familial home of Plas Brondanw which was bequeathed to him by his father the Rev John Clough Williams-Ellis in 1908.

And in one of the first buildings that he raised, the Bell Tower or Campanile (completed 1928) he used stones from the former royal castle of the House of Cynan, that had been a mere 150 yards away, to lay the foundations of what many see as perhaps his own miniature fiefdom in North Wales. He said of the building: "The need for the Campanile was obvious enough – I felt it was imperative that I should open my performance with a dramatic gesture of some sort."

He reasoned the move was needed to create a powerful and impressive edifice that would set the tone and style of his proposed venture – which grew substantially year on year right up until the outbreak of the Second World War.

Reflecting on how he wished to develop the project further he wrote: "I had a general idea – or rather dozens of competing ideas – clear yet changing and dissolving views of the place as it might be – though mostly they would have certain basic principles in common: a clustering here, a dominant feature there, a connecting link, an axial vista, an interlude of gardens, lawn or woodland, the emphasizing of a natural height, the opening of a sea or mountain view and the enclosing of a space.

"Thus were first established such highlights as the Watch House on the brink of its precipitous cliff, the presiding Campanile crowning Battery Rock, the Chantry at the highest point of all – and so on.

"Once such focal points were established, it was only a matter of choosing amongst the many possibilities and determining scale relations, general character, materials, detailing and colour. All of which free-and-easy procedure would have been scarcely possible had I not been myself proprietor, client, architect, builder and paymaster all in one."

Initial tourism plans

Before the above schedule of works began in earnest, Williams-Ellis wanted his whole venture to become self-sustaining and decided that by using some of the existing buildings for tourism purposes, this would help to keep his project viable and help finance the rest of his formidable plans.

A revamped original old house, two new cottages and a renovated gardener's bothy all became part and parcel of the fledgling estate, which welcomed luminary guests such as ex-cabinet ministers, novelists and actors on its opening day on Good Friday 3 April 1926.

Williams-Ellis said that the only saving grace on that opening weekend was the fine weather and the outstanding and captivating setting. He wrote at the time: "Everything was pretty rough, primitive and slapdash; the equipment inadequate, the staff untrained, the management unsuitable and food terrible.

"It was not until Mr James Wyllie, a painter who had run a most successful restaurant of his own took over the management, that the project became really airborne."

During its inaugural year, many famous and celebrated people of the day stayed at this fashionable coastal enclave, so much so in fact that many would-be guests had to be turned away including the writer Bernard Shaw and Arnold Bennett.

Such was the demand from visitors to stay or take a tour of the resort, that Williams-Ellis felt compelled to forge ahead with new and exciting developments to satisfy the phenomenal clamour for bookings.

Above all he claimed his overriding mission was to design a village that was the epitome of aesthetic perfection and one that synthesised his deeply held beliefs about what architecture should strive to achieve.

His enduring credo was: 'cherish the past, adorn the present, construct for the future', and he felt passionately that his designs should be as beautiful, and vibrantly colourful as he could make them.

From 1925-1939, much of the site was marked out and its most defining buildings constructed. Post Second World War, he began a new phase of building in 1954 until 1976, when yet more buildings were added to the existing setting.

Moreover, as a keen conservationist, he was not averse to saving old buildings from complete destruction and transplanted several dilapidated parts of stately homes to Portmeirion for posterity.

Among the most famous were remnants of Emral Hall in Flintshire. While leafing through Country Life in the mid-1930s, he was shocked to read that the building, which was a 700 years old manor house of some standing, was due to be totally demolished.

'Above all he claimed his overriding mission was to design a village that was the epitome of aesthetic perfection and one that synthesised his deeply held beliefs about what architecture should strive to achieve.'

After several calls to the National Trust and the Victoria and Albert Museum that drew little interest, he himself felt he was the only one that could salvage the hall for future generations.

With virtually no competition, he was pleased to secure the ballroom's Jacobean ceiling for just £13.00 at auction, which notably depicted the labours of Hercules in its barrel-vaulted plaster setting.

He explained: "But then of course, I had to buy all of the rest of the room at any cost; the old leaded glass in its mullioned windows, its fire grate, its oak cornices and architraves – the lot.

"And committed that far, it was but prudent to buy a great deal more of the old house wherewith to contrive an apt new building in which to embed my reconstructed ballroom. Whence the somewhat hybrid aspect of what is now Portmeirion's Town Hall."

Completed in 1938, the Town Hall today is actually used as a venue for conferences, wedding receptions and meetings. It also has a self-service restaurant with outdoor seating.

With Williams-Ellis' enthusiasm for preserving history (he actually demarcated the boundaries of the Snowdonia National Park) Portmeirion gained a certain notability as a 'home for fallen buildings'.

Another of his post-war rescue bids was for the Bristol Colonnade. Rebuilt at Portmeirion in 1959, it had actually stood in front of the bathhouse at Arnos Court, Bristol, and had been commissioned by Quaker copper smelter William Reeve.

Initially constructed in 1760, it had been bombed heavily during the Second World War and had fallen into a bad state of repair.

Already listed as an ancient monument, Williams-Ellis was allowed to remove it from its existing site and resurrect it to its former glory at Portmeirion.

He said of the project: "Transporting some hundred tons of fragile and elaborately wrought masonry two hundred miles by road was no light matter, but was as nothing to the feat of delicately dismembering at the sending end or the faultless reassembly at this."

Each of the pieces of stone were numbered in a comprehensive architectural survey, which helped in the overall reassembly of the building.

Williams-Ellis added: "First to last, in Bristol as well as at Portmeirion, it was almost a matter of high masonic craft, for, having determined its site and fixed its levels, there was little more for me to do but look on, approve and very much admire."

The very last of the buildings were completed in 1976 in Williams-Ellis' 93rd year. The final project was a tollgate in the form of a truncated tower to help cope with the ever increasing number of visitors to the site.

Williams-Ellis himself remained a practising architect right up until his death in 1978; and throughout his diverse and varied career worked on projects for an international range of clients that included some as far away as Shanghai.

His legacy is very much carried on by his family who today act as trustees of the charitable trust that was set up to preserve and conserve Portmeirion and its grounds and gardens.

PORTMEIRION TODAY

Telfords Tower..on the right

A direct descendant of Welsh royalty, Clough Williams-Ellis unquestionably did manage to fashion his own mini royal kingdom when he began developing the village of Portmeirion over 80 years ago.

As absolute monarch of his ancestral domain, he was free to plan and design a picture-perfect assemblage of buildings (as described in detail in earlier sections).

In short, with no planners or any other major barriers to forestall his ambitions, he was able to give free reign to his imagination and develop an eclectic range of buildings that was inspired by his passion for highly stylised architecture and art.

Educated at Trinity College Cambridge and at the London Architectural Association School, he wrote of his life-long passion: "An architect has strange pleasures. He will lie awake listening to the storm in the night and think how the rain is beating on his roofs, he will see the sun return and will think that is was for just such sunshine that is shadow-throwing mouldings were made."

Today visitors to Portmeirion can savour the fantasy land that Williams-Ellis created and truly enjoy the tumult of gardens, shops and restaurants that have been developed since the site was opened in 1926.

Not just a tourist attraction, Williams-Ellis also chose to add two hotels (Hotel Portmeirion and Castell Deudraeth) and guest accommodation to the village so that visitors could really relish all that Portmeirion had to offer. As said previously, many famous and celebrated peopled flocked to his resort, particularly in its early years of opening. Among one of his many notable guests was playwright and 'bon viveur' Noel Coward who was said to have written his smash hit play, and then film, Blithe Spirit during a week's stay in 1941.

Fast forward to the 21st century and it would be fair to say that anyone would only be more than happy to be detained in one of the many fine restaurants that have opened at the village - which promise to offer the very best in local produce and cuisine.

It is worth noting that two Automobile Association rosettes have been awarded to the Hotel Portmeirion Dining Room, which was built in 1931 as an extension to the main hotel that was constructed in the initial stages of the whole scheme.

Head chef at the restaurant David Doughty specialises in modern Welsh cuisine and sources all the ingredients for his menus locally.

Visitors can also choose to dine in the Castell Deudraeth Bar and Grill, the Town Hall self-service restaurant or feast on ice cream dishes at Cadwalader's Ice Cream café.

Additionally, day-trippers can also stem their hunger pangs at Pot Jam, one of the several village shops that have been opened over the years for tourists.

The shop is actually located on the ground floor of the Trinity Building and was refurbished in 1995 to house all Portmeirion's own-label jams, chocolates, sweets and champagne.

Among the other intriguing shops that were developed is Papu a Phensal, a card shop, which is situated on the ground floor of the Toll House.

The Ship Shop is also another of the outstanding retail outlets that visitors ought to make a point of touring. It houses all the latest products from Portmeirion Potteries, which was established as a lucrative separate business by Williams-Ellis' daughter, Susan, in 1960.

With a great international following, the company has recently commissioned chef and cookery writer, Sophie Conran, to design a new range of tableware for their latest collection.

And last by no means least, visitors to the village, should also take the time to amble through the gardens that have been cultivated at the site.

There are many types of pine tree planted in the grounds in addition to sycamore, beech trees and bay trees. Two lakes were also dug and provide entrancing centrepieces to the varied woodland setting.

Many exotic species have also been planted in abundance and include rhododendrons, azaleas and camellias.

And finally, to borrow a well-worn phrase from The Prisoner series, staff at Pormeirion will undoubtedly hope to 'be seeing you' some time soon.

Opening times and admission tariffs: Portmeirion is open all year round from 9.30am until 5.30pm. It is however closed on Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year's Day. Admission prices are £6.00 for adults, £3.50 for children and £5.00 for students and senior citizens. Various discounts are also offered for family groups. For more information visit the village's website at www.portmeirion-village.com or ring 01766 770000.

Directions: Portmeirion is situated in between the village of Penrhyndeudraeth and the town of Porthmadog. From Glyn-yr-Aur, guests need to take the A470 northwards towards Trawsfynydd and then join the A487 towards Porthmadog. They should then take a left turn at Minffordd for Portmeirion.