Mention the Welsh village of Portmeirion to any Briton of a certain age, and chances are they’ll immediately say, “The Prisoner”, referring to the cult television show of the 1960s that was filmed there. Or they’ll say that they’ve got a piece of Portmeirion pottery at home. The programme and the pottery have created a sort of mystique around the place, and I wanted to explore it for myself. I expected it to be fantastical, and I wasn’t disappointed: the whole place resembles a giant architectural folly.
Sir Clough Williams-Ellis and the Building of Portmeirion
Portmeirion was the vision of one man: Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. He was an architect whose dream was to build an Italian-themed holiday village in North Wales. He designed some of his buildings around the remains of earlier structures (the Town Hall still has stone windows and 17th century panelling), but most were completely new.
Portmeirion opened in 1926 with a hotel and two cottages. Over the next 50 years new buildings were added, creating a settlement with houses, shops and cafés. It is still a tourist village, with a hotel and holiday apartments. I watched a wedding party trooping into the Town Hall: it seems to be popular for special occasions.
Portmeirion is a magnet for tourists. You can see why: even on a wet Welsh day (of which there are many) the brightly coloured buildings are vibrant and cheerful. Every building is different, with towers or turrets, archways and statues. The gardens at the centre boast a pavilion and a giant chess set. As you walk around you are gripped by a sense of unreality. It is not surprising to learn that Portmeirion has been used as a set for several films and television programmes as well as The Prisoner.
Despite the rain we ventured into the woodland above the village, passing by a mock temple and stopping to take in the view from a hillside gazebo. There are 70 acres of forest and, if it had been a fine day, we would have had a good choice of tracks to follow, through the woodland and along the coast. As it was, we took shelter with a glass of wine in the Town Hall café instead.
But What About the Pottery?
One thing was puzzling me. I had seen a shop selling the famous Portmeirion pottery, with its distinctive botanical designs, but where was the factory? A quick search on Google supplied the answer: it isn’t made in Portmeirion at all but in Stoke-on-Trent! Apparently it was given the name by its designer – Susan Williams-Ellis, the daughter of Portmeirion’s founder.
The connection may be tenuous, but the existence of the pottery shop shows how firmly the village and the pottery are linked in the tourist imagination. Similarly, there is a gift shop with Prisoner branded souvenirs. It’s all part of the mythology that surrounds Portmeirion.
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