Exploring the Architectural Folly of Portmeirion

Portmeirion, Wales
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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.

Portmeirion, Wales
The quirky architecture of Portmeirion

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 buildings
Look for details on the buildings as you walk around

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 hotel
The formal drawing room of the Portmeirion hotel

Exploring Portmeirion

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.

Portmeirion, North Wales
Pinnable image of Portmeirion

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.

Woodland at Portmeirion
Don’t be surprised to find temples or statues in the woods!

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.

Portmeirion pottery
The famous botanical designs of Portmeirion pottery

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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10 thoughts on “Exploring the Architectural Folly of Portmeirion”

  1. thetravellinglindfields

    I remember visiting Portmeirion many many years ago. We had never heard of either the place or the pottery but it was mentioned in our guide book and we were on a slow holiday with the kids. Was there a concrete boat – or am I muddling that bit up with somewhere else?

    1. I didn’t see the concrete boat, but I’ve just googled it and you’re absolutely right! It was a bit wet when we went so we didn’t go too far along the coast.

  2. I hadn’t heard of either “The Prisoner” or the pottery but Portmeirion looks like a delightful village to wander about and even spend a night. We usually try to avoid tourist hotspots, but this village looks like a great place to just stroll around and enjoy all of its quaint charm! Anita

  3. In college I saw all of the episodes of the The Prisoner multiple times, but I admit I never knew where it was filmed! I can picture Portmeirion so well, building by building. Is the beach right below it in real life? I would expect a weird bubble-like thing to appear and chase me down the beach! “I am not a number; I am a free man!” What a period piece it was! (And yes, I know, I’m letting my geekiness show!)

  4. It’s amazing how many places in the UK have tourism industries augmented by their having been featured in a movie or a TV series, Downtown Abbey, Game of Thrones (I’ve never seen it, but when we were in Iceland, they had Game of Thrones tours. (BTW, I know Iceland is not part of the UK). I lived in England in a Wiltshire Market Town, Devizes in 1969-70. At the time, it had a reputation as “that place where they filed “Far from the Madding Crowd”. It looks like you had a nice day and I enjoyed seeing the pottery—-even if it’s made in Stoke-on-Trent.

  5. Portmeirion is such a surprise to come across in Wales. I still treasure my Portmeirion tea pot decorated with red cherries, and I have a VCR set of “The Prisoner.” May years ago when I stayed in that wonderful hotel overlooking the sea they played it on the room TV in a continuous loop. You might enjoy my take on this beautiful spot, http://www.berkeleyandbeyond.com/Way-Beyond/Travel-Articles/Abroad/Wales-Portmeirion/wales-portmeirion.html

  6. I always enjoy reading about an idea that becomes reality. I would like to visit Portmeirion some day. I thought it interesting about the pottery origins too. Excellent article!

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WorldWideWriter is owned and managed by Karen Warren. I have been writing and travelling for many years (almost 60 countries at the last count). I’ve visited every continent except Antarctica (I still hope to get there one day…), and my current favourite destinations are Italy, Spain and North America. This website is my attempt to inform and inspire other travellers, and to share some of the things I’ve discovered along the way.

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