The village of Portmeirion is an extraordinary place. You know before you arrive just what to expect, you've seen the pictures, heard of its eccentricness and perhaps seen the odd episode of the Prisoner. But, until you have walked its narrow cobbled streets and stood in the middle of the Piazza on a bright sunny day do you realise just how extraordinary this place is - just how extraordinary the vision of Clough William-Ellis is.
Portmeirion is an Italianate resort village in Gwynedd, on the coast of Snowdonia in Wales. The village is located in the community of Penrhyndeudraeth, on the estuary of the River Dwyryd, 2 miles (3.2 km) south east of Porthmadog, and 1 mile (1.6 km) from the railway station at Minffordd. Portmeirion has served as a location for films and television shows, most famously serving as the Village in The Prisoner.
Despite repeated claims that it was based on the town of Portofino, Italy, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion's designer, denied this, stating only that he wanted to pay tribute to the atmosphere of the Mediterranean. He did, however, draw from a love of the Italian village stating, "How should I not have fallen for Portofino? Indeed its image remained with me as an almost perfect example of the man-made adornment and use of an exquisite site..."
Clough Williams-Ellis began Portmeirion in 1926 in order to demonstrate how a naturally beautiful site could be developed without spoiling it. He completed the village in 1976 when he was over 90 years old. He incorporated fragments of demolished buildings, including works by a number of other architects. The main building of the hotel, and the cottages called "White Horses", "Mermaid" and "The Salutation" had been a private estate called Aber Iâ (Welsh: Ice estuary), developed in the 1850s, itself on the site of a foundry and boatyard which was active in the late 18th century. Williams-Ellis changed the name, which he interpreted as "frozen mouth", to Portmeirion - Port to place it on the coast, Meirion from the county of Merioneth / Meirionydd in which it then lay. The very minor remains of a mediaeval castle (known variously as Castell Deudraeth, Castell Gwain Goch and Castell Aber Iau) are in the woods just outside the village, recorded by Giraldus Cambrensis (Gerald of Wales) in 1188.
In 1931 Williams-Ellis bought from his uncle, Sir Osmund Williams, the Victorian castellated mansion Castell Deudraeth with the intention of incorporating it into the Portmeirion hotel complex but the intervention of the war and other problems prevented this. Williams-Ellis had always considered the Castell to be “the largest and most imposing single building on the Portmeirion Estate" and sought ways to incorporate it. With support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, the European Regional Development Fund and the Wales Tourist Board, his original aims were achieved when Castell Deudraeth was opened as an 11 bedroom hotel and restaurant on August 20, 2001.
The grounds contain an important collection of rhododendrons and other exotic plants in a wild-garden setting which was begun before Williams-Ellis' time. The first plantings, were in early Victorian times. Henry Seymour Westmacott in the late 1850's was responsible for most of these. From this era a few specimen conifers still survive, large Douglas Firs, Coast Redwoods, Wellingtonia, Noble and Himalayan Firs, and a Deodar which is once more, growing well, a distinctive type of Scots Pine (quite different from later plantings).
The coastline is dominated by rugged, fine Monterey Pines, with a key Scots Pine in the Village. Notable trees in the Village from this era are a Tulip Tree, a massive Variegated Sycamore, a Weeping Silver Lime, which scents the Village in August, and large Beech and Bay Trees. Around the Hotel, are large trees of the evergreen Holm Oak. Portugal and Cherry Laurels, Strawberry Tree, Rhododendron ponticum, Yew, Bay and Laurustinus illustrating the Victorian passion for evergreen plantings. In the woodland there is a very large specimen of Griselinia littoralis (known as 'The Dancing Tree') and an outlying group of Monkey Puzzles.
George Henry Caton Haigh was responsible for a further extensive phase of planting. With the purchase of an additional piece of land on the north and west, 'The Gwyllt', a display woodland, was developed. Here were concentrated the major Rhododendron, Azalea and Camellia plantings with a wide variety of choice trees.
These now include a large Magnolia campbellii which is now spectacular at Easter with its enormous pale pink flowers, several good Maidenhair Trees (Ginkgo biloba), with fine Chrome-Yellow autumn colour; the Winter's Bark (Drimys winteri), the scarce Plagianthus betulinus; and the evergreen, willow-like Maytenus boaria which is probably the largest in Britain. At the same time Haigh planted shelter-belts, and developed the structure of the woodland which remained the same until the late 1970's. His gardener Alfred Blount was responsible for much of these plantings and these carried on after the 1940 purchase of The Gwyllt, into the 1950's; thus providing continuity.
Clough Williams-Ellis had acquired the Village and Victorian Wood in 1926 but Haigh's Gwyllt not till 1940. He concentrated mainly on the Village with planting of trees for shaping (especially Irish Yews), Cabbage Palm (Cordyline australis), for exotic effect, hedges and pleached trees.In the woodland considerable structural alterations were made; avenue plantings; the construction of the two lakes, and with the planting of the formal entrance hedge (with vistas) in the first part of the woodland. Emphasis was on structure rather than detailed content.
The village of Portmeirion has been a source of inspiration for writers and television producers - Noel Coward wrote Blithe Spirit while staying in the Fountain 2 (Upper Fountain) suite at Portmeirion. In 1956 the village was visited by architect Frank Lloyd Wright, and other famous visitors have included Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman and Paul McCartney. Musician Jools Holland visited whilst filming for TV music show The Tube, and was so impressed that he has had his studio and other buildings at his home in Blackheath built to a design heavily inspired by Portmeirion.
Television series and films have filmed exterior shots at Portmeirion, often depicting the village as an exotic European location. Examples of this include the 1960 Danger Man episode "View from the Villa" starring Patrick McGoohan, the 1976 four-episode Doctor Who story entitled "The Masque of Mandragora" set in Renaissance Italy, and an episode of Citizen Smith in which the eponymous hero visits Rimini.
Undoubtedly the best-known use of Portmeirion as a location occurred in 1966-67 when McGoohan returned to film exteriors for The Prisoner, a surreal spy drama in which Portmeirion itself played a starring role as "The Village". On request from Williams-Ellis, Portmeirion was not identified on screen as the filming location until the credits of the final episode of the series, and indeed Williams-Ellis has stated that the levy of a reasonable entrance fee was a deliberate ploy to prevent the village from being spoilt by overcrowding. The show became a cult classic, and fans continue to visit Portmeirion, which hosts annual Prisoner fan conventions. The building that was used as the lead character's home in the series currently operates as a Prisoner-themed souvenir shop. Many of the locations used in The Prisoner are virtually unchanged from the series, 40 years after production ended.
Portmeirion is now owned by a charitable trust, and has always been run as a hotel, which uses the majority of the buildings as hotel rooms or self-catering cottages, together with shops, a cafe, tea-room and restaurant. The buildings are all listed and the site is a conservation area; perhaps lending the site to be visited on more than one occasion. Enterance to Portmeirion can be made on payment of an admission charge, I'd go further to suggest you start your day early as by mid-day the grounds become crowded with coach parties and numerous numbered Prisoners.
Portmeirion - http://www.portmeirion-village.com/