We were way too early at Portmeirion. Our companions were not due until ten, the gates did not open until half past nine, but we wandered over anyway about twenty past, just to get a first glimpse…and were allowed in straight away. This proved to be a real gift as we had the entire Village pretty much to ourselves for a while…just long enough to get the best shots of what was to prove a far more interesting place than we could have imagined.
I have always wanted to see the place, having only seen it in pictures. I was aware that it had been inspired by the Italian village of Portofino, that it had been used for the filming of the iconic TV series, The Prisoner, and that it had been built, almost in the spirit of a folly, by the vision of one man. Other than that, I knew nothing.
I was prepared to be disappointed, simply because I didn’t want to be. At first glance, from the gate, it looked none too promising. The No 6 cafe where we were to meet our companions, some fairly drab tarmac and what looked like a cardboard cut-out of a mermaid. Nightmare scenarios of a small-time Disneyland began to whisper in my mind.
It just goes to show how little you can judge anything at first glance. Had we but known it, we had already blithely walked past several important clues to the nature of the place. I’d even photographed them… but I had only looked at, not seen, them. And that is always a mistake.
We thought that the gracious Italianate villa was really the first thing of interest, but only because we had accepted the vision of normality presented to perception by eyes and lens.
We should have been more attentive… and suspicious… passing beneath the carriage gate. But why would we be? It sort of reminded me of France. And Italy…and Scotland… but apart from the mural within the ceiling of the inner arch, I paid it too little notice, focusing on the details instead of looking at what was in front of me.
The drama started as soon as we were through one arch and faced with another. The elegant pastels were replaced with hotter colours and even stranger details… modern brick walling coupled with mullioned stone windows and wrought iron.
Yet, the other side of the building went back to primrose yellow… with Georgian windows and canopies, more of the modern bricks and a pair of caryatids… But trying to resolve that anomaly had suddenly become the least of our problems.
Definitely not Disneyland… you could tell. There was more to it than showmanship. It reminded me more, somehow, of Alice’s Wonderland… I can honestly say that I have never seen anything quite like it. But even then, caught perhaps by astonishment, we still didn’t ‘get’ it. Not even when we had both commented on the juxtaposition of the hanging black sheep beneath the declaiming Christ.
The guy who had built this place had a weird mind. That was the first and obvious conclusion. What kind of weird remained to be seen. Buildings were mismatched with their architectural details. The colours were astounding, artwork everywhere and either the land had been constructed or shaped to take the buildings or he buildings had been built around the rocks.
A golden Buddha sits serenely in a bright blue ‘cave’ made of hewn stone. Cupolas tipped with gold glint in the morning light. Exotic flowers and plants line the streets…
…and in the centre is the plaza with a giant chess board and the oddest collection of gates and colonnades you can imagine.
The mind of the man behind all this was either that of a lunatic or a genius and so far, it was hard to tell which. The place is too strange to call it beautiful. Yet I cannot think of another word to do it justice. It is more than ‘quirky’, too serious to be dismissed as ‘touristy’… perhaps ‘fabulous’ or ‘fantastic’ in their literary sense would be the right word…
For once, I wished I had done more research, but knowing there was information to come, I had been content to wait. I had no idea what kind of mind could conceive and execute such an architectural fantasy. Was it overweening arrogance to use, perhaps move, the landscape and the rocks? Was it a case of ‘more money than sense’? Or were we missing something here…
Gradually, it began to dawn on us that we were. I think it was the ‘terrified lion’ sculpture that finally set the mental wheels in motion, though it would be a good while before they finally began to pick up enough speed.
We had not fallen down the rabbit-hole into Alice’s Wonderland… we had been taken through her Looking Glass into a microcosmic look at ourselves… and once that realisation began to dawn, it changed everything.
Who was this guy, Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, who had built this incredible fantasy? Why had he done so and what was he trying to tell us?
We began to make our way back up towards the gates where we were to meet our companions, incredibly grateful to have had the Village to ourselves for a little while and very glad we were going to have a second chance to wander its spaces. There was an awful lot to learn.
The visitors were beginning to filter in. Soon it would be busy and that would change the atmosphere of the place. We would have had no chance of seeing what we had seen with crowds of people milling around. The colors, shapes and details are distracting enough on their own…
With our companions, we headed for the No 6 cafe, for coffee and that missing breakfast at last… where Steve would set the scene for the psychological exploration of the morning and where we could begin to process what was slowly coming to light. The man was a genius… still weird, but a genius… But it was not until we joined the guided tour after breakfast that we finally began to realise in what way. It only took a few facts to completely change our perspective and make all the clues begin to fall into place. Portmeirion has a sense of humour.