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Wales watching 2 – We are not numbers we are free men…

26 Dec

Trevor and I set off from the campsite, after a suitable period of relaxing in the morning sun, and made our way into the town to find a pub.

There are a good number of places to visit in the area, even without taking into account the stunning countryside and mountain scenery of the Snowdonia National Park.
The Ffestiniog Railway isn’t far away, neither is the picturesque town of Betws-y-Coed. But we had other plans.

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First, the pub.
The Australia Inn was the obvious choice, given the advice I’d received the day before, so that’s where we headed.

Now, I know the antipathy towards the English in North Wales is a bit of a cliche, but when we tried to cross the wide slate doorstep to the pub, the two troglodytes who sat there, resolutely refused to move. We had to practically climb over them to get inside.

Once inside, we opted for a game of pool in the back room, until we noticed a convex mirror – much like the ones used to catch shoplifters – angled in such a way that it allowed the customers in the bar to glare at us from a completely different room.

After one game, we left.

So, now we came to the whole point of our trip, and we headed out of town along the peninsula road, towards…the Village!

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From as far back as the 1850’s, Portmeirion was an estate – then called Aber lâ – built on the site of an 18th century boatyard and foundry, on the  coastal edge of Penrhyndeudraeth village.
Until Sir Clough Williams Ellis got hold if it that is.

Starting in 1925, Ellis began building his own, very unique take on italianate village architecture, holding lavish parties which would be attended by people from many miles away. The party-goers would stay in the cottages (some of which existed from the original estate) and ornate houses which Ellis had built, including a hotel. There is also a mediaeval castle, Castle Deudraeth, bought by Ellis in the ’30s, with the intention of converting it into a hotel, an ambition not achieved until after his death.

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Portmeirion, viewed from the estuary. The “yacht” at the jetty is made of stone.

However, the thing that had drawn Trevor and I here was a more recent phenomenon altogether.

The eclectic and sometimes downright bizarre styles of  architecture in Portmeirion have always made it popular as the backdrop to, or the muse for, art and literature, whether it’s as the inspiration behind Noel Coward’s Blythe Spirit, the location for the Dr Who episode, Masque of Mandragora, or most famously, as The Village in ’60s psychedelic-paranoia-spy-trip The Prisoner.

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The main piazza. Note the dome – the home of “Number 1″ – in the background.

The historical value of the entire site of Portmeirion (now owned by a charitable trust) is obviously not to be underestimated, and contains not just the village, but also the famous pottery, and an internationally recognised collection of Rhododendrons, some of them enormous. There are some beautiful walks that meander beneath these giant prehistoric-looking shrubs, and lakes to wander around too, but for fans of Patrick McGoohan’s extraordinary series, wherever you look there are images that are instantly recognisable.

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The view from Number 1’s house.

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                   Nonesuch

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View from cliffs above the village, towards the harbour.

The Prisoner-themed souvenir shop is actually in Number 6’s house!..

…and when Trev and I visited, it was run by a member of the genus geekus nerdex.
I’m not kidding, this bloke had an anorak, thick national health glasses – no word of a lie, they were held together with sticking plaster – nylon trousers about three inches too short, and terrible acne.
And he knew everything about the series, and I do mean everything.
If we picked up anything in the shop (I eventually bought a keyring and a badge, both of which I still have) he would pounce, and say something like, “Ah yes, that was when Number 6 had just been gassed and woken up in Number 1’s house, series one, episode four…”, all said with a mildly disturbing, glassy stare.

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We spent several hours there, exploring the grottos set into the cliffs, the buildings of the village – some of which, we found to our surprise, are merely facades with fake doors and windows, false frontages cleverly designed to give the impression of hugely impressive rococo structures, in reality, hollow follies – and walked some way along the white sands of the beach on which the album cover for This Is My Truth, Tell Me Yours by the Manic Street Preachers was shot.

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Trev, giving it some “neo-gothic, light operatic, italianate chic”.

All-in-all, a thoroughly worthwhile journey, and while originally conceived as a slightly nerdy pilgrimage to Cult TV Mecca, it is one I have retaken since with family and friends, every time discovering something new.

I hope the re-photographed 35mm snaps have done a good enough job of capturing the enchanting uniqueness of Portmeirion, because quite honestly, it’s almost impossible to take a bad picture there.

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Although, the best way of capturing the full majesty of the place – whether you’re a fan of surreal, inexplicable ’60s weirdness, fine pottery, giant exotic shrubs, or simply want to take in the spectacular scenery – is to visit it yourself.

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Posted by on December 26, 2012 in Music, Personal anecdote, Photography, Travel, TV

 

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