I’ve just got back from Christmas in The Village. Not the same as Christmas in A Village (which is what I’d have had at home), Christmas in The Village is something rather special. Actually the village in question, Portmeirion, isn’t a real village at all. However, despite my extensive travels (see below), it is probably my favourite place in the whole wide world.
Some people might have heard of Portmeirion through its floral-patterned china, or even from lifestyle programs promoting it as the ultimate UK wedding venue, but if you know it as The Village, then you, like me, know it through the stylish and surreal 1960s TV series The Prisoner. In this cult program a British secret agent resigns (why is not only never divulged but is a main driver for the plot), only to wake up in an idyllic yet sinister Italianate village where everyone is known only as a number, in his case, Number Six. Number Six spends his time trying to escape, co-incidentally driving several of the village controllers (Number Two) mad. Though somewhat kitsch and weird-for-weird’s sake in that sixties way, it had a lot going for it. One of the main things was The Village itself, and when I discovered it was a real place, in North Wales (a part of the world I love), I had to see it. I visited in summer, when it was hot and crowded, but it was love at first sight. On the way out I found to my delight that it was not, as I had thought, a folly, but a hotel. I immediately booked to stay for a week the next spring. That was fifteen years ago, and since I’ve spent at least a week
every year (and a lot of my disposable income) at Portmeirion.
The first thing the place has going for it is location. Take a small wooded peninsular. Insert into a wide sandy estuary surrounded by dramatic hills and mountains. On the south side of the peninsular, facing across the estuary, have a stream run down to create a sheltered and secluded valley with dramatic cliffs at the seaward end. Various buildings had existed at the site over the years but early in the twentieth century it caught the eye of an eccentric local noble and architect-errant, Clough Williams-Ellis. (known to all as Clough).
Clough wanted to build a village from scratch to his own idiosyncratic designs. To finance his project and provide a pleasant place for his mates to stay, he converted the house of the last owner to a whitewashed Mediterranean style hotel down at the water’s edge. Then, over the next fifty years he built his village in the wooded valley, with pastel-shaded buildings overlooking a central plaza. The style showed influences from the English Arts & Crafts movement and the fishing ports of Northern Italy, but ultimately it was his own. It’s full of whimsy and illusion – here a gratuitous onion domes disguises a chimney, there a building which appears two stories high until you walk up to it and see that the second story is a sham. Clough was also an avid conservationist and the buildings show some creative examples of recycling, from the old boiler carved into the pinnacle of the ‘Town Hall’ to the massive baronial fireplace now fronting the Dome (Number Two’s house in The Prisoner). He referred to the place as his ‘Home for Fallen Buildings’
Clough’s original plan was to have the village given over to holiday homes and a few permanent dwellings, with craftsmen in situ. The larger houses have indeed been turned into holiday lets. The odd rooms over shops, in converted garages or in storage spaces have been refurbished to hotel rooms as opulent as those in the main hotel building. My personal favourite of the village rooms is Watch house, set high on the cliff. You can lay in the big black iron bed, swaddled in soft white linen and look over the estuary to the hills. I stay in one of the big self-catering cottages, Government House, every spring with a group of friends. Staying at the hotel is, to steal a phrase, reassuringly expensive. You pay for what you get, and what you get is immaculate service, attention to detail and possibly the best restaurant in Wales.
The place still keeps up its connection to The Prisoner: the building used as Number Six’s house is now a shop devoted to the series; The Prisoner appreciation society take over the Village once a year for their annual convention, and every evening at 6pm, two episodes are shown on the hotel’s private TV channel. But it is so much more. After my first visit I decided I wanted to stay in every room in The Village, self-catering and hotel. I’ve done quite well in the self-catering stakes, but with new nooks and crannies being converted to rooms, and the opening in 2001 of Castle Deudreath, a converted gothic manor just outside the village it’s quite a task. I’ll just have to do my best.