Whimsy or Disney? Portmeirion, Wales

Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales

Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales

Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales

It’s almost time to say goodbye to Wales (for now, anyway), on this blog.
Before I do, I’ll share our last three adventures here:  weird and/or whimsical Portmeirion, our final walk high above Llandudno, and a visit to book town Hay-on-Wye.
Virtual Reality in the Middle of North Wales
Entry to Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Entry to Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Portmeirion is located on the coast of Snowdonia, on Tremadog Bay between the towns of Porthmadog and Penrhyndeudraeth.

This pretend village markets itself as an Italianate resort. It’s known partly for being the set for the 1960’s cult TV series ‘The Prisoner’, about which I knew nothing, and various other shows and ‘Prisoner’ follow-ons since then.

Today Portmeirion has two hotels (one in a restored Victorian folly castle), 17 self-catering cottages, several restaurants, shops (including a ‘Prisoner’ store), and walking trails.

There is a fee of £7.50 per person (half-price after 3:30pm, when we went) to visit Portmeirion. Entry is via a pink archway, leading to a central pool and garden surrounded by pastel-coloured buildings.

Town Hall Restaurant, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Town Hall Restaurant, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

An Architect’s Folly

Portmeirion was designed by the architect Sir Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis over a fifty year period, from 1925 to 1975. Williams-Ellis died in 1978, and Portmeirion is now owned by a charitable trust.

Various guidebooks quote the architect as saying he wanted to demonstrate that “development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement.”

Williams-Ellis repeatedly denied he modelled Portmeirion on coastal Portofino in Italy, but said, “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.”

Central pool and garden, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Central pool and garden, Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Whimsy or Disney?

I couldn’t help feeling I was in a surreal, Disney-esque world at Portmeirion. Maybe I just don’t appreciate what their brochure calls ‘deliberately fanciful’ architecture, with columns, arches, balconies, and statues everywhere you look. I couldn’t get beyond the fact we were looking at a resort masquerading as a village. For me it was a bit too precious, and also a bit cheesy.

Clive had a different view. He reminded me the English are known for being eccentric, with follies dotting the countryside. He thought Portmeirion was a classic example of English eccentricity, and enjoyed the variety of architectural flourishes and that, unlike in a typical village, every building was different.
Seeing it through Clive’s eyes, I agreed Portmeirion is unique in being a collection of follies, not just one or two but a ‘village’ and garden filled with them. 
Entrance to Hotel Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Entrance to Hotel Portmeirion, Gwynedd

Gardens, Follies, and Something Quite Strange

What saved the Portmeirion visit for me were the gardens, 60 acres of subtropical plants and trees, with several circular walks.

We started out on a footpath along the coast, at the estuary of the River Dwyryd. This was my favourite part of the walk.

Portmeirion path, estuary of River Dwyryd, Gwynedd

Portmeirion path, estuary of River Dwyryd, Gwynedd

The gardens were originally developed by George Henry Caton Haigh, the previous owner of Portmeirion’s land and a world authority on exotic plants. In later years, during Clough Williams-Ellis’s time, two man-made lakes and numerous follies were added to the gardens.

Garden folly, Portmeirion

Garden folly, Portmeirion

Again I wondered if I lacked proper appreciation for what I was seeing, or if I needed to lighten up and simply enjoy the follies for what they were.
Some follies were more attractive than others. I liked the bright red gazebo we came across after rounding a bend in the path. 
Garden gazebo, Portmeirion

Garden gazebo, Portmeirion

After a while, though, I got tired of yet more artificial structures, even in the gardens.

We stopped at one to sit and talk about our impressions of Portmeirion.
Clive in a garden folly, Portmeirion

Clive in a garden folly, Portmeirion

If the follies weren’t unusual enough, what we came upon next was the strangest sight of all.

The Dog Cemetery

This is an area in the Portmerion gardens that seems to want to be taken seriously. There’s a large dog statue, and 50+ tombstones engraved with loving messages to deceased pets. Some tombstones are over fifty years old, while others are from within the past ten years.

Dog Cemetery, Portmeirion

Dog Cemetery, Portmeirion

Situated as it is in the contrived atmosphere of Portmeirion’s artificial village and folly-filled garden, I found the dog cemetery incongruous and bizarre in the extreme. The headstone messages of loss and love were in stark contrast to the ‘whimsy’ and ‘fanciful’ nature of the place, and I was quite taken aback, wondering if it was all for real.

Giving Portmeirion the benefit of the doubt, the cemetery and pet graves are probably genuine. But I was offended by the idea of making the death of a beloved pet another spectacle in a walking tour of Portmeirion. I hope the dog cemetery is authentic, and that those whose pets are buried there find peace and comfort in the garden.

I Tried to Like Portmeirion

At Portmeirion, Gwynedd

At Portmeirion, Gwynedd

I really did try to like Portmeirion, but it was over the top for me.

Portmeirion insists on describing itself as a village, but no-one actually calls it home.  Although the houses are rented out as self-catering units, to me it still felt like a stage set, one that reinforced my desire to visit real coastal and hill towns in Italy.

Over 250,000 people visit Portmeirion every year, and I’m sure many if not most of them are satisfied to have spent their time and money there. It’s a unique opportunity to see a collection of follies all in one place, but I have mixed feelings about recommending it. There are so many other interesting and beautiful places to visit in Wales.

My next post will be about one of those places.

Portmeirion Official Site

5 Responses

  1. I know what you mean-some places are just too perfect, even if lovely.

  2. I think the same as you about Portmerion..not sure if I would go to visit it…just been looking at more photos, very staged, just doesn’t look right but the gardens seems so superb…that would do it for me 🙂 Oh yes I was in Portofino last year…it was beautiful 🙂

    I don’t think the Welsh would agree with Clive about the English bit….Even though the architect was born in england, his father was welsh, and they moved back so he lived there from the age of 4…so did he see himself as English or Welsh..

  3. Thanks, Linda and Anne!

    Anne, yes Williams-Ellis was Welsh — Clive meant more broadly re finding follies around the UK (e.g. garden follies). How great you’ve been to the real Portofino! Lovely 🙂


  4. Well, i went to portmeirion on a school trip for my art project and found it too pretty but slightly wrong aswell…as much as we would wish north wales to be like the mediterranean, its not so why Clough Williams-Ellis chose to build like it was warm is beyond me. I think its tacky and doesnt fit in with the lanscape despite what williams’s claimed. It used to be called Aber la which translates as Frozen River Mouth, much more suitible!

    However, one does have to admire the guy, he claimed old buildings for example, the Emral Hall building was bought for, transported and re-built brick by brick by Williams-Ellis.

    He had a dream and went for it, yes he was eccentric but he had ambition. I think the reason he painted all of the buildings in a pastel colour was much to do with the fact that it was being built over the two world wars and he wanted to make the place a bit happy.

    …and another thing, it’s so typical American to call Welsh people “English” and the whole of the U.K. “England”. I’m not offended, I just think it’s funny.


  5. Laura, thanks for the comment. It seems we have similar thoughts about Portmerion.

    I appreciate that the UK includes Wales, Scotland, and England, as demonstrated in my posts about all three countries.

    Cheers and thanks for visiting.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: