Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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.
We stopped at one to sit and talk about our impressions of 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.
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
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.