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[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Portmeirion includes, at center, the dome-topped Pantheon, finished in 1961; the Bristol Colonnade, at center below the Pantheon, originally built in 1760 and rebuilt here in 1959; and, at right, the Bell Tower of Campanile, erected in 1928.

By ROBERT N. JENKINS

© St. Petersburg Times,
published June 3, 2001


In the TV series The Prisoner, No. 6 was always trying to escape from it, but Portmeirion, Wales, the show's setting, a fantasy town created by a splendor-loving architect, is a place for tourists to escape to.

PORTMEIRION, Wales -- How strange it seems: These buildings, trees, the sky and the sea are all in color -- vivid colors at that -- when my memory from decades ago says they should be black, white and gray.

But that just adds to the magic of the moment, visiting this familiar yet totally unknown place.

Perhaps that would satisfy the architect who created Portmeirion (port-MERRY-un) from 1926-76, for he stated that he wanted the tiny resort to have a "gay, light-opera sort of approach."

Visitors are likely to be entranced at first view of Portmeirion, then befuddled and finally enveloped by it. The juxtaposition of architectural styles, innovative paint schemes, odd twists in the walkways and ornamental bric-a-brac works as a challenge to eye and mind. What do I know, the visitor thinks, that puts this place in context?

The answer most likely is, nothing.

If there is a familiar part, as I thought I knew, it is flickering images from a 1968-69 TV show, The
photo
[Times photo: Robert N. Jenkins]
Among the whimsical items that seem to sprout at Portmeirion is this early 19th century figurehead, which was placed atop a 1926 gas pump.
Prisoner, which was partially filmed here.

The show starred British actor Patrick McGoohan as a James Bond type who had wanted to retire from Her Majesty's Service but who knew too much. He was kidnapped and found himself in this rather bizarre setting. No. 6, as his character was called, was forever being spied upon and thwarted in his escape attempts from the unnamed "island."

In the decades since, reruns of the show have reached cult status with some; fans stage an annual Prisoner weekend at Portmeirion, in which McGoohan actually had vacationed. He was the creator and producer of the series, but much of the actual filming was done in studios elsewhere.

So while Prisoner fans might at first be disappointed to face the reality of Portmeirion, the resort village is at once amusing, eccentric and pleasant. And that was certainly the original goal of its creator, Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis.

Referred to as Clough (pronounced cluff), he was a Welsh architect whose stated philosophy was, "Cherish the Past, Adorn the Present, Build for the Future."

But as the Portmeirion Guide Book notes, in his 90s Clough also wrote of himself:

"He almost certainly has a weakness for splendour and display and believes that even if he were reduced to penury himself he would still hope to be cheered by the sight of uninhibited lavishness and splendour unconfined somewhere . . ."

It might not be splendor that comes to mind while strolling Portmeirion's mock village, set on a wooded hillside above an inlet of Cardigan Bay. But there is wonder at the imagination that brought together scraps of this and that architectural style.

There are landmarks around the village's central pool and piazza; maybe there are too many of them, for various buildings compete for your attention.

The tallest building, for instance, is the Bell Tower, or Campanile, which Clough had built in 1928 as "a dramatic gesture" to draw attention to the odd resort he had been creating for two years in northwest Wales. (The location is close to his ancestral home.)

For the tower, Clough used stones from a 12th century castle. This was typical of his borrowing from the past, and from elsewhere.

The impressive Pantheon, or Dome, was built to top a facade that had been part of a huge fireplace in Cheshire, England. The Colonnade may call the White House to mind for American visitors, but it was built in Bristol, England, in 1760.

Also prominent is the Gloriette, designed after a Viennese palace. Clough created it from salvaged items solely to act as contrast to other structures nearby. Visitors step through a doorway from the single road girding the piazza and find themselves on a balcony gazing at the village.

Cluff would accumulate not only buildings but also small items -- some intended to be used on buildings, others not -- and then design something where they could be used.

Thus, a ceramic bust of Shakespeare seems to lean over a sea-facing balcony, a 19th century wooden figurehead tops a 1926 gasoline pump, a plaster Buddha used in the 1958 film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness, shot partly on Clough's property, is in an open gallery or loggia beneath the Dome. Statuary from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries is placed here and there, at Clough's imaginative discretion.

In 1973, on the occasion of his 90th birthday, Clough was presented with a 17th century statue of a resting lion. That fits in as well as anything else here. Presiding at the birthday party, a local nobleman is reported to have simply pronounced Portmeirion as "a good thing."

Yes, and then some.

If you go

GETTING THERE: Portmeirion is on the western coast of Wales, about 240 miles from London and 140 miles from Cardiff. The nearest airports are in Manchester and Birmingham, England; about 120 and 100 miles away, respectively. Rental cars are available at each airport.

Trains from London's Euston station to Bangor, Wales, take about four hours; the hotel can arrange to have a taxi meet you at the station for the 45-minute transfer.

THE VILLAGE: Portmeirion is both a day-trip and a vacation destination. Admission to wander through the village is about $7 for adults, $5.25 for seniors, $3 for children. It is open every day of the year, 9:30-5:30. In addition to the buildings, it has gardens, nature walks, shops (one devoted to The Prisoner), cafes and a beach. While the village is wheelchair accessible, the beach and woods are not.

STAYING THERE: Portmeirion also has a full-service hotel, managed by Clough's grandson. Hotel rooms start at about $170, including tax but not meals; family rooms, suites and multinight packages are available. There are also numerous cottages and apartments available in the village buildings.

FOR MORE INFORMATION: On the village, hotel and other accommodations, contact Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales LL48 6ET; e-mail to info@portmeirion-village.com; the Web site is www.portmeirion.com.

For more information on Wales, contact the Wales Tourist Board; call toll-free 1-888-544-0541; the Web site is www.visitwales.com. For details on a newly launched program of discounted packages, Wales Now, call toll-free 1-877-899-7199; the Web site for this program is www.travelwales.com.

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