I’m standing by a boat moored on the edge of the Dwyryd River in Snowdonia, North Wales. I say “moored” but, in fact, it’s physically connected to the shore and isn’t a boat at all.
Rather, it’s an impressive stone replica of the Amis Reunis (Friends Reunited), an old trading ketch that was bought and restored by British architect Clough Williams-Ellis, who used it as a houseboat. When the Amis Reunis was wrecked on a nearby shoal, Williams-Ellis salvaged its masts and included them in the replacement, or Stone Boat, now a famous feature of Portmeirion, the village surrounding it.
Williams-Ellis created the village over 50 years from 1925, in a quest to prove that a beautiful setting could be enhanced by buildings, rather than spoiled by them. Its location, on a wide estuary bordered by wooded hills, was the perfect frame for his vision of a village harmoniously embedded in its landscape.
But Portmeirion is no ordinary town. Not only were the Mediterranean-style buildings constructed, under instruction from Williams-Ellis, at a smaller scale than usual to create intimacy, but they contained a range of diverse architectural elements collected from damaged buildings across Britain.
As I ascend the path from the Stone Boat and the Hotel Portmeirion into the village proper with its small shops, central piazza and ornamental pond, I see brightly-coloured structures clustered tightly. Decorative highlights include an 18th-century statue of a cloaked huntsman, an imposing domed building fronted by a vast decorative fireplace, a large Buddha statue within an alcove and an attractive colonnade retrieved from a bomb-damaged building in Bristol.
One of the most striking structures is a soaring bell tower. At its base is a plaque noting that some of its stones were taken from the nearby remains of a 12th-century castle, which was demolished by its owner in 1869 “lest the ruins should become known and attract visitors to the place”. If only he could see his old patch now, full of strolling visitors admiring the quirky township and browsing its shops for pottery, art, homewares and local produce.
The overall effect of the village is delightful. Portmeirion has been described as “a Disneyland for adults” and as I wander around I understand why. Though the village covers a relatively small area, it feels like there are nooks and crannies everywhere, and the fanciful architecture prompts a feeling of childlike joy.
The town hall, where a retro cafe is now located, also contains Hercules Hall, which serves as a function and conference centre. Its detailed plasterwork depicts the labours of Hercules and was rescued from a condemned 18th-century mansion.
I join a walking tour devoted to the 1967 TV series The Prisoner, which was filmed here. The show, about a spy trapped in a mysterious village, was a sensation in its day and helped draw attention to Williams-Ellis’ achievement. Since 2012 Portmeirion has also hosted Festival No. 6, a multi award-winning music, arts and culture festival. It’s had other brushes with creative fame: Noel Coward wrote the play Blithe Spirit here and visitors have included Gregory Peck, Ingrid Bergman, Paul McCartney, and 20th-century architectural titan Frank Lloyd Wright.
Though most people visit Portmeirion on a day trip, it’s possible to stay in the Portmeirion Hotel or in rooms dotted throughout the village. At night, after the tourists have left and the sun has set, I venture out to discover a fairy tale town illuminated by starlight from a clear sky.
As I wander up and down the pathways, greeting other guests and delighting in the strategically spot-lit buildings with their curious statuary, it feels more than ever as if I’ve stepped out of Wales into an other-dimensional fantasy world. It’s one man’s vision come to life, and it’s magic.
Tim Richards travelled courtesy of Cathay Pacific and Visit Britain.
There is accommodation at Hotel Portmeirion, Castell Deudraeth or in rooms within the village. Rates from £139 a night. See portmeirion.wales
Entry to Portmeirion is £12 a person. See portmeirion.wales