It was a bloody lovely day when we woke up and the Met Office assured us it would remain so until around 3ish when it would cloud over and possibly rain. “Fuck it! ” we thought, “Let’s wear shorts!” Yeah. Do not, under any circumstances, believe the weather forecast in Wales. It is compiled by people who wish to see you fail. We rocked up to Portmeirion when it opened at 9.30am, parted with £11 each and by the time we’d walked once around the village the clouds had rolled in, the temperature had dropped quite significantly, and it had started to drizzle that shitty fine stuff that gets you really wet really quickly. Well. Bollocks.
Fortunately there are things to do in Portmeirion that involve roofs, such as watching the short documentary which was made in a time when still shots moving around on a screen accompanied by creepy music were acceptable forms of entertainment. A lot of it though was narrated by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis himself, the architect who’d dreamed of building Portmeirion since he was a little boy and after years of searching finally found the perfect spot on this peninsula, mere miles from his ancestral home. It was really interesting to hear about the village in his own words, how he wanted to build it to prove “that the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement and that architectural good manners could be good business.”
Portmeirion is, as Sir Clough says, a scaled down Italian village. He acquired bits from old mansions, sometimes they were donated as the building fell into ruin and the owners wanted to see a part of it survive, sometimes he bought them, like the columns at one end of the piazza. He said a friend of his “practically forced” him to purchase them, so he did, and stashed them somewhere on the grounds because he didn’t need them just yet. He did that a lot apparently, got hold of shit he didn’t need just yet and stored it until he found a use for it. In this case he left them lying around for so long someone built a garden over them and he literally had to excavate them.
His favourite building in the whole village is the pink Unicorn House. It’s built on a steep slope which continues behind the house so it looks huge but the entire bottom floor is a facade. In reality it only contains what he describes as “small bungalows.” But he’s really fucking posh and posh people generally have a warped idea of what constitutes a small room. Then there’s the chapel, whilst he was building it he had denominations from all over asking him to give it to their religion but as the foundation stone was laid by a mate of his who he described as “the world’s biggest infidel” he turned them all down. And the reason it has a dome? He just felt that it should have one.
The tallest structure in the village by far it the bell tower and Sir Clough said this was the only thing he actually designed properly from the ground up rather than just chucking stuff together as it took his fancy. He wanted it to be seen for miles around so people would see it and come and visit. The whole village was given Grade II listed status in 1973 which meant no fucker could change a thing, not even him. He said it took him weeks to get the permission to change one window. He was glad they did it though, he said. In fact he wished they’d done it sooner. It’s definitely worth watching this short film if you’re visiting though, it’s fascinating and will stop you from getting rained on for a bit.
Other things to do include the “forest train” which is basically a tractor towing a couple of carriages. It’s fine, it takes you to a lookout over the whole village which is nice, though you could walk there. Maybe. If you fancied dragging your Snowdon-ruined carcass up any more fucking hills. Yeah nah, take the tractor train. Then there’s the guided walk which is well worth hanging around in the cold and the drizzle for. There’s nothing to tell you when the next walk is, though. You just have to have faith that it’s going to happen, and eventually, after huddling together on a step wishing we’d worn long trousers and brought a raincoat, we were greeted by a chap called John who welcomed us to Portmeirion “on this lovely day, about an hour ago.”
Turns out there were already four buildings here when Sir Clough got his hands on it, all of which are now part of the village, including the manor house which was extended and became a hotel. There’s no way I can write everything that we learned here without actually boring you to death, but this blog is basically my memory. I need it so if I accidentally replace all of my brain cells with Jägermeister I can still look back on it and remember.
The first thing he showed us was a building where half of the windows were painted on. No other reason, John told us, than that Sir Clough was eccentric. Then there’s Bridge House where Brian Epstein used to stay which, to this day, contains wardrobes that Epstein designed himself. As you walk under the bridge you’re welcomed by a statue of St Peter, and a hanging ram which is just a nod to the fact that this building used to be a Welsh wool shop. He showed us the house where Number 6 in “The Prisoner” lived which is now a Prisoner souvenir shop. We’d had a look around it already but it meant fuck all to us, we pretty much only managed to ascertain that penny farthings were somehow involved.
There’s a golden Buddha statue which was a prop for a movie shot nearby. It was given to Sir Clough and he was originally going to put it in its own pagoda in the woods, but he decided that “no Italian village is complete without a Chinese Buddha” and stuck him in the village. The piazza used to be tennis courts but he relocated them. The town hall, now that’s fun. He’d heard tell of a mansion scheduled for destruction but be loved the doorway so he acquired it and had it shifted, brick by numbered brick, to Portmeirion and replicated exactly. There’s also a colonnade he took a fancy to, built in 1760 it used to stand in front of a bath house in Bristol but it had fallen into decay so he had it. One of the gargoyles was missing though, John pointed it out, Sir Clough had had a local stone worker carve his likeness to replace the missing statue so he could “look over his village after his death.”
John frequently used the word “eccentric” to describe Sir Clough Williams-Ellis. Eccentric. Hmm. I often wonder how rich you have to be before you stop being the local nut job everyone avoids and start being eccentric. If I tried building my own village with a bunch of random stuff available to me I’d be dragged off to the looney bin and my baked bean tin village would be demolished. Oh yeah, and we were trying to work out why there were two-tailed mermaids all over the village. We pondered over the significance, tried to work out their hidden meaning. Turns out we try to think too fucking much. Sir Clough had just obtained a job lot of the fuckers from Liverpool docks and just stuck them all over the place.
Anyway, once we’d gotten our £11 worth at Portmeirion we fled back to the car and blasted the heating as we headed to Porthor. Tarrant has a minor obsession with these squeaky sand beaches she saw on TV once. Apparently the sand squeaks when you walk on it, most of these beaches are in Australia but she’d heard one was in Wales and after a bit of Googling we discovered that Whistling Sands was it. Ok, cool. We duly rocked up, read all the signage pertaining to this wonderful whistling the sand supposedly did when you dug your feet into it then wandered down to the beach.
The beach which was distinctly un-squeaky. We scuffed it, jumped in it, kicked it around. Every now and then it would emit a barely audible whisper which sounded pretty fucking normal-sand like to me. We repeated the process on the wet sand and gave up because there was no way this sand was going to make any manner of noise. Good job there’s a cafe there, I was able to appease Tarrant with coffee and a Calipo before we left Disappointing Sands and headed to Porthdinllaen.
You don’t have to worry that it’s raining here. There’s a pub right by the beach in Porthdinllaen called Ty Coch Inn where you can apply beverages to your facehole while you wait for the rain to ease off enough so you can rush out and take photos of boats whilst trying not to sink into the sand. That would just be embarrassing, wouldn’t it. To be fair I’d probably only sink as far as my tits, they double as pretty efficient buoyancy aids, but then I’d pretty much just be stuck there until they managed to stop laughing for long enough to scramble a 4WD to winch me out. People would have to bring me cake and tea. I might have to stay there forever as fisherman wander by, roll their eyes and mutter, “Bloody tourists.” But I digress.
We managed to get a few photos without any incident then strolled back to the car, trying to decide what to do with our day. We were thinking of heading to Conwy Castle but Google told us it closed at 4pm and it was already gone 2.30pm. And the weather was shit. Oh, and we’d just bought new camping chairs on account of the fact the floor is no place to sit when you have to make old lady noises just to get off a sofa, and we kinda just wanted to chill in them with a couple of beers. So we headed home and sparked up a fire to cook our staple of corn and some manner of dead thing, washed down with something your liver wouldn’t approve of.
Portmeirion, Gwynedd, Wales
Stayed at: Llechrwd Riverside Campsite, Blaenau Ffestiniog, Gwynedd