Two of Wales’ most enchanting attractions are close but worlds apart, finds Pamela Wade.
Inspired by Portofino in Italy, Portmeirion is an elaborate folly constructed between 1926 and 1972 by an eccentric Englishman. Photo / Visit Wales
Anorak-man is feeling cheated. “I’m a bit disappointed by this, Wilma,” he complains in his Brummie whine. “I thought it was going to be a proper castle, but it’s just a ruin.”
True, there’s no roof to keep the ravens and pigeons from swooping low above our heads as we stand on the neat lawn in the centre, and three storeys of carved mantelpieces face over empty space – but I’ve come from a lot further away than Birmingham, and I’m delighted.
Harlech Castle, on the coast of north Wales, is straight out of a storybook. Not Sleeping Beauty: more likely something by the Brothers Grimm, because this is a serious castle.
Built 700 years ago by Edward I, it seems to grow out of the inland cliff above the small town of Harlech, dominating the site, and has a commanding view across Cardigan Bay and over the rumpled purple landscape behind.
The outer wall has crumbled picturesquely, but the inner structure stands strong and four-square, the stone walls 4m thick, its massive corner towers dwarfed only by the formidable gatehouse on the landward side.
Fitted with arrow loops, murder holes and three portcullis slots along the passageway, no one was going to get through here without permission – indeed, the longest siege in British history took place at Harlech.
For seven years in the 15th century, during the War of the Roses, the few were able to hold off the many, so well had the castle been designed and located: a fortified stairway to where the sea once lapped at the cliff bottom, 60m below, allowed crucial supplies to be brought in.
Apart from the occasional excitement of yet another fruitless attack, though, time must have dragged for the guards posted on the battlements. Even the wide views over Snowdonia’s glowering landscape must have palled for them eventually: in those days they didn’t have the rugby fields of the school below to divert them – or, on the far side of the estuary, the incongruous pastel-painted towers and turrets of Portmeirion poking through the trees in its hidden valley.
Passing the Portmeirion china shop at the entrance, I’m disconcerted: this place is very familiar, but though unchanged, not as I remember it.
The reason is blindingly simple. Back in 1967-68, it was the location for the cult television series The Prisoner, written by and starring Patrick McGoohan as the confused but defiant Number Six, forever asking questions about this strange place he has woken up in, forever trying to escape. He was defeated every time by a huge and sinister bouncing white ball called Rover.
Deliberately mystifying viewers, the programme broke new ground – territory now occupied by Lost – and was enthusiastically discussed around the 60s equivalent of the water cooler (the tea urn, probably). It has recently been re-made as a miniseries filmed in Namibia with Sir Ian McKellen and Jim Caviezel.
The original series, though filmed in colour, aired in New Zealand while we were still marooned in our monochrome wasteland, hence my initial bamboozlement: because Portmeirion is nothing if not colourful.
It’s the architectural opposite of Harlech Castle: the one forbidding, grey, functional, high on a bare cliff-top, the other a surprise treat tucked into a green valley, fanciful, brightly painted and completely frivolous.
Although both English, the men behind them could also hardly be more different: Edward I’s grim purpose was to quell the rebellious Welsh, while Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ fight was for beauty, “that strange necessity”. He was, to be kind, an eccentric toff, fond of dressing in yellow knee-length socks, tweed plus-fours and a waistcoat; and Portmeirion mirrors that taste.
An elaborate folly, it was constructed in two phases, beginning in 1926 and ending in 1972 when Sir Clough considered that his vision was complete.
Inspired by Portofino in Italy, it’s a hotchpotch of architectural styles, purpose-built but incorporating reject buildings, and bits of buildings, from around Britain, impulsively collected by Sir Clough and squirrelled away until he found a use for them.
There’s a balustrade from Westminster Abbey, a colonnade from a Bristol bathhouse, an immense statue of Hercules driven all the way from Aberdeen in the back of a ute.
Eight ionic columns from Cheshire were tucked away, forgotten, and rediscovered 30 years later under a garden.
Walking through the arch under Bridge House sets the scene: fitted into the rock, the building is painted rich terracotta and cobalt blue, and frames a scene in which a black sheep sign hangs from a building with a barber-pole striped column, with yellow stucco houses beyond surrounding a river-pebble cobbled courtyard.
Emerging on the other side, I see St Peter – well, who else? – consulting a list up on a balcony.
Peeping over a pan-tiled roof is a lovely bell tower, behind me a grand octagonal building, the Pantheon, with an imposing dome surmounted by a ball coated in gold leaf. Here’s where Number Six once lived, now a shop selling Prisoner memorabilia where I could buy a T-shirt with his ringing statement: “I am not a number, I am a free man!” or a penny-farthing fridge magnet – or even my very own Rover, a snip at £20 ($44).
The terrace behind it looks down over the piazza, where green lawns surround ponds and fountains, ringed by topiary and bright flowers. Over there is where the village inmates played human chess, overlooked by gold-painted Burmese dancers at the top of ionic columns.
There are, unexpectedly, cabbage trees here: thanks to its sheltered position and the gulf stream, Portmeirion’s micro-climate allows subtropical plants to flourish in the luxuriant gardens.
All around, Classical rubs shoulders with Gothic, Georgian, Baroque, arts and crafts: “piquant contrasts”, as Sir Clough described it, improved with some stained-glass here, plaster reliefs there, a large Buddha, some bandstands and painted ceilings under archways, a la Sistine Chapel.
It’s a glorious mish-mash of styles and colours, and it works like a dream – even if, for Number Six, it was a nightmare.
* Cathay Pacific flies from Auckland to London daily. For more information or bookings visit www.cathaypacific.co.nz
* Wales is a day’s drive away.
I stayed just below Harlech at Y Branwen, a comfortable hotel that offers excellent food. www.branwenhotel.co.uk
* Portmeirion offers a wide range of accommodation in the village. www.portmeirion-village.com
* Portmeirion china – both perfect and seconds – can be bought onsite.
* For general information about visiting Wales go to www.visitwales.co.nz
Pamela Wade went to Wales with assistance from VisitWales and Cathay Pacific.