While a remarkable architectural achievement on its own, Portmeirion is significant to me for being the filming location of The Prisoner, which featured Patrick McGoohan, the star of Danger Man / Secret Agent Man, a popular spy series in the 1960s. The Prisoner is a thought-provoking surrealistic miniseries that examines what it is to be human and our place in society.
It is easy to find Portmeirion by road, as there are large signs with directions, although if you are coming up from the South, there is a rather narrow rickety toll bridge (for 50p) on the A496 to watch out for. If you are driving, there is plenty of shaded parking, and the staff are polite, cheerful, and ready to be of assistance. I was staying in Llanfair, a quaint seaside town about 20 minutes away. You can also stay on site at various resort accommodations.
The best way I have found for getting there from the United States is to fly into Birmingham, then rent a car from there or take the train. I opt against trains, due to repeated problems with them going on strike while I am on holiday, which can leave you stranded for weeks, so I recommend renting a car. This also gives greater mobility for day tripping, as the bus lines are tenuous at best, especially in winter.
Rather than fussy formal plantings, the gardens are a sprawling wilderness with the touch of design, which is my preference. It gives the feel of taking a stroll in fairytale woods without the inconvenience of getting lost or tangled in brambles. There is a majestic stillness to the temple area that has an Alice in Wonderland feel. I particularly enjoyed the walks around the Japanese pond—it is a small valley that is mostly warm and sheltered with beautiful greenery all about and plenty of lovely paths wandering off into the woods in all directions.
The gardens were first planted in the 1800s by introducing non-native plants, much of which resemble what is now found in California. At the turn of the century, a display woodland was collected and continued into the 1940s. After that most of the work is in clearing, preservation, and keeping all the water features in good order. The paths themselves are well kept, with slate stairs whenever it got too steep or inclined to be muddy. It had just rained a few days before when I was there so I was grateful for the latter.
I travel in the UK during the winter, to avoid crowds, and this was no exception—the area was practically deserted. Because I am a fan of The Prisoner, I decided to trace Number 6’s steps when he arrived the same morning that I did. In the chilly morning mist, I walked from his house down toward what was the Italian restaurant in the series, where I met the first staff member, at precisely the same time that he would have! If you are not a guest, there are areas that are unavailable, such as the Clock Tower and battery lawn, so if you are a fan and want to have the full experience, you will need to actually stay at Portmeirion.
What to See
Piazza / Gothic Pavilion
Famous as the chess lawn and band stage in The Prisoner, its mixed architectural styles and colors make the piazza area utterly unique. The pavilion fascinated me because I am not fond of pink, but for some reason it worked in this context, a tribute to the design of Portmeirion.
The Green Dome
What serves as headquarters in The Village is actually a small art gallery. The view is spectacular from its staircases, and it was incredibly exciting to pretend I had been called in by Number 2 as I marched up to the door.
Out along the beach walk is an adorable lighthouse surrounded by yellow flowers. You can play echo games against the metal interior, or keep hiking down Near Beach to explore caves and dripping waterfalls if you don’t mind getting rather dirty and scratched up (which I don’t).
The Old People’s Home
It is actually a regular hotel, but in The Prisoner it is a retirement home for aging spies, which I think is more exciting. It also features the stone boat, which is exactly what it sounds like! The stone boat was a lot of fun—I bounced around in it a bit just to hear the “boom boom” sound. I’ve spent a lot of time on actual ships, so it was quite disconcerting. I also took the time to recreate the rover beach chase sequence, and I was not alone—there was a young couple there doing the same thing. We all got covered in mud and had to wash afterward, but had a great time.
For non-science fiction fans, Portmeirion is also known for its pottery and dishes. They have some food available, but I only got ice cream during my stay, so I cannot review the options in detail. There are gift shops for both the pottery and The Prisoner merchandise. I have been multiple times, and always enjoy my stay. One of my favourite pastimes to do there is sketching, since there are so many interesting buildings and landscapes available to choose from.