My husband and I stay for a week most summers in Portmeirion, the strangest and loveliest ‘village’ in the world. Built amid 20 miles of woodland on the peninsula of Tremadog Bay in Wales, it was called ‘a home for fallen buildings’ by its creator Clough Williams-Ellis, a local landowner. It was opened in 1926, and George Bernard Shaw, H.G. Wells and Bertrand Russell were early visitors; Noël Coward wrote Blithe Spirit here in 1941. I won’t try to describe it; if you’ve never seen it, just google it and prepare to be astonished.
But oy, the drive! In the past we’ve motored from Brighton through Birmingham, a trip of more than eight hours. This time, we stopped at a hotel near Shrewsbury created by Williams-Ellis for luvvies who couldn’t make it all the way without a dry martini or a wet wash: the Mytton and Mermaid.
The mermaid is the symbol of Portmeirion — but the Mytton bit is nowhere near as enchanting. ‘Mad Jack’ Mytton was a local squire who devoted his life to causing havoc; he took 2,000 bottles of port to Cambridge, predictably leaving without a degree, and his favourite dogs were fed on steak and champagne. He once rode a bear into his drawing room; she bit him on the leg and survived, but later attacked a servant and was put down. He killed a horse by forcing it to drink port; he threw his wife’s lapdog into a fire and died bankrupt in jail. Still, what a gorgeous place the hotel is! We sat in the grounds drinking martinis in the blazing sun by the river Severn before a lovely dinner at ‘Mad Jack’s Bar’.
It would take us just two more hours to reach Portmeirion, and we were soon driving through Snowdonia where, last year, a bunch of al-Qa’eda wannabes from Luton took several trips in order to prepare themselves for Afghanistan. I wonder what the sheep made of them.
There are two hotels at Portmeirion, but I prefer the self-catering option (there’s a sentence I never dreamt I’d write). We stay at a house called White Horses, right on the estuary, which is where Patrick McGoohan lived while making The Prisoner. There are 15 cottages here, and although normal inside, they are topped and tailed by the most astonishing sugared-almond carapaces, domes and spires, neoclassical colonnades and Ionic columns. It’s all set in weird and wonderful woodland featuring dancing trees, ghost gardens and a dogs’ cemetery where Miss Adelaide Haig, who lived in the mansion which became the Portmeirion Hotel with no one but her dogs (reading them the scriptures from behind a screen each Sunday), buried her pets.
Up to 3,000 visitors a day can arrive in the summer, but they leave at dusk and then this wonderland is inhabited by the fortunate residents of the hotels and cottages. Some reviewers on TripAdvisor have complained that there is ‘nothing to do’ here. If your idea of fun is running with the bulls, you might find it tame. But I am with Williams-Ellis, who called beauty ‘that strange necessity’, and am happy just to sit and stare and sip.
He who is tired of London isn’t necessarily tired of life — just tired of ceaseless noise, overcrowded streets and the sight of Boris on that stupid bike. The first time I came to Portmeirion I was necking a considerable amount of ecstasy, and thought that this might well be influencing my reaction. Well, I’m tired of E, and I’m certainly tired of London. But the day I tire of Portmeirion, you can plant me in the dogs’ cemetery and be done with it.