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The Tim Harris Portmeirion Gallery - Prisoner Pennyfarthing Symbol No.6


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My Own Experience Of Portmeirion

The text below was written in 2008 and I've yet to update it :)

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Above: Two stills of me taken in Portmeirion during our first visit in 1989. Taken by James Spence.

When I was a child in the late 1960s / early 1970s my brothers and I had loads of toy cars, mostly Matchbox cars, though we had a few of the more expensive Dinky toys as well.

For years I played with a particular, unusual looking toy car, one which I'd never seen in real life on the streets. It got very battered over time but even though most of the other toys went, I kept this one.

My first knowledge of TV series 'The Prisoner' came in a one-off Marvel UK magazine titled 'TV Heroes' (from 1980?), in which an article was reprinted from Starburst Magazine regarding the series. I didn't remember 'The Prisoner' at all, I didn't remember ever watching it, but the article intrigued me and I wondered if I'd ever get to see the series.

In 1984 Channel 4 started showing the series, which, up to that point, I'd thought had been very successful and ran for years. Only 17 episodes? Controversy over the ending? How good could it be?

I took to 'The Prisoner' straight away, and I've watched it countless times since. Great scripts, a great lead actor in Patrick McGoohan, fantastic visuals and plots that stretched conventional TV standards. It was ahead of its time, and is still ahead of its time.

Amongst the visuals of the series two things struck me: firstly, the village the series was filmed in. It was an amazing scene of beauty, and far from the prison I'd imagined from reading the 'TV Heroes' article. Portmeirion? What a fantastic place.

The second visual that grabbed me was that of the Mini Mokes. What amazing cars, very different to anything I'd ever seen in real life on the stree...hold on, isn't that what that old toy car I played with looked like?

I looked for the Dinky toy, yes, it was a Mini Moke and what's more, it still had the penny-farthing symbol on it. The roof was gone, the steering wheel was gone, the spare wheel was gone but, crikey, this was, to me, like somebody finding a lost Constable painting in their attic.

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Above: my battered toy Mini Moke.

In finding the toy Mini Moke and finally appreciating what it had been created for, I got more interested in Portmeirion itself. I'd never shown any interest to see any real-life locations for any other TV series (or film) before and I never have to any great extent since. Just Portmeirion.

Other people I knew had been interested in going to Portmeirion but in the end it took until 1989 when my friend James made the arrangements and off we went. I loved it, James loved it, and we've been seven more times since. Now there's a possibility we'll go again. Magic: now we can try the new pizza place.

In arriving in 1989, I was amazed that the village looked the same as in the series, it was just as pictured in 'The Prisoner'. Well, mostly. Details may change but the overall sense of the village remained and still remains the same. I felt it had a fantasy element screaming out from it, this was clearly no ordinary village, it had been created, not made. At the end of the stay I didn't want to leave the place and I tend to feel that every time I go.

What I also noticed about the village was that the sun shone in defiance of any weather forecasts seen or heard relating to the area. We'd watch the weather forecast on the TV in our room and say to each other "Aren't we meant to be having that rain being shown over that part of Wales?". But no, the sun shone, the air was warm and the exotic plants / trees / shrubs adorning the delightful vista added testament to the fact that Portmeirion seemed to have it's own private (secret!) climate. Upon returning to Oxford we'd hear how Oxford had endured rain all the time in our absence and we kept thinking "That was Wales we went to wasn't it?". Of course it does rain in Portmeirion but happily it has rarely done so in any of our visits.

The penny-farthing symbol of 'The Prisoner' could be seen on the badges and various merchandise in the Prisoner shop and it's a very strong, iconic image. I liked it so much that I drew a large version in the sand of the estuary, within view of the lookout post up the cliff. It took me a while to produce and it lasted a day or so before the tide reclaimed the sand in the way an Etchasketch is wiped clean by the twiddling of a dial. I've no real explanation as to why I did it other than possibly thinking that I wanted to pay homage to the series that helped lead me to Portmeirion. The footage of it goes on for a little while too, with people wondering what I'm doing. One day I'll probably put up the footage taken of me doing it. What a nutter you'll think.

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A bemused onlooker wonders why somebody did this etching in the sand. Oh wait, it's me sat there. And here's me wondering why James didn't stop me from doing this.

In the early days we self-catered, and missed out on the great food we've come to know at the main hotel and Castell Deudraeth in the last few years. I don't think we ate too many times in the cafe and tended to live on cuppa soups and quiches. On our third trip we discovered that Hercules Hall (Town Hall) had a bar and dining area and we lapped it up. It was shut by the time we went again, open only for wedding receptions and conference facilities. Ah, I still miss it. We did get invited to a wedding reception when we were in Portmeirion in 2006 but unfortunately I was stuffed from the feast at the hotel restaurant beforehand and could barely move. So we've yet to go back to the bar at Hercules Hall.

I've always enjoyed hearing the different accents in Portmeirion, whether it be from the staff or the guests. It's a place that seems to attract many different nationalities, quite often French, German, Japanese, American and of course local dialects can also be heard, whether Welsh, English, Scottish or Irish.

Seeing the Apothecary building (used as Number Six's house) for the first time was a revelation, it's so small on the inside compared to when portrayed on TV, it looks far bigger with the use of a studio set! Having said that, Portmeirion creator Sir Clough Williams-Ellis was an artistic magician for creating a clever illusion of size and perspective throughout the entire village. Looking at Number Six's house on screen, you are entirely fooled into thinking it could house the rooms on the scale seen in the studio sets.

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Above: The Prisoner shop as it appeared in 1989. Stills taken from 1989 footage.

The Prisoner shop that exists where Number Six lived in the TV series has undergone a transformation from the time it was run by Max Hora to the more lightly-coloured, more open shop that now resides there. I visit the shop every time I go there and I always buy something from it. In fact, I tend to buy much of its wares, postcards, badges, hats, CDs, DVDs, books, maps, building replicas and even a Prisoner blazer. Oh yes, how I love to shop there.

The Tim Harris Portmeirion Gallery Photographs - Dome and No. 6's House

The Tim Harris Portmeirion Gallery Photographs - No. 6's HouseThe Tim Harris Portmeirion Gallery Photographs - The Dome

Above: Two of The Portmeirion Village (Pentref Portmeirion) Collection: The Pantheon (Dome) and Apothecary.

Max seemed to have a few cats (a very welcome addition they were too) and that they wandered around the grounds: then again so did the peacocks that used to reside there. Boy, could they make some noise.

The peacocks would occasionally wake me up during the night as they called out to each other, and I used to wonder why they seemed so important to Portmeirion. In returning to Portmeirion in 2003 after a few years gap I was disappointed to learn that the peacocks had gone. Funny how perceptions change.

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Above: Cats, Peacocks and the notice on the door of the Prisoner shop. Stills taken from 1989 footage.

The village square used to be more lit up at night, back in my early days of going there, and now the lights are dimmed. This is a shame, for Portmeirion's beauty is seen in a different way when lit up.

I love the hotel itself and I really enjoy the dinners there. I enjoy the efforts of the staff there, they're good people and they do a very good job. Don't wear shorts though, I learnt that lesson a few years ago and I'm still laughing about it now. I just wondered what they'd do if somebody wore shorts into the restaurant: "I wonder if Sir has perhaps a pair of trousers he could change into?" was the question asked, and I was immensely happy that it was asked. Some of the details in Portmeirion may change, but not the standards and not the quality.

Castell Deudraeth became fully operational by the time James and myself returned to Portmeirion in 2003 so we tried it. Yes, I can fully recommend it, the food is once again splendid and I never feel hungry when I come away from there. We'd get the Portmeirion minibus from the village to the Castell and this was made enjoyable by the friendliness of the staff involved.

It seems a whole different world when I'm in the village, it moves at a very nice speed, day visitors in particular are happy to merely sit in the sun while the day seeps away, you rarely hear a mobile phone ring, people are content to do that which we rarely do anywhere else, relax. The day visitors are good fun, they give life to the village, and with each new crowd holding provided map in hand, slowly wander through the village discovering what delights there are. Only once have I overheard somebody say, to his wife, "Is this it? What's there to do here? It's not worth the money" which made me realise that not everybody can see with the same eyes. Most people seem to see the charm though.

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Above: Gone but not forgotten, the stagecoach that no longer presides in Portmeirion. Stills taken from 1989 footage.

The pricing structure used to run the village is based on the idea of Sir Clough's that if the place gets too popular, put up the price so that it is never overrun. This policy is still alive and kicking today but despite the price rises, is rarely in short supply of people who wish to either stay there, or visit there. Book early to avoid disappointment, that old adage is particularly true of Portmeirion. Many people seem to go back every year (and have done so 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 or more times), sometimes using the same accommodation every year, same time every year.

One year James and I extended our stay in Portmeirion, we decided we didn't want to leave, but we had to move accommodation for the rest of the stay, every day we continued there. We enjoyed the experience, and because of that, are happy to move around the village. A night in the hotel, a night in Bridge House 3, Cliff House, wherever. Every place is its own reward, and waking up to different views of the village is like discovering a detail on an Old Master for the first time.

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Above: The original dome roof. Stills taken from 1989 footage.

The Dome roof has changed since we first went to the village, it used to be green and made of wood. Now it's made of copper but will eventually turn green.

The woods used to seem so huge when we first used to go to Portmeirion but we now find our way around with no problem. It did take us from 1989 to 2005 to find the Ghost Garden however. We'd tried two or three times before but missed it. We took a better map in 2005 and finally found it, only to realise that the journey had possibly been more exciting than the destination. There's also the dog cemetery, which, for something representing the deceased, is alive in other ways and very charming in its own right. It is well kept and we've been there a couple of times, well, it's on the map isn't it?

The tides of the estuary are interesting in that they never seem to be the same two days in a row. Overall though, we've tended to notice that the tide tends to stay out more during late August than, say, late May. May is probably the prettiest time of year to go for plants / flowers / trees though, with blossom on the trees and many beautiful shades of colours all over the place. I do love the hydrangeas in August though and I can't say that I'm normally interested in flora.

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Above: A real Mini Moke that sometimes appeared in Portmeirion Above: Brian who accompanied James and I on our second visit in 1990.

In 2005, upon Arrival for day 1, James and I were dropped off at the main hotel where we were to stay that particular night: it was a hot, sunny, gorgeous day. We unpacked, and then spent the rest of that day on the beach without venturing any further into the village: there didn't seem to be any rush. That's what I like about Portmeirion, the familiar sanctuary that it's always going to be there. No need to rush, you can see more of it tomorrow.

In the room afterwards, a welcome drop of port from a small decanter left in each room. Then a rest, wash, down to dinner in the ambiently-lit restaurant, "How are you Sir? Would you like to order wine now Sir or with your meal?". A lovely meal in pleasant surroundings, the real world doesn't exist and it's all just Heavenly. A well-fed stomach and a sense of good-will-to-all-men pervades once the meal is over, then once more relax and then sleep. A piece of Heaven on Earth. Next day, breakfast, a choice of cooked food, or cereal, or fruit, or everything. Toast washed down by cups of coffee, and no need to eat the rest of the day. English Breakfast, or Welsh Breakfast, good choices both. A light, airy feel to the hotel dining room.

Many times we've been to Portmeirion and found that a brass band plays hymns (and occasionally the Prisoner theme) during a public performance in the Bristol Colonnade. It was always very welcome and would often focus the Day Visitors as a centrepiece that enticed, welcomed and entertained them. Very entertaining the bands were too, and for both 2005 and 2006 we were sorry that there was no band to be heard during the times we were there. I hope it hasn't become a discarded tradition because it helped create a lot of atmosphere on what usually turned out to be a sunny day.

A toy car, a magazine, a TV series and finally Portmeirion itself. A journey from the littlest of things. If I'd never heard of 'The Prisoner' would I ever have gone to Portmeirion? Now it seems barely possible to believe that this could have happened, but, more than anything, Portmeirion is clearly more than just a village used in a 1960's TV series: I love it in its own right, it's more special to me than the car, magazine or TV series that collectively brought my attention to it.

Number Six might have wanted to escape the Village, but I suspect that anybody who doesn't have complete freedom of movement would ultimately resent being held captive even in a heavenly place. It is a nice kind of freedom to want to be captured by the enchantment of Portmeirion, when one can get there.

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Above: the canteen as it appeared in 1990. Above: A view of a Salutation shop window in 1990.

Sir Clough never really advertised the existence of Portmeirion, probably so that it wouldn't become overly busy, but it does get publicity anyway, especially when TV cameras are allowed in. The last episode of 'Cold Feet' seems to have been a recent example of how people got to know about the place and flocked to it, particularly for weddings. This is the conundrum with Portmeirion, you want to tell everybody how great it is whilst at the same time feeling you want to protect it from being spoilt by the presence of too many people who suddenly understand its attraction.

One of the years we were there Derren Brown turned up to film a segment for his 'Trick Of The Mind' TV series. A production assistant went around the village beforehand warmly inviting people to gather near to the Mermaid cottage. James and I watched as Derren did his stuff and I filmed a large chunk of it. In the programme, blink and you'll miss me, I'm in one shot, I'm the one with the video camera. A still below shows me in the background (wearing the New York cap, holding the camera).

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 We often go to Portmeirion by train and it's a bit of a trek, normally having to take two trains over many hours. Often enough, no matter whether we've booked seats or booked first class, we rarely have the luck that we will actually get those seats. One year the train we'd booked first class seats on was cancelled and we couldn't get in First Class at all due to demand. Every other year somebody is always sat in the seats reserved for us; we wouldn't mind but it's a long journey.  It's always worth the hassle though because it's very much a place to get away to. Coming back, however, is always a more difficult journey.

My friend James & I have visited Portmeirion in: 1989, 1990, 1991, 1995, 2003, 2004, 2005 & 2006 & hope to return there again. It's taken me a while to get around to producing a website based on this fantastic place but I finally did it. When I first started work on it I produced a small preview page to help announce it's Arrival.

To sum it all up, well, there's usually a word to sum up most things isn't there, the word I'd probably use to sum up Portmeirion is:


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The Tim Harris Portmeirion Gallery - Patrick McGoohan and Annette Andre in the episode of 'The Prisoner' titled 'It's Your Funeral'.Tim Harris 40th Birthday Card by Adam Emanuel

Above: 'The Prisoner', the series that drew me to Portmeirion.

Patrick McGoohan and Annette Andre in a scene from the episode titled 'It's Your Funeral'.

Above: Birthday Card designed by friend Adam Emanuel for my 40th Birthday, cleverly combining London, New York and a representation of Portmeirion into it and I really like it.

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