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A Prisoner of Portmeirion

By John Riebow From Issue No. 8

2017 marked the fiftieth anniversary of the first airing of the seminal cult television series The Prisoner. Part spy drama, part psychological thriller, and part allegory, it stars Patrick McGoohan as an (unnamed) secret agent who abruptly resigns from his job with the British Secret Service. Just before the former spy can depart London, he is kidnapped and transported to a mysterious place called The Village where people are not known by name but by number. 

But just where is The Village? Is it an island off the coast of Great Britain or in a different county altogether? Our hero, branded with the moniker Number 6 (an identity he refuses to acknowledge), spends the entire 17-episode series trying to escape his captors and outplay the mind games inflicted by a succession of administrative torturers known as Number 2. But who is Number 1? And what is so unique about The Village?

With architectural follies that are both fantasy and function, and the tidal beach where Number 6 declares, “I am not a number, I am a free man!”, The Village is, in fact, the eclectic seaside resort of Portmeirion located in the northwest section of Wales, the brainchild of British architect Sir Clough Williams Ellis. Constructed between 1925 and 1975, with its odd collection of brightly painted Italianate buildings (some pieced together from the ruins of other structures), towers, and statuary, Ellis strove to create a slice of the Mediterranean in the Welsh hills. Surrounded by mountains, trees, and the sea, Portmeirion is a mini wonderland unto itself.

The actual location of The Village is not revealed until the final episode of The Prisoner series, and like many fans I had longed to visit the spot since first discovering the program over thirty years ago. To celebrate the golden anniversary of the drama, and make a real-world connection to the fantastical storylines, my traveling companion and I visited The Village on an adventure that took us through London, Wales, and Liverpool.

two photographs, one of a domed building, another of a boy of water and shore.

Today, The Village is managed by a trust and open to the public during the day. In the evening, the resort is closed to all but the guests of the two hotels and several dozen cottages within the property. We stayed in the Castell Deudreath, which doubled as the Hospital in the television series, and were given room Number 6. (A coincidence?) The hotel featured an excellent gourmet restaurant, some delicious dark brown beer (Number 6 ale, of course), and a television channel that aired The Prisoner episodes on demand. What served as Number 6’s cottage in the series now houses the obligatory gift shop, where you can stock up on all things related to the groundbreaking drama.

Besides retracing the steps of the television series, there is much to see and do in and around Portmeirion. The expansive gardens are lush and exquisite, and walking trails snake along the jagged coastline. Slightly further afield, visitors can access the Ffestiniog Narrow Gauge Steam Railway from Minffordd station, a mere mile away, where vintage steam engines transport visitors through the majestic hills and spiraling valleys of the Welsh countryside, giving stark contrast to the man-made charms of The Village. One can spend the entire day riding the trains to the slate mining town of Blaenau Ffestiniog and the coastal village of Porthmadog, sites that epitomize the term “quaint.”

Portmeirion is a seven-hour train ride from London, but we broke up the journey with several overnights in local castles along the way (a story for another time). Unlike Number 6, I had a much easier time departing Portmeirion, but I would gladly become its Prisoner once again.

About John Riebow More From Issue No. 8