This piece records my journey to several favourite places that reflect my feelings for those with whom I visited, and for whom these too were significant.
I was married for the first time on 6th November 1982. Having lost my first wife Brenda, and later remarried, the question of how to celebrate or commemorate days that were special to us become difficult. This year, I decided not to dwell too much on the anniversary, but to award myself an enjoyable day out to one of my favourite places, with my new wife Sara. The day after my first wedding, heading north from the hotel in which we were staying (itself now closed), Brenda suggested that we call in and see if Portmeirion was open. She had visited it previously with her previous husband, and they had found it fascinating. Not that her first husband’s tastes or perspectives provided any recommendation!
Portmeirion proved to be a sensible choice 24 years later. It had not changed greatly, and so limited that particular sense of loss. On the day in 2006 we visited, and indeed on my first time, the place was quiet. On my very first visit in 1982, we had been waved past by a man at the entrance. There was noone stopping there then, and as I recall, almost nobody in the place. It was a Sunday, I suspect that the county was then “dry”, and of course Sunday retail opening was then rare.
On my 1982 visit, I took the conventional route down under the two gateways that framed the original entrance, round into Battery Square, where there was a small shop, firmly shut up, that advertised The Prisoner. This had been run on unconventional lines by a somewhat aged student type, whom I would later meet. He was later ousted because his rather scruffy shop and (or so I was told) his love of cats jarred with the image of Portmeirion as a place to be visited by wealthier holidaymakers (the United States was a significant target market) and day visitors. The shop had been replaced by one selling Prisoner merchandise in a much tidier fashion, with no eccentricity, very much the professionalised (and maybe somewhat soulless) retail operation.
On our later visit this shop was closed for the winter, but we did not visit it first. By now, I had become much more aware of the architecture of the place, and some of the tricks with perspective that Williams-Ellis had introduced. Thus, buildings which appeared from the front to have attic rooms or to be two-storey turned out, from the back, to be small single-storey units with flat roofs. In 1982 I took a few slides, in poor light, but the light was good on the 2006 visit, and by that time digital photography meant that any number of scenes could be recorded with no additional cost. So, we went in round the back of the buildings, in an area that seemed semi-private, and could see what had been more notable on my first visit, that the buildings were flimsy close-up, and not particularly well-constructed.
Many photographs later, we walked up towards Battery Square, and viewed aspects of this area, including accessible areas, that I had never noticed before. The limited number of visitors provided a very different feel to the place, and I have met people who have stopped there and relayed with some awe how different the whole place seems at night when the day visitors have gone. Although the shops were closed for winter, the buildings were in good order, whereas when I visited in 1982 many seemed crumbling. I recall looking through the windows of one unit and being shocked at how scruffy were its condition and fittings. I would discover one reason for this later.
From Battery Square, we walked down towards the Town Hall, one of Williams-Ellis’ rescued buildings, constructed at the outbreak of war from fragments of an older building. When I first visited in 1982 neither shops nor catering facilities were open. The previous year, though, a new restaurant building had been built – the Town Hall Restaurant. On our 2006 visit, we dined there, and found it a disappointment – as usual. The Restaurant has the feel, and the cuisine (and the prices), of one of those rather sad motorway places where a free lunch to the coach driver, and Burger King for the children, provides the main reason why anyone stops at all. On one visit my first wife Brenda complained that the tables needed to be cleaned. One of the waiting staff went up and carefully cleared and cleaned one solitary table, which failed to amuse her, or me. It smacked of contempt, somehow, for visitors who could or would not afford to dine at the posh Hotel further down the hill.
The main Hotel had been converted from a nineteenth-century house in 1926, but had burnt down in 1981. In 1982 I saw the charred ruins of this building, with most of the lawn in front roped off, and the entrance boarded up. It was fascinating then, but sad, because it didn’t seem certain that, with Williams-Ellis dead, a recession under way and the holiday industry in decline, it would necessarily be rebuilt. Happily, it was restored in 1986, but with an underpass to the promenade, ensuring that day visitors can be deterred from wandering in.
My abiding feeling about Portmeirion is that it is one large, kaleidoscopic, beautiful, puzzle, worth returning to again and again, like a friend who sometimes infuriates, often surprises, and yet always fascinates, so that life would be poorer without him or her. It reflects the uncertainty of friendship, in that there are changes which display errors of judgement, and yet changes that reveal new meanings and provide hope that new experiences may yet develop.
My journey to Portmeirion aimed not only to study the place or to photograph it in excellent winter light, but to reconcile happy memories of my first visit there with later visits with Sara. She made her first visit with her late husband Glyn in 1979 when she was heavily pregnant with her first child. They saw the place differently then, and were much closer to William-Ellis’ vision of it as a very large practical joke.
Our experiences clearly varied greatly, but had, I felt, begun to coalesce on this, our latest visit. Where should we go next, then? I decided on this only shortly before we left Portmeirion. I have taken my widowed mother out on many trips over the last 20 years, to places that we would associate with my father, and then, later, to places that he did not know. I followed this lead, driving north to Beddgelert and up the Gwynant Valley, places I do not associate with Brenda. Between Sygun and Nant Gwynant Sara and I stopped to photograph the roadside lake in fading light, a place that perhaps we will associate with each other in future. We went further north past Pen-y-Pass and down through Llanberis, to stop at Llandudno, where we walked the dog along the promenade and towards the pier, in the darkness of early evening.
I had not contrived this, but Llandudno is a place that was a favourite for Sara, Glyn, and their children (now my stepchildren), but also for myself, Brenda, and my father. It was important but felt delicate, as I contemplated how best to mark a joyful event that took place 24 years before but might now feel shrouded in sadness. Yet, if there has been an emotional journey towards my love and hope for Sara, much has been completed, as the day felt like one of reconciliation. It was not the sad day that I had imagined, but one that felt inviting, the past and present reconciled.
And perhaps this marked the end of a very personal journey, in that favourite places associated with Brenda no longer seem to threaten a reopening of grief, but present an opportunity to celebrate parts of her life, the legacy of her influence, and our present and future prospects for renewal. It is undoubtedly, what she wanted, what I want for myself, what I want for Sara, and what Glyn wanted for Sara and what she wants for herself and for me. The past not as barrier to the present and future, but as a gateway to the future. A little like the entrance at Portmeirion, it is not always obvious where this is, or what lies beyond. But maybe that is inevitable.