In Portmeirion, evening is dropping slowly. Soon, the estuary tide will return, to submerge again the belt of sand lying between the low Welsh hills and the flamboyant turquoise hotel. High above, hidden amid bursting woodland, sits a village every bit as bright and toy-like as the hotel. A campanile tolls the hour, with a peal of tape-recorded bells. The last of the day-trippers inspect the concrete boat built into the quayside, or amble along the shore to the tower containing the camera obscura, a museum piece using huge telescopes to spy on the distant and unwary.
So far, then, just another day in Portmeirion, the florid and surreal holiday village assembled in the 1920s on the edge of Snowdonia. Or perhaps it isn't. On the beach, as the late sun throws on to the sand shadows of towers, domes and fairy-tale cottages, we're prodding a disposable barbecue when a curious sound starts drifting by; deep, manly and distant. We leave the beach, stride up the path, past a transplanted Elizabethan manor house and dinky lodges rejoicing in the colours of Neapolitan ice-cream, and emerge on a village green. On its far side, in full tuxedo, a male voice choir is arranged round the columns of a Georgian colonnade. Camera crews buzz as a conductor guides the men through the number. It is Blue Monday, the synth classic recorded by New Order in 1983: "How do I feel?" the men sing, as serious as if they were singing Bread Of Heaven at the Eisteddfod. "Tell me now, how do I feel?"
Normality is the exception here. In Portmeirion, a sparkly cloak of bizarro drapes over everything you encounter. The place was built in the 1920s by Clough Williams-Ellis, a well-born architect of prodigious eccentricity, whose fan-boy passion for all things Italianate saw him fantasise this sliver of the northern Mediterranean on to the Llyn peninsula, close to Porthmadog. He wished to demonstrate that historic frontages and architectural elaborations could be reanimated; that, with imagination, the bric-a-brac of the built past could live for ever. Williams-Ellis didn't so much create Portmeirion as curate it. Around its 17 cottages – each one offered, then as now, for holiday rental – he busked a civic backdrop: with, among much else, a bell tower recycled from a London brewery and the frontage of a 1760 Bristol bathhouse. Until his death in 1978, Williams-Ellis continued to set-dress the village. He built the stone boat, the Amis Reunis, into the harbour wall. Grottos and statuary dotted the surrounding woodlands. A huge golden Buddha, abandoned after a film shoot, sits now in its own pagoda, across from the Portmeirion spa. Architectural jeu d'esprit, arches and optical illusions abounded, alongside gilded cherubs and palm trees. Williams-Ellis gave the place a nickname: his "home for fallen buildings".
Today, it transpires, Portmeirion is once again being used as a film set. The place has turned up in many a film or television series, deployed as a stand-in for the Mediterranean or whenever an excursion from everyday reality is indicated. Most famously, in the 1960s it featured in The Prisoner, in which Patrick McGoohan starred as an intelligence agent whose resignation sees him abducted to a village that is half spa resort, half concentration camp, like a sort of flower-powered Pontins; a role Portmeirion might have been built to fulfill.
If anything, today's mission is odder still. Next weekend, Portmeirion turns Woodstock. The entire village will be given over to Festival No.6, a strolling jamboree of music, food and literature, named after the character McGoohan played in The Prisoner, and all of it an acknowledgement of the magical, left-field position Portmeirion has occupied in the British artistic scene for eight decades.
A field just outside the village will host the rock element, with appearances from, among many others, Primal Scream, Richard Hawley, Spiritualized, British Sea Power and New Order (the male voice choir are here to make a film in welcome).
Meanwhile, at various locations in the village itself, in wave-contoured cottages, on manicured lawns and gloriettes, are readings from the likes of Caitlin Moran, John Niven, Jan Morris, Stuart Maconie and Simon Day. Phil Jupitus, Marcus Brigstocke and Andrew Maxwell head the long comedy list. The on-site catering is by the hippest street-food franchises, such as The Breakfast Club and Ghandi's Flip-flop. The woods above the village will play host to raves, storytelling, theatre and tarot readings. There will be guided Prisoner tours and a chess match with people serving as pawns, as seen in the show; in a festival as quixotic and kaleidoscopic as the place that's hosting it.
Festival No.6 also represents the biggest step yet in the gentrification of the outdoor blow-out. In 1994, on his song The Campaign For Real Rock, Edwyn Collins sang of the "truly detestable summer festival", nailing what had prevailed for nearly three decades; the Somme model of the rock festival, with cross-legged space cadets tending bonfires, held in seas of mud, with bills comprising exclusively of only one musical genre, and food and drink even a Finnish roadie wouldn't consume.
Things began changing in the middle of the last decade. Declining sales of new music forced heritage acts back on the road. This brought older audiences, who brought their children, who really weren't keen on hotdogs cooked in engine oil. The twin perfumes of family and prosperity were applied, with the assumption that three days was too long to be kept away from the nicer things in life. Attendance capacities began to be reduced, meaning less traipsing to the stage; links were fostered with the craft and ecological movements. Along came Latitude, Green Man and Cornbury (soon dubbed Poshstock), with their stalls renting out Wellington boots, teepees and inflatable sofas. Before long, the conventional rock gala, like Reading or the V festival, was rendered little more than a teenage rite of passage, essentially a form of survivalism.
The new tendency, though, has reached its apotheosis at Festival No.6, reminding us that, whatever else it may be, Portmeirion, with its two five-star hotels, is also an upscale bolt-hole for the well-heeled of the English north-west, and the most popular tourist destination in North Wales. "It's curious that Portmeirion has a small place in so many different types of story," says Robin Llywelyn, Portmeirion's managing director and the grandson of Williams-Ellis. "It pops up everywhere, from the history of town planning to pop videos."
The village begins with The Round House, a circular Baroque cottage perched on the brow of the village. The Round House is the real magnet for Prisoner fans. In the series it served as the captive spy's home, the base in which he rehearsed his declarations of grim defiance. Now, it houses Number Six, the village's official Prisoner store. It's like a gift shop for paranoiacs in there. It stocks Prisoner maps, pens and pencils, Prisoner paperweights, Prisoner postcards and T-shirts bearing the show's sardonic catchphrases, such as A Still Tongue Makes A Happy Life. Or for £149 you can buy a replica of the same piped blazer sported in the series by Number Six. The original blazer is in a glass case on the wall, having been bought by Llewellyn at auction.
"The village was even offered a 1960s Mini Moke that was used in the show," reveals Meurig Jones, estate manager at Portmeirion, "but the owner wanted £10,000." And not even Portmeirion can stretch to that amount of whimsy.
From the shop it's down a pebbled path to the village lawn with its star attraction, the Gothic pavilion, a Lewis Carroll confection of pillars and spikes. From its lawn, the psychedelic diorama of Portmeirion is seen at its best: the mammoth copper dome atop a pantheon recycled from a titanic Baronial fireplace; the houses and cottages in an architectural sketchbook of styles and all the colours of the test card.
Down the hill sits the Portmeirion Hotel, a four-star, 14-roomed paean to Welsh luxury, trimmed with harps, coal fires and lots of slate; in the series it doubled as the old folks' home. Its opulent restaurant, with curvy lines redolent of an ocean liner, all designed by Terence Conran, features pleasingly unfamiliar menus with dishes that had their passports checked by Plaid Cymru.
Built into the ground floors of some cottages are various gift shops and keepsake caves, several offering Portmeirion's renowned, flowery pottery, an edition of which was made for the last royal wedding. The holiday cottages are finished to mid-1990s B&B specifications, familiar and homely. We stayed in Dolphin, a two-storey self-catering cottage rendered in a fetching shade of nougat.
From the beach the tour goes back up the village's main avenue, past Angel, Neptune and Trinity, three of the earliest cottages Williams-Ellis built, dating from the late 1920s. They surround the central piazza, with its fountain pool and Ionic columns topped with statues of Burmese dancers. Had The Prisoner been filmed a year later, this space, used in the show as the Village's ceremonial centre, would still have been a derelict tennis court, such was the stop-start, half-century genesis of the place.
Ineffably mysterious, Portmeirion is not the kind of place that trades in the definitive or the incontrovertible. One thing, however, is certain; it is all some way from the hoarding of lager tokens at T in the Park.
WHERE TO STAY
Tariffs for cottages in Portmeirion depend upon how many they sleep and the time of year. The Dolphin, a self-catering cottage over two floors with two twin rooms, a kitchen and a sitting room, costs £1200 per week in spring and early summer, rising to £1600 in July and August. White Horses, the cottage where Patrick McGoohan stayed, is equivalent. Rooms in The Hotel Portmeirion start at £99pp for dinner, bed and breakfast, though in summer this rises to £300. For more details visit www.portmeirion-village.com. Portmeirion operates a second hotel, Castell Deudraeth (pronounced Dye drath), sited before you enter the village proper. The Castell is aimed more at a younger family clientele. All cottages and hotel rooms in the village itself are fully booked for the duration of the festival but Porthmadog has many B&Bs.
WHERE TO EAT
Under the aegis of head chef Wayne Roberts, dining within Portmeirion is at the exacting end of the mainstream. Castell Deudraeth offers all-day club sandwiches, afternoon tea and a gastropub-style lunch menu; order two courses and a voucher spares you the £9 entry fee to the village. In the evening, the a la carte majors on light, imaginative treatments of seafood from the Menai Straits and lamb from the fields surrounding Portmeirion.
Equally high standards are set in the Hotel Portmeirion dining room, though with a more formal tenor. The three-course dinner starts at £38. The kitchen is hoping for its second AA rosette this year. Defined by Clough Williams-Ellis's 1931 curvilinear architecture, the main dining room was redesigned in 2005 by Sir Terence Conran. Elsewhere in the village is the Caffi Glas serving pizzas, pasta and paninis; plus the Terrace self-service restaurant; and a Cadwaladers ice-cream parlour.