This summer I found myself on an impossibly long drive to North Wales for Festival 6 with a bad case of urinary tract infection. It was six and a half hours of pure hell.
But it was worth it. The scenery was nothing short of spectacular. As I drove through Snowdonia National Park I was met with rolling green hills, swathes of mist worthy of Arthur Conan Doyle, and tribes of sheep, many of whom happily stood in the middle of the road.
My Audi A4 is a killing machine with a fuel injected sixteen-hundred horse power engine. They didn’t give a toss.
However, when I arrived at the small town of Porthmadog, (pronounced Port-ma-doch. Shame, I was rather fond of Port-mad-dog), I came down with a bump. Having driven through a pastoral idyl, suddenly I was in Knackersville. With the exception of the harbour, the town is uniformly grey. And not in a sexy 50 shades kind of way.
The high street is full of discount stores and charity shops.
There’s a sprinkling of trendy cafes aimed at festival-goers bound for Portmeirion down the road, but when I ventured behind the free range egg and locally sourced bacon façade for a pee (like I said, I had a problem), I found the toilets hadn’t been updated in years.
Not that that’s a bad thing. But it’s clear that the seasonal nature of tourism doesn’t give the locals enough money for reinvestment.
Portmeirion, where the festival is held just two miles away, feels like another planet.
If you haven’t heard of it before it’s part Disney World, part San Remo. I kid you not.
The brainchild of eccentric millionaire Bertram Clough Williams-Ellis, it’s an Italianate village built between 1925 and 1978 as a holiday destination.
Back in the day, Mr Williams-Ellis and his wife hosted a glittering procession of stars in the 40s and 50s, from Ingrid Bergman to Noel Coward.
Only today the crowds are very different.
Overgrown teenagers in waterproofs and the occasional mankini, come to soak up some tunes and an alternative cultural vibe before the long drive back to London (you don’t hear a lot of Welsh accents at the festival).
It’s also famous as the setting for the iconic 1960’s TV series ‘The Prisoner’, starring Patrick McGoohan.
McGoogan is number 6, a retired secret agent sent on a series of missions on behalf of a nefarious group from whom he can never escape: “I am not a number. I am a free man”.
Fans make an annual pilgrimage to the village, presumably to soak up all the dystopian weirdness.
I tracked them down to a large tent where they screened clips from the series and talked weird facts.
Apparently McGoohan vehemently ruled out any romantic story lines. In the one scene where he strokes a woman’s hair, it’s actually his daughter wearing a wig.
But I digress. Portmeirion has a four star hotel, swimming pool, shops, restaurants, a bandstand and a town hall where they stage lectures and lessons in arts and crafts. It’s decidedly odd and rather wonderful.
But once you’ve been to Portmeirion you can’t help but feel sorry for Porthmadog. One has a Michelin starred restaurant, the other has a Greggs. It isn’t fair.
Most festival goers stay in or around Portmadog then get a shuttle bus to the festival nearby from a football field round the back of the town. Take the walk and you’re greeted by scrap yards, funerary stones, empty shops and a hall selling second-hand furniture at rock bottom prices.
There’s also the derelict grade II listed Snowdon Mill. Back in late 2016 it was on the market for £350,000 with planning permission to create 27 new luxury apartments.
With views of Cardigan Bay and Snowdonia National Park it would easily fetch a hundred times that amount were it south of Watford.
It was sold at auction for £150,000.
Still, things are changing.
In 2009 Porthmadog was gifted a £50m bypass to help local businesses and jobs. Clearly it was built to capitalise of the success of the festival, so tourists would consider the area as an all-year-round destination.
But if so, the locals themselves need to think like tourists.
When I first arrived I didn’t know about the shuttle service to the festival, so I asked several passers by. One chap told me to walk (it’s 3 miles). Most didn’t know. And one woman pointed to a bus stop going in the wrong direction. The sign was in Welsh.
In November 2016 local businesses were given bilingual ‘open/closed’ signs for the first time. Given!
As the festival attracts crowds in excess of six thousand a year, that’s bizarre. Especially in view of the Welsh weather.
On day three of my trip it started raining. Hard.
Trudging about in muddy fields isn’t much fun in sandals, and given my need to go to the loo every five minutes, all that water was driving me crazy.
I hopped in my car and drove away. As it happens it was the right decision. That day the nearby river burst its banks. Farmers were obliged to ‘muck in’ (literally) and pull cars out of the water.
Would I go again? Definitely.
At the very least the scenery is gorgeous. And if the sun shines you feel like you’re in the middle of a film set. Which, incidentally, you are.
Only next time I’ll remember to take a pair of wellies.
(updated March 17)