Friday 7 August 2020

The Beatles in Gwynedd (Welsh Wales) part one

In previous blogs I’ve covered the Beatles appearances in Mold and Rhyl in North Wales. 

Last weekend I headed to the amazing Portmeirion in Gwynedd, North-West Wales, a two-and-a-bit hours drive from Liverpool through the spectacular scenery of the Snowdonia National Park.

Portmeirion was designed and built by Sir Clough Williams-Evans between 1925 and 1975 as an Italianate style village.

It is probably most famous as the location of 'the Village' in the cult 1967 television show The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan but fans of Britpop may recognise it from the video for the song 'Alright' by Supergrass. In 2020 it was the subject of a four part ITV series 'The Village'.

Of course there are several Beatles' connections too.

Brian Epstein holidayed here with both family and friends, staying frequently until his death in 1967. Portmeirion was something of a retreat for him, somewhere he could go to escape the pressures of being the manager of the most popular act in the history of entertainment, and all the demands that came with it.

On at least one visit he was accompanied by George Martin, the Beatles' producer.

At the start of August 1966 Brian came here to recuperate from a serious bout of glandular fever after his doctor prescribed a quiet vacation to convalesce.

Unfortunately he had only been in Portmeirion for four days when John Lennon's 'more popular than Jesus' comments sparked outrage in America after they were published out of context in Datebook, a teen magazine.

Initially Epstein was unconcerned by the news that disc jockeys in the American South were organising Beatle bonfires to burn their records and 'paraphernalia' telling Datebook's editor Art Unger that people wishing to burn the Beatles records 'would have to buy them first'. However, it soon became clear that the furore threatened the Beatles forthcoming tour of America which was due to start on 12 August, and Epstein, in damage limitation mode, cut short his holiday and flew to New York on 4 August where he held a press conference the following day to explain what Lennon had really meant.

So frequent were Brian's visits to Portmeirion that he became friends with Williams-Ellis. Staying in the Gatehouse cottage, close to the entrance to the village Brian suggested that the property might benefit from a dining room where he could entertain guests. Sir Clough duly obliged, building a large and ostentatious room not entirely in keeping with the original cottage. 

Not only that but the fashion conscious Brian once commissioned a renovation of his room at the Gatehouse having complained that there was not enough space for his clothes when he came to stay in his cottage every summer.

Brian's room in the Gatehouse with wardrobes made to his design (photo: Alli Devine) 

Reportedly the Beatles were great fans of 'Danger Man' and the 'The Prisoner' series, both filmed in Portmeirion, and starring Patrick McGoohan, who also created and directed the latter. Looking for a third movie they once had a discussion with McGoohan to see if he was interested in writing a script for a spoof spy film. 

It came to nothing but they did allow McGoohan to use 'All You Need Is Love' during the last episode of 'The Prisoner'. It's still one of the very few TV series that's been granted permission to play one of the Beatles' original recordings.

Several articles on line suggest that Brian Epstein brought one or more of the Beatles here.  There's no evidence of that although Wikipedia does claim that Paul McCartney has visited, if that can be trusted.

Of the Fabs, George Harrison was Portmeirion's biggest fan famously celebrating his 50th birthday in the village in February 1993. 

George originally wanted to stay in the Watch House, one of the village's most popular cottages which is high up on the cliff side of the upper part of the village.

However the Watch House only has a low wall around it so his security men persuaded him to stay in the much safer Peacock Suite of the main hotel. No establishment wants to be remembered as the place where an ex-Beatle in celebratory high spirits accidentally fell to their death off a cliff. Especially on their birthday. 

The Watch House is the white cottage below the bell tower in the centre of the photo above. The photo below shows the Portmeirion Hotel. 

It was during this stay in Portmeirion that George was filmed for several interviews which were used in the The Beatles Anthology and had some pictures taken in the mirror room.

(see left)

George's interviews undertaken at Portmeirion can be found on discs 6 and 7 of Anthology, covering the 1966-7 period.

These two interviews were conducted in the mirror room of the hotel. The Watch House can be seen over George's shoulder in the photo below.

The wall on the path leading to the quayside in front of the hotel has been altered since the mid1960s. 

A third interview was conducted after dark under the Bristol Colonnade

In this interview George discussed losing interest during the Sgt. Pepper sessions and the satellite broadcast of 'All You Need Is Love' which ties in nicely with the Patrick McGoohan story above. 

Me under the Bristol Colonnade where George was interviewed in 1993.

Portmeirion is a beautiful gem, reportedly the second most instagrammed village in the UK. A visit is highly recommended.

Just across the bay from Portmeirion is Harlech. We went there next.


Harlech is a seaside resort landmarked by a late 13th century Castle which stands high on a cliff face overlooking the Irish sea. 

Paul McCartney and George Harrison stayed here during a hitch-hiking holiday in August 1958.

"Best times with George? I'm thinking now, there’s me and George, roadside, it’s a sunny day and we’ve got a little camp thing, a little stove that I’d brought with me, and we’ve got our methylated spirits to put in it. And then we go to the shop to buy some Ambrosia Creamed Rice and we sit at the side of the road with this little stove, boiling it up, sharing it with each other and thumbing down lifts. Once we’d finished, we’d have sore thumbs.

We hitch-hiked to a place in Wales called Harlech, when we were kids before The Beatles. We had heard a song “Men Of Harlech”, saw it on a sign post, yeah, there was a big castle. And we just went there. 

We had our guitars, took them everywhere and we ended up in this cafe. You know, we’d try to go to a place, a central meeting place, and in Harlech, there was this little cafe that had a jukebox. So this was home. So we sat around there. So we met a guy, he started talking, he was into rock and roll, you know, we went and stayed at his house. So it was great, me and George top and tailing it in a bed.” (Paul McCartney)

The guy was John Brierley, then 16-years-old who lived on a farm nearby. He told Mark Lewisohn: I guess Paul and George were wandering around – they didn’t know us. It was just ‘Can we stop in your field?’ We had quite a bit of land at the back. Mum said that was fine, so they put up this crappy little tent and started camping. It poured with rain during the night, and because their tent was useless they were wet through. So Mum said, ‘You can’t stop out there, come in.’ 

Whereas Paul, probably over romanticising the memory remembers 'top and tailing' in a single bed with George, Brierley states that they stayed in the bungalow, 'both of them sharing a double bed, and Mum fed and watered them for the duration of their stay.' 

It was funny, we had this room, and George and I were from an estate, but our folks were very hygenic, it wasn't like dirty where we lived, and now we were in the country, Wales, and there were these spiders in the room and we were like 'arrrghh! What?! The menace, the, me or George, or both of us took a rolled up newspaper and went [bam!] and got them, and then we could sleep safely. 

We went down to breakfast the next morning and the Mum said 'how did you sleep, alright?' and we said yeah, fine thanks, great. And she said "did you see Jimmy and Jemima?" Pardon? "Two little spiders?".. and we went no. No! Jimmy and who?   (Paul McCartney)

By chance, Paul and George had found a kindred spirt in John Brierley. He owned Elvis's first LP, 'Rock 'n' Roll' which they played repeatedly through the week while they played snooker.

John Brierley: My abiding memory is Paul playing my crummy acoustic guitar upside down for the left-hander. George also played it, and we had a piano in what we called ‘the bottom room’. Buddy Holly’s Think It Over had just come out and I remember Paul working on it and working on it until he’d completely figured out the piano solo in the middle.

My younger brother Bernard loved the way Paul pounded away at the Little Richard songs and kept bothering him to play them again, over and over, and Paul was always happy to oblige.​  

The house where Paul and George stayed for a week. It's longer now than it was in 1958 and the field behind it where they planned to camp is now a housing estate. It's the first building on the left as you come into Harlech from the North. (photo: Jean Catharell)

Postcard home from George (c. August 1958)

When they weren't listening to music or playing snooker they had a look around Harlech, undoubtedly walking up to have a good look at the castle, considered to be one of the finest examples of military architecture from this period in Europe.

George noticed that one of the Brierley’s Alsatian dogs had an arthritic hind leg, and this was the spark of a joke he'd tell for years – ‘Did you hear the one about the woman who had a dog with no legs? Every morning she’d take it out for a slide.’​

There were so many laughs with these welsh guys, one of them was John and another was Aneurin, big welsh guy who played bass and we sat in with their band one drunken night in a welsh pub (Paul McCartney).

Yes, the castle aside, the week's high point in Harlech was when Paul and George sat in with the Vikings skiffle group and played a few numbers at the Queens Hotel pub. Their host John Brierley was one of their singer/guitarists, and a couple of the lads stepped down to allow Paul and George use of their guitars.

There were four other Vikings besides Brierley: Glyn ‘Gwndwn’ Williams (guitar/vocal), Bernard Lee (guitar), John Diggle (snare drum) and Aneurin Thomas (tea-chest bass). Aneurin's Dad ran the Queens Hotel and allowed them to play in the saloon bar from time to time, usually on Saturday nights.

Earlier in the week they'd rehearsed with the Vikings in what was then a barber shop and is now a cafe. I didn't get to see this, or the cafe where George and Paul met John Brierley. I had to use an image from Google.

The reason i had to cut my visit to Harlech short was because I experienced one of the hairiest moments of my life. No exaggeration. After photographing the Queens Hotel I suggested we drive up to the castle and take in the views (and also see the shop above which is close by).  

Unfortunately I made a catastrophic mistake in the route I chose. I mention it here so you don't do the same.

Just past the Queens Hotel towards the castle is Ffordd pen Ilech*. I didn't realise when I started driving up it but it was soon apparent that what I assumed was a residential street that would wind gently up to the castle on the summit was in fact incredibly steep. On the first bend I encountered an old lady driving down the hill so I stopped to let her past. My wife said 'that lady is laughing at you',which unnerved me truth be told. On the second bend the road was suddenly much, much steeper and I had to change down the gears until the engine of our car (only a year old) was practically screaming.

It was the third, almost blind bend that finished me off. Just as I was about to turn sharp left up the hill another car emerged from it causing me to stop to let him pass. 

And that was it. The car simply didn't feel like it had the power to restart from stationary and make it up that hill. I feared we were starting to roll back but I was probably just panicking. 'What's that smell?' the kids asked. That'll be the clutch burning I replied though in truth some of it was probably me. As it's a new car it has one of those stupid buttons instead of a proper, trustworthy handbrake.

I wasn't going anywhere. The other driver who'd pulled in to a lay-by, probably thinking he'd given me enough space to swing into that last bend gave up in the end and made his way down the hill.  

After an age I finally found the clutch bite and managed to get the stupid button brake off. We were moving but the only direction I wanted to head at that point was back down, off that road and as far away as I could get from Harlech.

It turns out that this particular road is officially the steepest signed, public, sealed road in the UK with a 40% gradient. Until recently it was the steepest road in the world!  

Oh, and reading up on it later, I think it's also a one-way street, heading downwards.  No wonder the old lady was laughing at me. 

If I ever go back it'll be on foot.     

In part 2 we visit the gentler inclines of Bangor.        



Stills from The Beatles Anthology (c) Apple Corps Ltd (2003)


The video of Paul talking about the Harlech trip is from the George Harrison documentary 'Living In The Material World'.

* Old Welsh for 'Bastardly Steep Hill', possibly.

Diolch Meurig! 

1 comment:

  1. Reading this on the BBC website today. First thought was this blog and the Wales feature from last year. Great reading.