All festivals strive to be eclectic, but Festival No.6 sings it loudest. The setting itself in Portmeirion is a majestic mixture of the brooding Welsh coastline and a lavish Italian village, which was famously used as ‘The Village’ in the 60s cult TV show, The Prisoner – from which the festival takes its name.
Lauded architect and landscape artist Sir Clough Williams-Ellis spent 51 years (1925-1976) creating this wonderland in Willy Wonka fashion, being meticulous in his dedication to splendour and display. Built on his own private peninsula on the coast of Snowdonia, his mission was to, “show that the development of a naturally beautiful site need not lead to its defilement”. Williams-Ellis succeeded in spectacular style, and there is no festival-feeling quite like walking down to the central piazza on arrival and seeing the sun, framed by a perfectly placed archway, gleaming on the estuary.
The fifth instalment of the festival maintains the organiser’s own self-imposed high standards with a grand gathering of bands, poets, comedians, writers, actors, filmmakers and people of note. With such a proliferation of festivals these days, the long-term winners will be those that can deliver something extra-special and unique, and it’s in this sense that No.6 can out-do all contenders.
What other festival can offer intimate gigs in a lofty dome? Or bracing free paddle boarding trips? Or a swimming pool in front of a stage so a top band can soundtrack your dip? Or pin drop performances beneath ornate ceilings in a Town Hall? And what other festivals boast actual pubs and restaurants?
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...what other festivals boast actual pubs and restaurants?
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Overlooking the main field there is the imposing Castell Deudraeth, which serves gastro pub grub and has a permanently busy bar atmosphere, and down by the waterfront is the four-star Hotel Portmeirion – a smart establishment year-round that offers beautifully decorated dining rooms, bars and lounges in which to take a break between events. As good as festival food can be, a crisp white tablecloth, fine silverware, and a welcome Prosecco with polite and attentive service is a nice option to have. The ‘Chef’s Table’ deal offered by the hotel is a five course taster menu by Mark Threadgill that celebrates Welsh produce, serving up delicious regional food such as Ardudwy lobster and Bala lamb. When you consider that most vendor meals cost around a tenner, £50 is very reasonable for a rare festival treat. For a bit more at £70, each day offers lunch and dinner banquets on long shared dining tables in a specially erected tent perched over the Dywryd Estuary at ‘Dinner at Cloughs’. Booking early is essential for this as it’s a popular option serving gourmet dishes and lively cocktails.
Festival No.6 extends the luxury on offer to cater for all budgets. There is the standard camping option of course, but this tiers up to bell tents and boutique camping right through to the pricey but extraordinary apartments, village cottages and hotel rooms available on site. These options would certainly have been worth it this year, as the heavens opened on Saturday. Festival No.6 is at the closing end of the season and accordingly the weather is a worry. This year the forecast of light rain and patchy sunshine regrettably transpired to be torrential rain on the 3rd. The other days were fine, but as is the way with violent and sustained downpours, the damage is done and the side-effects bastard-well linger. Wellies were in order as the churned up fields began to create muddy havoc.
But let’s not forget – this is a festival, in the UK, in September – you have to take it as it comes. Whilst only a handful of shows on the line up were affected, the real arse was the 11,000 cars parked on a flood plain a short bus-ride away from the festival site. A team of tractors pulled out festival-goers’ cars throughout Sunday and needless to say, there are plenty of disgruntled fans this year. But the organisers can’t control the weather, and in the four previous years there were no significant issues, although there will likely be infrastructure changes for 2017.
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The organisers can’t control the weather...
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The inclement conditions did not affect the artists though and this year’s highlights were many. The North West of our fair Isles were extraordinarily well represented this year. National Treasure Ricky Tomlinson lit up the Gatehouse stage with his infectious scouse humour and righteous anger during his Q&A with fellow northerner Johnny Vegas. The two discussed their love of the political novel The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists, and how it inspired Vegas to direct his short film Ragged, based on Tomlinson’s two years in prison in 1973 after being found guilty on trumped up charges for “conspiracy to intimidate” as one of the Shrewsbury Two. Tomlinson had the whole tent behind him as he called out the cover up and corruption behind his conviction and the ongoing skulduggery from successive governments.
The Gatehouse tent remained packed out for the appearance of Shaun Ryder, who was his incorrigible self, painting the air blue while discussing his recent freedom from a nasty management wrangle that meant his earnings have been compromised for the last 12 years. Ryder has a book of his inimitable lyrics published this Autumn by Faber & Faber. Talking backstage to Clash, Ryder also revealed that a major movie was in the pipeline, although it will be a few years yet before it hits our screens.
The don of Manchester poetry, Dr. John Cooper Clarke, gave a typically compelling performance to an entranced gathering in the central piazza on Sunday. As well as entertaining with his machine gun delivery satirical verse, he also had the audience in stitches with quick one-liners like “I should have known from the signs that our relationship wouldn’t work… I’m a Sagittarius and she’s an arsehole”.
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Night falls and numerous twinkles illuminate a 360-degree vista...
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The piazza is another one of the big reasons why No.6 is such a singular event. As night falls and numerous twinkles illuminate a 360-degree vista encompassing verdant woods, striking architecture, sweeping sands and rippling dark waters, the atmosphere is set for any artist to elevate their performance. John Bramwell defies the threat of rain as the skies above him bruise over, and he raises the spirits of all convened with heartfelt paeans to love and the human condition.
Overlooking the piazza is the Portmeirion Dome, which saw Tim Burgess take up residence with his Tim Peak’s Diner, serving up good coffee and a deftly curated line up of new bands. Best of which were Manchester-based neo-punk madheads Cabbage, who belted out a performance that seemed to teeter on the precipice of control from start to finish. Somehow they managed to smash out an electric set without the wheels coming off completely, and gained themselves a batch of new fans who’d been lucky enough to witness them.
As well as the new blood, long-serving stalwarts Echo & The Bunnymen played to a rapt audience in the Grand Pavilion tent. There was barely room to move as fans from the first time around mingled with those who’ve recently discovered the classic English rock band from the 80s. Liverpool was further well represented by the recently formed Lying Bastards. Full throttle rock n’ roll is the order of the day from these young lads and they love cranking it out. “Thanks for coming, we’re lying bastards” the frontman announced, getting an instant retort from one sharp scouser in the crowd – “Lying bastard!”
Bill Ryder-Jones was reliably brilliant as he played to a crowd at the Lost in the Woods stage. With his low key casual manner and dry scouse wit, Ryder charmed the crowd and won over everyone in earshot. “I feel like Robin Hood up here” he joked, before closing with a scorching rendition of ‘Satellites’ from last year’s outstanding 'West Kirby County Primary'.
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It’s not me that makes songs extraordinary, it’s people that do that...
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The were of course a legion of non-northern performers who were equally amazing. Not least of which were the 60-strong Brythonaid Male Voice Choir, a permanent fixture now at No. 6, who perform twice daily and never fail to nail New Order’s classic ‘Blue Monday’. The festival approached its close, in spite of the weather gods, with a special ‘David Bowie Reimagined’ tribute show. No.6 composer in residence Joe Duddell worked with the world-famous Manchester Camerata chamber orchestra and guest singers to cover seminal Bowie songs. Nadine Shah singing ‘Lazarus’ was one of the whole weekend’s spine tingle moments.
As the rain lashed down once again, Noel Gallagher banged out a culminating set that included tracks with the High Flying Birds and the sing-a-long Oasis anthems that everyone wanted. And just before his final encore he welcomed on his good mate, the Modfather Paul Weller, to duet on a couple of Jam songs – and the mud was squelched that bit more joyfully to the echoing strains of ‘A Town Called Malice’. Gallagher ended by saying. “It’s not me that makes songs extraordinary, it’s people that do that… so thanks for making this song fucking extraordinary” before getting every voice belting out 'Don’t Look Back in Anger’.
This North Wales shindig is a mainstay at the end of the summer calendar now for good reason – it’s discrete enough to feel intimate and unique enough to be unforgettable.
Portmeirion managing director Robin Llywelyn, who is Sir Clough Williams-Ellis' grandson, told BBC Cymru Fyw: “At the end of the day Festival No.6 brings Sir Clough Williams-Ellis’ dream alive and makes the village a place people enjoy – and not some dusty museum.”
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Words: Nick Rice