"I'm going to Festival No. 6 this weekend", I say to a photographer friend who has recently returned from Reading.
"Only six", he says. "Reading was my tenth."
I don't have the heart to correct his ignorance. Despite, back in March, stating my intent to go to fewer festivals this summer, it hasn't entirely worked out like that. I'm sad that yet another Summer is drawing to a close but determined to end the season by having a ball at Portmeirion, the exquisite and curious 'Prisoner' village, the architectural life work of Sir Clough Williams-Ellis.
It's a mammoth journey from Leicester. But, once you leave the motorways and dual carriageways, it's one that takes your breath away. Passing through a proliferation of 'Ll' villages, crossing national parks and mountain ranges that make your ears pop, you're left in no doubt of the very remote Welshness of the location in advance of reaching Porthmadog.
Lack of parking at the site itself means that all punters are directed to a nearby football field that becomes a Park and Ride for the weekend. I'd heard horror stories in previous years but the efficiency of the ticketing and transportation system gets no complaints from me. I like the fact that it's encouraged us to travel light. We lug what we can carry but realise there can be no repeat trips to the car to pick up extra provisions over the weekend.
Fully pitched, we head off to explore. It's getting dark on this Thursday evening. With no programme and no map yet, it's not entirely clear where to head. We walk back towards the point where the shuttle bus dropped us off. That was the entrance to Portmeirion village and some campsite neighbours had recommended we start to explore down there. We pass through the Village Green area; apparently a more developed area this year, this space acts as a link between Portmeirion village and the main Festival No. 6 arena. All three areas buzz with life and activity over the course of the weekend but tonight it's hard to find the party. We get a beer (Estrella is the lager of choice at the bars at a fiver a pint) at the Village Green Bar. I've had some waits for beer this summer but this was ridiculous. Incredibly disorganised, rude service from a manageress more interested in totting up her takings than serving her customers, I hoped this wasn't a sign of things to come. It wasn't. It was a blip and bar service for the remainder of the weekend across the site was exceptional and quick.
Portmeirion village has closed. Each evening it closes at about nine. The main arena doesn't open until tomorrow. Instead of a night in the tent, we head to the Castell. An elaborate gatehouse, we approach with a bit of trepidation. This looks like private party central. With hotel rooms, jags parked outside and a posh restaurant within surely this isn't catering for general campers? We clock the fabulous porcelain toilets and sit in a comfy faux-leather sofa in front of an ornate open fireplace. It's not lit tonight but it is at other times of the weekend providing an emergency source of warmth as logs crack and sizzle. There's a bar five steps away. This is exquisite and, so conditioned by slumming it at various festivals this year, I'm confused by the open, luxuriant ease of it all. We sit and watch the world go by. We get lazily drunk - a perfect Thursday... The bar still serves when we leave at 2AM.
"My Gran used to live near here", we're told by a fine, upstanding gent we share a beer with at the central plaza of Portmeirion village. As children play and giggle in the fountains of well-decorated fishponds, we learn that Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect of this Palladian gem on the coast of Wales would undoubtedly have loved the fact that his village vision had given birth to something such as Festival No. 6. "It's a natural extension of the parties he used to hold for the local community", we're told. It's without doubt a magical place with an infrastructure that lends itself to a complete festival experience.
We wander into the woods. Friends have told me that it would be remiss to not have a rave up here. The fine programme informs me that there's plenty of stages around (at least five) but when we first dip in, we get no further than the Virgin Trains Village Limits stage. Here, we dance on a pontoon placed in the middle of a pond. We frolic amongst the foliage as sunshine pours through gaps in the tree cover. The DJ booth is covered by branches, a hidden play den from which fine tunes emit. Legendary New York DJ, Arthur Baker, ensures much flex on the pontoon with his brand of happy house. Even if I wanted to stand still I would have found it difficult on this adult bouncy castle.
We get braver as the weekend passes and head deeper into this forest fayre. A chance conversation whilst trying to get into a crowded tent to see Andrew Weatherall introduces me to some enthusiastic chaps who are running the Dogon Stage. "Head deep into the woods and you'll find us", says a trendy, friendly guy with a fine and trimmed beard. "The views from our viewing point over the estuary are to die for", he adds. Saturday afternoon and after some aimless wandering, we stumble upon the clearing that hosts the Dogon stage. People are clearly setting their stall out to stay here for some hours. And why wouldn't you feel that way when the dance music on offer is as strong as it is. New DJ names to me such as Alex Grzybowski impress. We feel as high as the daredevil above us who thinks he's Tarzan in the trees. We follow a mazy path away from the stage to sit on a stone at the top of a cliff. The view is incredible. The sun beats down. We'll never forget this.
"If you're press, come and see us", says the sign beside the Welsh Lamb stall within the village green. Always one to sniff out a free dinner, I bag myself a space at a dining table the following evening. "You'll sit here, eat a Welsh Lamb dinner prepared by a celebrity chef whilst we offer you copious amounts of wine", explains the friendly and persuasive PR woman I chat with. Admittedly, it didn't take much to twist my arm but I'm so glad I experienced this dinner. The local lamb shoulder, slowly cooked for hours, rubbed with spice and Harissa paste and then shredded was the best lamb I've ever had. 21 year old chef, Luke Thomas is clearly a talented and driven sort. He opened his first restaurant when he was 18 when most of his age would struggle to open a door. Around this dining table, the company is great. I've got a real interest in local food production, culinary skills and food poverty in my day job. The conversation touches upon all of this as we inevitably try to fix the world. Welsh Lamb ambassador and thoroughly decent TV and social media hill farmer, Gareth Wyn Jones, inspires all with his stories about shepherding in the 21st century.
Aside from the Welsh Lamb dinner, we eat and drink like kings across the rest of the site. There are almost twenty bars listed in the programme but I think there's probably more. Some specialise in rum, cider, wine and real ale whilst others are more generic. On Sunday afternoon, we realise that the really well stocked shop within Portmeirion serves delicious 750ml bottles of wine for £13. We make the most of that. I grab a Patty & Bun breakfast burger. The product from this small London based chain is so exceptional in terms of taste (and it looked really special as well) that I become a regular evening customer as well. We have wonderful fish finger buns (with chips in a wasabi sauce) down by the waters edge from the fabulous fish finger company. At a Welsh local produce market, we eat cheese and bread. A local pie manufacturer tempts me with a 'tasty chick'. "You've already got one of those", says my modest, travelling companion.
I bump into Radio 1's Huw Stephens, interviewing his cousin (true fact) Super Furry Animal Gruff Rhys. 'In new music we trust', I think and so I ask him for a weekend recommendation. "If I was you, I'd definitely go and see Catfish And The Bottlemen", he suggests after a moment pondering. I can't help feeling a bit short-changed. As competent as the catfish lads are, surely Huw could have been trusted to come up with something a bit more 'new'? "Oh, Huw's renowned as a dick who doesn't really like music", says a punter, with no sense of personal envy, when I relay this story to him later.
I might be being a bit unfair on Huw. The motto of Festival No. 6 is a phrase used by Sir Clough himself. "Cherish the past, adorn the present and construct for the future". Such focus on the past, present and future permeates across the music bookings.
Those bands and acts from the past do a blooming good job in convincing us of their importance for the future. Sunday evening and James are a wonderful warm up on the main Castell Park stage for headliner Grace Jones. James have been impressing many festival goers this summer with their mix of anthems from yesterday and newer, banging tunes. Tim Booth has always been an enthusiastic frontman but tonight he's like a man possessed. Twice he jumps into the crowd and gets mobbed as frenzied arms reach out to touch. Their set flies by and leaves all of us with broad grins even though they no longer play Sit Down. Grace Jones ups the ante even more - a perfect mix of magical funky mystery. It's been a bumper festival.
Belle & Sebastian are probably one of those acts who've now been around for long enough to be considered a thing of the past by some. And yet, critical acclaim has never seemed to waiver from these Scots who have been able to remain effortlessly cool. They do that thing during 'Legal Man' where they get some of the crowd to dance with them on stage. I desperately fling myself towards the barrier in a doomed act of fandom as other, more modern sorts are chosen instead. One of the chosen many asks Stuart Murdoch how much it would cost to get them to play at their wedding. "We always get asked the oddest of things", says the nearly ordained Murdoch. This is a brilliant headline set. Belle & Sebastian connect with their audience with wit and skill. They're the stars of this field.
Down in the Piazza early on Saturday afternoon, Chris Difford makes no apology for 'cherishing the past'. I'd seen him in a much smaller tent a month earlier do much the same set that he does on this bigger, outdoor stage. What it loses in intimacy is made up for in the volume of this singalong. He genuinely seems touched that many of us know the words to 'Labelled with Love' and 'Up The Junction'.
It's not just the bands that cherish the past. Some of the DJs we see across the weekend have pedigree not to be sniffed at. Justin Robertson is always great value for getting a happy party going and then keeping us at a peak. He plays as part of a 'Bugged Out' programme just outside the Castell gatehouse. Craig Charles does his Soul and Funk thing from the House Of Rum once Belle & Sebastian have finished. We listen from our tent but hear later that it's almost impossible to get into his tent, such is Charles' popularity. The sun is out at the Stone Boat stage when Greg Wilson treats us to a Sunday afternoon medley of mashed up madness. We scan the horizon, salute the sky and sail away somewhere special.
It's Mark Ronson's birthday. It's acts like Ronson,Metronomy, Years And Years, Young Fathers, Kate Tempest, and Everything Everything who probably represent the 'present' of the musical offering. Ronson's invited loads of friends with him to come and party at Portmeirion. Indeed, so many of his friends are here that they have a separate queue at the ticket office. We only catch the last 15 minutes of his main stage set but it's lapped up by an enthused crowd. He finishes with 'Valerie' and acknowledges that one friend can't be with him tonight. Elsewhere over the weekend, you could take in a showing of the 'Amy' film. It's preceded by a Q&A with Mark Ronson and the film director, Asif Kapadia.
For Festival No. 6 is not simply a music festival. There's talks and comedy a plenty as well. We rush around with a schedule that's a tad too busy to enjoy much of this and if I had the time again I might have stopped for some learning and a giggle. The crowds bring the surrounding paths to a standstill when Steve Coogan is interviewed at the Piazza. It would have certainly been interesting to hear Deborah Curtis in conversation with Stephen Morris or Irvine Welsh having a chat with Justin Robertson. Put simply there's too much going on.
Huw Stephens could probably have redeemed himself if he had mentioned Meilyr Jones after Catfish and the Bottlemen. I'd previously seen Meilyr do a solo set at another festival and so realised that his songs and intensity of performance mark him out as one for the future. With a full band, the impact is even greater. Sitting somewhere between Pulp and Orange Juice, Meilyr captivates all who watch him at the Estuary stage. There's a swimming/paddling pool in this small arena that looks out to sea. It'll be hard to keep up with this Jones. During a session where we learn about coffee cocktails from Nespresso, a duo from the North East, Seafret, play for us. Also ones to mark for the future, they seem like charming lads who've probably never had their hearts broken. All of their tunes are positive, acoustic love ballads and it's hard not to be drawn in by their smiles.
Oh, there's a sense of secret ease, luxury and quality that spreads across Portmeirion like a sea mist. Not many hours have passed on the Friday before I'm declaring that I've got a new, favourite festival to all who'll listen. Some might say that it'd be hard to not impress when you're working amidst such bright architectural shine and they might well have a point but you can tell that much thought has gone into the design and delivery of Festival No. 6. I'm left with fabulous memories and an overwhelming desire to return in future years.
Be seeing you Festival No. 6.....
latest on this festival
festival home page
line-ups & rumours
joining Franz Ferdinand, The The, Friendly Fires, Django Django, & more
including Reginald D Hunter, Tim Key, Lauren Pattison, Stuart Goldsmith, & more