Coaching inn’s boutique new stage provides a perfect base for Neil Sowerby
“THEY'LL be occupied with the lambs” is the message. Well, it is that time of the year and Tom Oliver’s farm at Ocle Pychard in the heart of Herefordshire is as much about sheep rearing as being home to rare perry-producing pear trees and source of one of the world’s great artisan ciders.
The plan had been to drop in on Tom, who bizarrely doubles up as road manager for The Proclaimers, en route to Hay-on-Wye where we were road-testing the dog-friendliness of the newly refurbed Swan coaching inn. Alas, the man himself was going to be away judging a cider competition in London and, despite the invitation, we felt the farm might have its hands full, so we drove on past.
It is much changed from the rough-hewn border town we first visited 40 years ago, even if the surrounding hills are still as bleakly magnificent
Serendipity, don’t you love it? In Hay we discovered bottles of Oliver’s cider and perry on the shelves of the Beer Revolution craft beer bar/bottle shop. We’d dropped in randomly on market day, when the various food producers from balmy Herefordshire and the wilder reaches of the Brecon Beacons to the west mingle in this ultimate border town.
We wandered around the various stalls set up around the Memorial Square, Butter Market and Town Clock before buying a bunch of stunningly fresh organic spinach and garlic shoots from Primrose Farm in the foothills of the Black Mountains and a loin of Lleyn hogget from Weobley Ash (love these Herefordshire names) out near Presteigne. We resisted expensive bags of alpaca compost, wilting heritage veg and some New Age gewgaws.
Certainly Hay these days could not be confused with Brecon or Rhayader despite the fact that its Welsh name Y Gelli Gandryll may share equal billing on the town signs. It is much changed from the rough-hewn border town we first visited 40 years ago, even if the surrounding hills are still as bleakly magnificent.
Then it was the fiefdom of one Richard Booth, who in 1961 opened Hay's first secondhand bookshop in the ruins of an old fire station, inspiring more than 40 other book dealers to set up shop. With characteristic chutzpah in April 1977 he declared "home rule" for the book town and pronounced himself king.
I suppose the arrival of a craft beer bar (albeit run by Rob and Emily, a down to earth young couple from Burnley) and the upgrading of Hay Deli, which wouldn’t seem out of place in Notting Hill, are an inexorable sign of gentrification. Retired admirals pottering around the town with wicker baskets and accents alien to the local lilt, at the other extreme a hipster presence, heirs to the hippies who settled these parts.
All this plummy mix even before the (remarkably good) Literature and Fine Arts Festival, now 30 years old, kicks in at the end of May, when the classy clothes/furnishing boutiques and bijou coffee halts must do a storming trade. Strangely enough there are fewer book shops than of yore (still 40, mind), though the specialist survivors are excellent.
A yawning gap in town has been a top-end restaurant; one which is now being filled by our billet, The Swan at Hay. What was a tired Georgian coaching inn has been taken over and beautifully renovated by the folk who own Llangoed Hall. 15 minutes up the Builth Wells road, where exec chef Nick Brodie’s food is magnificent. The Swan’s new owners have installed his 30-year-old protege Jerry Adams, head-hunted from Michelin-starred Ynyshir Hall, another of Wales’s finest.
There’s every chance The Swan, already awarded four stars by the AA and Visit Wales plus two AA rosettes for the gorgeous Garden Room restaurant, will join the pantheon. Early days and the kitchen felt a mite stretched with one large gap between courses, but there’s a bold imagination at work on exemplary local ingredients – Welsh black beef cheek, parsley, dulse, sea lettuce or lamb sweetbreads, gooseberry, pickled white garlic flowers, hazelnut – while puddings, more exotic, were really exciting.
Just as exciting, the ability post-prandial to crash straight into bed across the courtyard (helped by a superbly pure red Loire, Saumur La Paleine 2014).
The new look Swan has 19 bedrooms, four of which allow dogs for a £15 fee; we were in the old stable block, compact but fine for us and our well-behaved chihuahua, Captain Smidge. He came to dinner and breakfast with us in The Market Bar, the only public room pets are allowed in; no dogs are allowed to stay in the rooms on their own.
A dog needs his exercise. The countryside around Hay offers strenuous climbs up to landmarks like the Black Hill, but even short walks on the fringes of the own are rewarding. We bookended one day with two dog toddles, one via the River Wye, the other up to Hay Common. More enterprising guests can find mountain biking and canoeing opportunities close to the town our out in the Brecon Beacons.
We couldn’t miss resist a jaunt into this National Park. Our schedule, alas, didn’t allow us to overnight and take in one of its major attractions – in 2012 it became just the fifth destination in the world to be accredited as an International Dark Sky Reserve. The restriction of light pollution means on a clear night you can see the Milky Way, major constellations, bright nebulae, even meteor showers – “just about everything from anywhere,” according to the Ordnance Survey 2015.
We encountered our own stellar moment at dinner in the Felin Fach Griffin, just off the A470 to Brecon. This creation by the Inkpin brothers has been setting the template for destination gastropubs for over 15 years. They may now have two other operations in Cornwall, The Gurnard and The Old Coastguard, but they haven’t take their eye off the ball here on the evidence of our reception. A splendid dog-friendly, people watching corner table, an affordable wine list showcasing a host of independent suppliers and a short menu that delivered on every course from an octopus starter through Welsh Black Beef to a sumptuous chocolate pud. Full of atmosphere, it also has rooms.
On the way there we had visited two worthwhile Beacons foodie attractions – the Welsh Venison Centre, a family-run enterprise with on-site butchers and a welcoming cafe/deli near Bwlch and Talgarth Mill, a traditional water mill in the heart of Talgarth, off the A479, milling stoneground wholemeal flour. It was restored in 2011 as part of the BBC’s Village SOS TV series and is a fulcrum for regeneration of the community. There’s a craft shop on site and a bright cafe, called the Baker’s Table but unmissable is a guided tour of the mill process with one of the well-versed volunteers.
Across the border, we were just happy to drive round Herefordshire’s half-timbered villages and orchards (we had got the cider taste). The market town of Ledbury was a glorious discovery, especially the cluster of medieval lanes leading up to St Michael’s Church, its steeple detached from the church proper, a riot of ornate detail. Particularly fine is the funerary monument to the Skynner family, clothier merchants of the parish.
Equally monumental was the steak and kidney pie in the cosy (and dog-friendly) Oak Inn at Staplow just outside Ledbury. Smidge helped me out with both filling and flaky crust. Cider to accompany? It would have been fitting, but there was rare chance to sup Batham’s Bitter brewed at the Bull & Bladder in the Black Country. After two pints of which there was never any chance we were going to find Ocle Pychard.
SO MANY HAY BOOKSHOPS – WHICH TO CHOOSE?
Richard Booth’s Bookshop is (not the Cinema) still the best bookshop in town even if its tendency to mingle new and second hand tomes can be confusing.
It’s a smart, well-stocked enterprise with a cafe and cinema but don’t neglect Hay’s quirky minnows. A perennial favourite is further along Lion Street Addyman Books, hugely catholic in its tastes and a louche hideaway, while it would be criminal not to pop into detective fiction specialists Murder and Mayhem across the road. For poetic justice after that seek out the off the beaten track Poetry Bookshop, which stocks the best verse selection outside London.
Neil Sowerby stayed at the Swan at Hay, Church Street, Hay-on-Wye, HR3 5DQ. 01497 821188. B&B priced from £125 per room per night. During the Literature Festival, which attracts half a million visitors, the hotel is understandably booked up.
The three course Garden Room Dinner Menu costs £40 per person; more expensive tasting menus are also available. A cheaper bar menu is available in both the Market Bar and the adjacent 1812 Bar, while a Monday-Saturday set lunch is available across the hotel.
Getting there: the nearest train station is Hereford and then it is a 30 minute taxi ride or a bus journey. Bus journeys are not frequent. Recommended taxi firm is Hi-Town Taxis 01432 354321.
For information on Hay on Wye visit http://www.hay-on-wye.co.ukand for the Brecon Beacons National Park visit http://www.breconbeacons.org
Oliver’s Cider and Perry, The Old Hop Kilns, Moorhouse Farm, Ocle Pychard, Herefordshire, HR1 3QZ.