Adrian Mourby

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Tourism came to Wales during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. With Europe far too dangerous a destination for English gentlemen who longed for towering mountains, serene lakes and plunging chasms, adventurous tourists turned instead to Scotland, the Lake District and Wales to supply their needs for inspiring travel. But the infrastructure of Wales was a challenge to the holiday-maker and remained so until the railways arrived and modern Victorian seaside resorts like Llandudno and Aberystwyth sprung into existence.

These days most people travel to Wales by car but they do so along the many of those east-west valley routes that first made this magical principality accessible to train passengers. So here are ten very special hotels and pubs with rooms which can either be your holiday destination or somewhere to stay enroute. Or you can visit them all in a glorious Welsh road trip. I’ve also included one pub near Shrewsbury, which is a great starting point whether you’re travelling north, south or mid, and one hotel which is less than 100 yards inside the English side of the border. It used to be the rectory for a Welsh priest whose church was walking distance over on the Welsh side. Wales is full of surprises.

Whether you’re heading to north, south or mid-Wales, the Riverside Inn just east of Shrewsbury is an ideal stopping-off place. It was built in 1750 above a meander loop of the River Severn. It is an impressive white-painted brick building with two large gables and an attic up top. Originally known as the Cound Lodge Inn, it was for many years an alehouse that served turnpike traffic on the road between Much Wenlock and Shrewsbury, only 20 miles from the Welsh border. 

Then the Severn Valley Railway Line arrived at the back of the Cound Lodge Inn in 1862, greatly increasing its trade. That branchline is long gone, but the hotel today has an outdoor bar in one of its former coach houses that is emblazoned with the old railway sign, Cound Halt.

What was once the back of the pub has now become its main entrance with a large car park. The busy A458 runs past connecting Shrewsbury and Welshpool. 
As the Riverside Inn, the pub has seven bedrooms all named after hills on the Welsh border: for example Caer Caradoc, Long Mynd, and The Stiperstones. The Erlach Room is probably the best, with a lovely long window that overlooks the hotel’s terrace and the slow-moving River Severn below. Bedrooms were refurbished recently during the lockdowns of 2020. Headboards are big and chunky and there seem to be mirrors on every wall.  With original sash windows and dark painted wood-panelling, these rooms really do give one the cosy sense of being in a Victorian coaching inn.

The ground floor is more contemporary, having been redesigned to create free-flowing areas carved out of snug old drinking rooms, so much so that you hardly notice if you are in one of the bars, the dining room, or the conservatory. Food, under chef Louise Davidson, has lots of traditional pub favourites like steak and ale pie and chicken and ham hock pie but also more exotic alternatives like Keralan chickpea curry and battered halloumi with fries. Wine-lovers will enjoy a sturdy, comprehensive list that includes nine whites and nine reds by the glass.

On cold nights there are several working fireplaces on the ground floor and on warm evenings there is an open terrace with tables and benches overlooking the river. For those slightly-in-between days (of which Wales has many) there is a large log-burning chimney outside on the terrace, with comfy seating nearby.   

Llangoed Hall is the Queen of Welsh hotels and simply has to be experienced. It owes its style and excellence to two remarkable men. The first was Sir Clough Williams-Ellis, the architect of – amongst many other projects – Portmeirion, the fantasy village he created on the North Wales coast. The second was Sir Bernard Ashley, the businessman and engineer who promoted his wife’s designs, turning Laura Ashley into an international brand.

The Ashleys had a factory in mid-Wales and in the 1970s while driving to it from from London they often passed Llangoed Hall, which was by then semi-derelict. Laura was fond of the old hall, which had been magnificently rebuilt between 1913 and 1919 by the distinguished architect Clough Williams-Ellis. Ellis had been called in by Mrs Archibald Christy, the owner of what was then known as Llangoed Castle, a simple Jacobean manor house that had been constructed in 1632.

Sir Clough provided a vision that was elegant, based on maximising  space to create harmony. While Portmeirion is quirky, Llangoed Hall is calm personified. Ellis reorientated the castle and created an elegant Edwardian country house with large fireplaces, a spacious dining room, a morning room, drawing room and billiard room. A long hallway – resembling a Tudor Long Gallery – ran along the ground floor and the first floor too. These two gracious levels are linked by a broad oak staircase lined with nineteenth-century neoclassical statuary.

By the time the Ashleys were driving past, Llangoed Hall was falling apart. The Christy family had sold it on many years previous and the new owners wanted to demolish it, as it was too expensive to repair. Thank goodness its listed building status meant they could not - so it was simply abandoned. After the tragic death of Laura Ashley in 1985, Sir Bernard bought the hall to turn it into a tribute to his wife and a showcase for her work. No expense was spared because, although Ashley thought the restored building could double as a hotel in due course, he wasn’t interested in it making money for himself.

After the death of Sir Bernard in 2009, the hall was sold off by his family. In an unusual deal all the furniture, all the Laura Ashley prints and wallpaper, even the family photos, were sold with it so that the newly commercial Llangoed Hall could remain linked forever to one of the twentieth-century’s best-loved designers.

Sir Bernard’s art collection was also incorporated into the hotel, which gives the hotel its other USP. Works include a nude study by Augustus John of his own daughter, a print by Sickert, a landscape by Dame Laura Knight and some exceptional early twentieth-century Scottish art, including George Spencer Watson’s Silver Arrow, portraying a mysterious, unidentified beauty wearing an arrow-shaped brooch in her hat. On the first floor is a strikingly long portrait of American Colonel John Bowles by his son-in-law Herman Dudley Murphy, and some sunny Venetian waterscapes from the Grand Canal by Louis Ginnet.

All the bedrooms are quietly distinct. Two favourites are “Paultons” and “Ashley”. Paultons is on the very top floor – the old attic. It’s spacious, light, and calm in duck egg blue with a large four poster bed. This suite is often assigned to brides preparing to be married at Llangoed Hall.

“Ashley”, on the floor below, has lovely views of the gardens and is the only room in the hotel still decorated in original Laura Ashley wallpaper. However the first apron that Laura Ashley ever made (at her kitchen table) is framed on the wall of the garden room.

These days the hotel is only open three or four nights a week on a dinner, bed and breakfast basis (It is always closed Monday to Wednesday).

Dining at Llangoed Hall begins with drinks in the drawing room with its rich red sofas and massive stone fireplace that includes an historic bust of Britannia. Dinner is taken in the garden room and the garden restaurant, both part of a very sympathetic extension of the hall that Bernard Ashley created in 1987. Meals are also served in the beautiful Blue Room which is adjacent to the drawing room and has a serene quality all of its own.

Food is very important at Llangoed Hall. In November 2013/14 the hotel was recognised as Conde Nast Johansens Restaurant of the Year.  And in 2015 it entered the UK’s Good Food Guide, within the Top 50, where it remains today supplemented by an extensive orchard and vegetable garden in the grounds which guests are free to wander. 

For those feeling more active, there are a further 17 acres running down to the River Wye to explore. If you want to venture further still, it’s less than half an hours’ drive to Hay Bluff, the northernmost tip of the Black Mountains, a prominent upland massif which straddles the border between Wales and England, offering superb views on a clear day. 
There is always a danger of not wanting to leave Llangoed Hall. The fact that the hotel has nothing so vulgar as a front desk where you pay your bill only adds to the feeling that you might stay another night or two in this delightful country house.

Pen-y-Dyffryn was built in the 1840s as a rectory for a new North Walian parish that was created so that the people of Rhydycroesau would no longer have to worship (or bury their dead) three mountainous miles away in Oswestry. It was then, as it is now, a remote spot in a narrow valley. The new parish actually straddled the Anglo-Welsh river border.  The church is in Wales and the rectory in Shropshire.

The first incumbent was the scholarly rector, Rev Robert Williams, a large, rather eccentric man who wrote the first dictionary of the Cornish language in 1862 and a shorter volume, The Biographical Dictionary of Eminent Welshmen, in 1847. The hotel’s literature describes him euphemistically as a “lifelong bachelor” and his frequently recycled sermons were said to be deadly dull. In his defence, he did raise funds so his rectory could also function as a day school for "the sons of the gentry".  The back half of the house, on slightly higher ground, is the result.

Williams is said to have coined the epigram (rarely quoted today) that “A goose is a very awkward bird, being a little too much for one, but not enough for two." A better memorial for his life is this fine stone building that became a restaurant in 1981 and a hotel in 1989 when Miles and Audrey Hunter took it over.

One of the enjoyable things about Pen-y-Dyffryn today is it's old world hospitality. There are still Corby trouser presses in the bedroom and scones are served in the drawing room for afternoon tea. The dining table you are assigned on your first night in Seasons Restaurant remains your table. It displays a small plaque on which is inscribed the name of your room. Much of the furniture is antique, and blinds and heavy curtains take the place of anything as anachronistic as double-glazing.
Altogether there are 14 bedrooms in the old rectory and six new-build cottages in the garden, each with their own sun-terrace.  One of the best bedrooms in the main house is called the Rector’s Room, which has views over the valley below - but as far as we know it was only ever the bedroom of a rector’s daughter. However, according manager Tommy Hunter that was rather a lot to fit on a keyfob.  No credit card shaped electronic room keys here!

One new feature however is the Summer House – installed during the 2020 lockdown – which sits on the edge of the valley and is ideal for bird watching as kites swoop past in the valley below.  

In 1865 a heroic railway line finally reached northerly Llangollen and tourism took off in this pretty little town on the River Dee. Calling itself the “Gateway to Snowdonia”, Llangollen constructed several gracious hotels. Today the largest is the Wild Pheasant. This 47-room hotel is pretty much a 21st century newbuild standing to the west end of the town, alongside the busy A5. But look closely and you can see that it was created by repeatedly enlarging a nineteenth-century house that still stands here in the middle of the spacious new development.  All the extensions have been rendered in a sympathetic style with low, grey slate roofs. The “Glass House” on the left of the old homestead contains the hotel’s bar with a function room beyond. On its right is the new spa, a popular place of great indulgence with, above it, the “Penthouse” suites, the most comfortable bedrooms in the Wild Pheasant.

The spa is one of the hotel’s most popular features with people driving all the way from Liverpool (50 miles) just to sit in a sauna and 37degree hydrotherapy pool and have a cup of tea afterwards. The bar serves local Wrexham Lager which has developed a certain local cachet since American movie star Ryan Reynolds bought Wrexham’s football team. It also serves locally brewed Snowdon Craft Beer.

The hotel is popular with walkers and shooting parties who head for the hills above. It is also popular with bikers following the North Wales Coastal Route.

In 2002 a ten-mile section of the 1865 railway line between Llangollen and Corwen was restored making it a popular destination for steam enthusiasts. This new Llangollen Railway is a popular tourist attraction. In 2002, the Rainhill locomotive trials of 1819 were re-staged here. These races established that George Stephenson’s design, The Rocket represented the future of rail travel around the world by beating all other contenders in a timed trial.

There is also a White Water Centre for the adventurous nearby and the UK’s River Safety and Rescue Service operates on the River Dee and usually stays at the Wild Pheasant while training their operatives.

Without requiring guests to be too rugged, the Wild Pheasant caters for a lot of outdoor activity.

Opened in 2003, Deganwy’s Quay Hotel sits on the Conwy Estuary with superb views of Conwy Castle, the most complete medieval fortress in Wales. The hotel is the focal point of a marina built on the depot to which nineteenth-century railway lines used to bring Welsh slate to be exported around Britain and abroad.

Twenty years on, the marina development is still squeaky clean and the low-rise hotel has a surprisingly grand marble lobby. There’s a restaurant called Ebb& Flow that leads off the lobby and enjoys excellent estuary views. Meanwhile just behind reception there is a Guests’ Quiet Lounge lined with leather sofas and that special “bookshelves” wallpaper that gives the impression that you have suddenly, unexpectedly been transported back to a Victorian gentleman’s study.
In the late twentieth century, when the slate industry declined and Deganwy’s wharves fell into disrepair, plans were laid for a marina with housing on the abandoned site plus modern hotel accommodation. The presence of a nearby passenger railway station with connections to Manchester Piccadilly meant that Deganwy, once a medieval fortress and thereafter an industrial port, could become an attractive new resort on the Welsh coast. And indeed it has.

Today its hotel terrace offers a tranquil spot to sit and enjoy a drink as the sun sets over Colwyn Bay. There is also The Cove Bar, offering a varied selection of Welsh gins and local ales with its own special terrace menu.

There are 77 bedrooms, from entry level “Cosy Coves” to a Penthouse - but not all enjoy a waterside view. Do make sure get one. 

Set in a gorgeous central position on this town’s Promenade, the Llandudno Bay Hotel is in fact an amalgam of four terraced buildings, each of which would have been an individual hotel up until the 1920s. These typical Welsh boarding houses are more comfortable places to stay now that they have been merged. Originally they were like sentry boxes, rising steeply up three or four floors, with each kitchen in the basement, a dining room behind reception and a series of bedrooms stacked up above and accessed only on foot (lifts came later).

Here though, the amalgamation of so many buildings gives the Llandudno Bay a width and graciousness with several dining and bar areas on the ground floor.

The current hotel has views of Great Orme - and Llandudno’s 700 metre-length Victorian pier-  to the left of its seaview rooms and a huge offshore wind farm to the right.

Llandudno Bay has previously been known as the Regency Royal Hotel and the Orme’s Cliffe Hotel after that massive 207 metre headland that shelters the bay from wilder seas. In winter, after a good dusting of snow, this clifftop has Britain’s longest toboggan run and in summer, cable cars and a tramway will take you to the top.

Recently refurbished by the Everbright Group, the hotel has 61 bedrooms of which 35 face the sea. Do pay extra for a sea view! All the sea-facing rooms are equipped with spyglasses so you can scan the horizon like an old sea captain. Very fortunate rooms on the first floor have telescopes mounted on tripods in their bay windows. Every bed is decorated with a yellow throw that is the hallmark of the Everbright Group, who run four hotels in Wales.

The stylish LB Restaurant is full of gilt mirrors and offers a good range of dinner dishes, both Welsh and international. Think chilli garlic prawns, Welsh rarebit with mushrooms, vegan curry and traditional Llandudno Bay steak burger.

Parking is limited behind the hotel, so you take your luck on the Promenade and the side streets nearby.  In Llandudno’s Victorian heyday visitors to its one-mile sweep of hotels around the bay would arrive by train and transfer by hotel taxi. Even more so than Aberystwyth - its Mid Wales’ rival- this is a genuine Welsh Victorian seaside town and all the more glorious for being so. 

Up a steep hill, through 200 beautifully maintained acres of grounds, Bodysgallen Hall displays, on first glance an entirely Tudor appearance. However as you walk round its perimeter you’ll see plaques commemorating the fact that it was rebuilt and added to in 1620, 1730, 1884 and 1905. To name but a few refurbs and expansions. These additions were always made in local stone so what might have appeared a hodgepodge is wholly charming and harmonious.

This Grade 1 listed hall was built in stages over 600 years but was until recently a private home. That sense that generations of owners have lived out their lives here is palpable. The bedrooms have an old-fashioned feel with Sanderson wallpaper, dressing tables and pleated lampshades. Outside the gardens are divided into sunken lawns and parterres, orchards, walks and bothies.

This country house hotel has spectacular views of Conwy Castle and Snowdonia. With stunning trees and foliage in full bloom as the warmer months approach, the hotel lays on lunchtime events including springtime “floristry” talks by local flower experts. Or you can book a tour with the head gardener through the hall's award-winning gardens - highlights including a rare seventeenth-century parterre of box hedges filled with sweet-scented herbs, a walled rose garden and several follies. 

Walk the rose garden or sit in the hotel’s oak-panelled library and it's difficult to believe you are only a few miles from the busy Victorian resort of Llandudno. There are lots of corners to seat yourself within the hall itself, but my personal favourite is the landing outside Room 1, which has two comfy chairs and catches the morning sun. Here you can put your feet up with a book of Welsh verse, or maybe a PG Wodehouse novel. Though located in the heartland of Welsh-speaking Wales, Bodysgallen resembles Blandings Castle and could easily serve as the backdrop to one of Bertie Wooster's 1920s adventures. 

The Nag’s Head is a big, solid nineteenth-century Montgomeryshire coaching inn that opened in 1864 at a then-busy intersection on the road between Welshpool and the new county town of Newtown. At this T-junction a smaller road led to the picturesque old county town of Montgomery, three miles away. But alongside the busy A483 ran a major industrial canal, which meant that the inn was ideally situated to pick up trade from merchants and bargees.

Today, as then, the Nag’s Head is an imposing neoclassical structure. Like much of Montgomeryshire, it is brick-built because, by Welsh standards, there was a comparative lack of timber in the county.  Its porticoed façade sits next to an original red Giles Gilbert Scott telephone box outside (still working) and also a wall-mounted mailbox set into the outer wall of the inn from the time of King George V (but now blocked up). 

Inside the pub décor references similar antiquities but is essentially contemporary with long, maroon leather banquettes. A long time ago there was an early makeover by Laura Ashley whose wallpaper and fabric factory were based nearby - but that look is long gone. Nowadaysthere are gilt mirrors and traditional nineteenth-century Welsh landscapes on the walls.

The hotel is popular with locals who come here for morning coffee and often stay for lunch. The old nineteenth century sequence of small rooms has mostly been knocked through, although the “Library” is an attractive book-lined dining room and beyond it is a sitting room with bookcases and armchairs. 
The hotel has just eight bedrooms and promotes itself as very dog friendly. 

Up the hill behind the Nag’s Head is Garthmyll Hall, which is open to the public Tuesdays to Saturdays. It’s a very good example of a mid-nineteenth century house of the same period, built for the local gentry, and its garden contains a magnificent mature Cedar of Lebanon. Welshpool, the biggest market town in the county, is just six miles to the north.

This gothic-looking chateau on the Isle of Anglesey was originally known as Plas Rhianfa, a Welsh phrase that approximates to The Lady's Bower. It was built in 1851 by Sir John Hay Williams of Bodelwyddan Castle on the Welsh mainland. The baronet wanted to bequeath his wife, the watercolourist Lady Sarah Elizabeth Pitt Amherst, a Loire Valley style chateau for her imminent widowhood. Lady Sarah had made sketches of the sixteenth-century Château de Chenonceau on the couple's European travels and with her husband’s encouragement she worked with the architect Charles Read to recreate a Mediterranean paradise on Anglessey.

Rhianfa’s lush gardens still tumble down to the Menai Strait and offer views across to the university town of Bangor.

As you arrive along the A545 Beaumaris Road, a playful red Welsh dragon pokes her head over the hotel’s perimeter wall. Parking is limited but once inside the hotel’s lobby you sense – as so often in Wales – that you are in someone’s home. This is a mansion built for a few ladies of the Hay Williams family rather than a twenty-first-century coach party. The elegant drawing rooms just ahead are connected by doors that can be opened up to create one wide room, big enough for Lady Sarah and her daughters to hold a musical soiree or even a small dance.

Because of the cliff face on which the house is built, dining is on the floor below. And below that that are the gardens themselves. Only when you get down onto these lawns does it become clear quite how much the hotel resembles a French chateau, a little touch of the Loire with a South of France garden.

All 27 bedrooms are quite distinct. If you have been lucky enough to book one with a chateau-style turret, you can sit all afternoon in those cosy window seats and divide your time between a good book and a beautiful view.

Bodelwyddan Castle near St Asaph in the north of Wales is operated by Warner Leisure Hotels.  Warner owns 15 hotels in Britain that specialise in child-free accommodation. This estate – originally a genuine mediaeval castle - offers 228 rooms, 12 of them in the castle itself as well as 45 garden lodges in landscaped grounds that overlook the Clwydian Hills. (There are also eight royale rooms, 96 signature rooms and 87 standard rooms in the grounds.). It’s a large complex with nightly entertainment and dancing in its Lowther Hall.

Dinner is served in the St David's Restaurant which can accommodate up to 400 guests. The original castle was built around 1460 by the Humphreys family of Anglesey as a manor house. It was later owned by the Williams-Wynn family for around 200 years from 1690. Sir William Williams was Speaker of the House of Commons from during the reign of the newly restored King Charles II. Having gone through many transformations – including brief time as a Greek Revival style temple – Bodelwyddan was then reconstructed between 1830 and 1832 by Sir John Hay Williams (of Chateau Rhianfa fame). Sir John employed the architect Joseph Hansom (inventor of the Hansom cab) to refurbish and extend the house in its current castellated style.

Today guests are free to wander 260 acres of Victorian parkland and dine on a number of themed evenings. Monday is Tex-Mex, Tuesday and Saturday are the Taste of Italy dinner menu, Wednesday and Friday are Taste of Asia dinner menu and Thursday and Sunday Taste of India. Book your three-night stay carefully you can enjoy the very best of Bodelwyddan Castle. 

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