Stay in Wales at Llangoed Hall, fit for a Queen

Llangoed Hall is a right royal venue for a weekend retreat.

It's not every day you're greeted by two vintage Rolls-Royces parked outside the driveway of your aristocratic hideaway hotel.

"This one is 'the Queen's car' because it was used by the Queen Mother and features in the film The King's Speech," says Calum Milne, pointing to the left.

"But we can't call this 'the King's car'," he continues, beckoning to the equally splendid Roller on the right. "King George VI was still the Duke of York when he drove it."

Llangoed Hall is one of those special British venues, and its managing director, Scots-born Milne, is both passionate about this Welsh retreat and an incorrigible name dropper who can't help mentioning celebrities he has entertained over the years.

(Look, he says, over a sumptuous dinner of local fare served in Llangoed's Whistler Room. "Here's a photo of me with Theresa May.")

This is a tad disconcerting. He's just told our entire international media group that Prince Charles hires Llangoed for one week every year "to relax".

Diana, Princess of Wales, visited but never stayed overnight, he continues, though Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, has. So have William and Kate, Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, whose letter of appreciation he points out in the entrance hall.

Presumably security is good, because on his guided tour, Milne also boasts about how many Middle Eastern potentates come to Llangoed – with their falcons and their thoroughbred horses.

The late King Fahd of Saudi Arabia, for example, was here, booking out the whole hotel for just himself and a couple of guests, Milne says: "These people come to relax and behave normally." As you do.

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By now, you'll have realised Llangoed – so close to Hay-on-Wye that it has played host to many of the main speakers at Britain's leading annual literary festival, including Bill Clinton – is a rarity.

Though a hotel, it masquerades as the kind of 1930s aristocratic weekend retreat most of us only experience through an Evelyn Waugh or PG Wodehouse novel.

"You'll note we don't have a reception desk," Milne points out as he begins the guided tour of the house and its extensive grounds – including rose gardens, duck ponds, chicken coops, fruit trees and vegetable patches (most of the food served at Llangoed is either from the property or sourced locally).

That's because it was reinvented after 1989 when the ruins of the property were purchased by Sir Bernard Ashley and his more famous wife, Welsh design icon Laura Ashley.

"Laura was the designer, but Bernard was the entrepreneur," says Lord Elis-Thomas, Welsh minister of Culture, Tourism and Sport over an afternoon tea of sandwiches and scones – served on "gold rose and butterfly" bone china – in the library.

(Ever felt you're in a game of Cluedo, and likely to be murdered by lead piping at any moment?)

Like the Ashleys, the minister admired the architecture of Clough Williams-Ellis, who in 1922 transformed Llangoed from a 17th century Jacobean-style mansion into an Edwardian-era country house.

But it was "a ruin, with cows grazing where we're sitting today" when the minister ("call me Dafydd") first visited in the 1980s.

The Ashleys never lived at Llangoed, but they rebuilt it. Laura designed most of the decor (though only one room with her original wallpaper remains today) while Bernard supervised the reconstruction and chose most of the paintings.

And what an art collection it is: Whistler lithographs, works by Augustus John and Walter Sickert, and a superb Welsh landscape by Dame Laura Knight outside my bedroom.

Talking of bedrooms, mine is enormous and exquisitely furnished, with period antiques – though I later discover it's one of the smaller rooms. (No four-poster bed?)

Still, after a pre-dinner local Welsh gin and a delicious four-course dinner prepared by chef Nick Brodie (Llangoed has been rated as one of Britain's top 50 restaurants by the Good Food Guide for the past two years), I slept well.

Though most people come to Llangoed to chill out, there's plenty to keep the adventurous busy. The Brecon Beacons are one of three National parks in Wales - and the training ground of Britain's elite SAS troops, with magnificent walks and challenging peaks such as Pen y Fan. Horse-riding, clay pigeon shooting, archery, falconry, caving and mountain biking can all be arranged locally, while the Wye river (which runs 400 metres from the hall) is excellent for canoeing and fishing. Star gazing is another pursuit worth exploring via Llangoed's house telescope; the region has been designated an International Dark Sky Reserve.

Consider a visit, too, to Big Pit National Coal Museum, a working coal mine from 1880 to 1980, where former miners take you deep underground to experience the harsh lifestyle that forged South Wales.

But this morning I'm on a mission of my own - to get down to breakfast before the rest of my party is awake. Milne had mentioned some of his hens lay blue eggs. Since I've never seen a blue egg before, Im determined to try one. "Could I have a blue egg, soft boiled?" I ask the waitress who seems surprised to see anyone, and even more surprised to receive my request.

The egg, when it arrives, is suitably blue, and soft boiled. But, to be honest, it tastes like any other fresh egg. When I mention that, the waitress says, "You know you can buy blue eggs in most supermarkets now?"

TRIP NOTES

FLY

Qatar Airways is the first international airline to fly to Cardiff (via Doha) from Australia. See: qatarairways.com

STAY

Llangoed Hall rooms start from £175 a night. See llangoedhall.co.uk

DINE

Non guests can book lunch and dinner in advance, but arguably the best meal to sample is the delicious afternoon tea, served from 12.15-5pm each day.

TOUR

Brecon Beacon Tours (breconbeaconstours.com), run by geoscientist and mountain leader James Cresswell, comes highly recommended for geological and astronomical adventures. The Big Pit National Coal Museum is at Blaenafon, Torfaen (museumwales/bigpit).

MORE

traveller.com.au/wales

visitwales.com

Steve Meacham travelled as a guest of Qatar Airways and Visit Wales.

 

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