Britain at its best: Walking with Wordsworth in the Wye and Usk valleys
- Gliffaes is an ‘ultra-comfy’ country house hotel in the Usk Valley, Wales
- The artist and cleric Rev William Gilpin once lauded the qualities of the river Wye
- Llangoed Hall, above Hay-on-Wye, is being ‘driven to yet greater heights’
This golden spot on the Welsh side of the border with England has been called the birthplace of British tourism.
Staying at Gliffaes, an ultra-comfy country house hotel in the Usk Valley, I persuade the owner, James Suter, to take me on to the leads of the roof.
He points to the Brecon Beacons on one side, Table Mountain (outside Crickhowell, not Cape Town) on the other; brawling below us is the river Usk. ‘Fishermen love it here,’ he says.
A magnet for artists: Turner was lured by the beauty of Llanthony Priory ruins
There are so many old or unusual trees in this part of Wales that the hotel publishes a guide to them.
The artist and cleric Rev William Gilpin once lauded the qualities of the river Wye, whose loops bring it within a few miles of the Usk, and travellers who were prevented from making the Grand Tour on the Continent by the Napoleonic Wars found that it had as much scenery to offer as Italy.
What’s more, William Wordsworth rejoiced in the wooded banks and rolling waters at Tintern Abbey, towards the mouth of the Wye, not far from Chepstow.
Today, these magnificent ruins are in the care of Cadw, the Welsh equivalent of English Heritage.
For a distant view, go to the Devil’s Pulpit on the other side of the Wye: so named because of a legend which says the devil perched on this jutting rock in an attempt to lure monks away from the monastery. The cascading landscape remains much the same as how J. M. W. Turner painted it.
Not so the food: that displays a whole new order of technique.
The artist and cleric Rev William Gilpin once lauded the qualities of the river Wye (above)
Half an hour’s drive from Gliffaes stands Llangoed Hall, above Hay-on-Wye. Re-designed by the Welsh architect Clough Williams-Ellis just before the Great War, it was bought, in 1987, by Sir Bernard Ashley (husband of designer Laura Ashley), who hung the walls with Edwardian paintings and opened it as an elegant hotel.
Ownership has since changed, but some of Sir Bernard’s picture collection remains. Room seven still has its original Laura Ashley wallpaper — floral, of course.
Under a new manager, Llangoed Hall is being driven to yet greater heights, and if Nick Brodie, the chef, doesn’t win the restaurant a Michelin star, I’ll eat my hat.
Nick’s a virtuoso of the kitchen — and Llangoed has its own beehives, chickens and asparagus beds, observed by a herd of cattle in the adjacent meadows.
Walking here is fabulous. At Llanthony Priory, in the Vale of Ewyas — another favourite of Turner — we meet a girl encased in rainwear, who has nearly been blown off the top of one of the hills; she is going to make the rest of the journey to Hay-on-Wye along the road, where the only obstacle is likely to be a flock of sheep.
Hay is the book capital of Wales, if not Britain, and home to the celebrated Hay Festival in May.
It’s a quiet place at other times, where it’s all too easy to be beguiled by the antique shops selling old Welsh blankets and chandeliers.
But don’t linger too long: we got a parking ticket. I should have read the pay-and-display notice.
Well, actually, given what the poet Thomas Gray called the ‘succession of nameless beauties’ of this glorious landscape, we should have been on foot.
Double rooms at Gliffaes Hotel (01874 730 371, gliffaeshotel.com) from £125 B&B. A six-course taster menu at Llangoed Hall costs £60, with B&B doubles from £175 (01874 754525, llangoedhall.co.uk). Entrance to Llanthony Priory is free. See visitwales.com.