The Swan at Hay, Hay-on-Wye: hotel review | Travel
The dining chair had a wobbly leg, and husband was on the point of swapping it when general manager Ronan rushed up. Thinking our doubtful looks were occasioned by the chintziness of the upholstery (matching the curtains), he hastened to explain that though the hotel’s bedrooms had all been revamped, the Garden Room restaurant was still in its old incarnation. Modern, much less flowery furnishings were on order, he said, and would have been in place already but for some glitch.
Giving up on the chair switch, we sat down to dinner and any worries about seating were soon blown away by a meal – created by 28-year-old chef Jerry Adam – that will linger long in the memory.
The setting was Hay-on-Wye, whose festival is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year, and where the six-strong Interesting Hotels chain recently took over the “tired” Swan at Hay, minutes from the book-tastic town centre. There has been a coaching inn on this spot, half a mile from the English border, since the early 1700s, and this Grade-II-listed grey stone building, dating from 1812, has been treated to a new roof, repointing and a general tarting-up. Inside, big windows and wide landings speak of expansive Georgian elegance.
In our generously sized bedroom, though, we found ourselves wondering who the refurb was aimed at. Hay attracts creative types with its books, and active types with its great walking and kayaking, The likes of Stephen Fry, Bernie Sanders and Charlotte Rampling will be talking books, Brexit and Islam next month. But the room, though newly done, felt a bit home counties bungalow: lots of pink, plush repro chairs, unimaginative botanical prints on the walls. It gained points for the jug of fresh milk, squidgy choc chip cookies on the tea tray, and toiletries from Myddfai, a local social enterprise for adults with learning difficulties, but lost several for annoying and feeble wifi. (Other rooms we peeked into were not all as pink, but had flowery fabrics and winged armchairs aplenty.)
After this, fussy patterns in the dining room – which has huge original floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the lovely garden – did not jar too much. And our attention was soon all on the food. Three courses for £40 a head may sound expensive, but it’s really a seven-(small) course meal with pre-starters, amuse-bouches and other inter-coursal treats, and was of a quality and finesse that would cost two or three times as much in many big-city restaurants.
Jerry Adam, who trained under Gareth Ward at Michelin-starred Ynshir Hall near Machynlleth, is all about light and delicate things zooshed up by smoking and fermentation. Pre-starters were an oyster shell of crispy small pieces of oxtail with smoked eel dashi poured over, then a perfect 3cm of belly pork with cauliflower, pickled shallots and piccalilli purée. I’d never have thought of pureeing piccalilli, but its mustardy punch went brilliantly with the pork. My main of rare venison loin came with a slick of minneola compote, which Ronan warned was sour on its own but perfect with the meat. He was right, and the crunch of toasted pumpkin seeds made it a perfect mouthful. Chestnut and chocolate tofu with lemony yoghurt sorbet was the least sweet dessert we’d ever had, but one of the best.
We were back in the bungalow for breakfast though: ho-hum muesli and prepacked yoghurts (though good bacon in a fine full-on fry) could do with some expert attention. Adam is clearly a chef going places, but to live up to the Interesting monicker the hotel needs to be a bit more creative. And I don’t just mean fixing that chair.
• Accommodation was provided by the Swan at Hay (doubles from £85 a night B&B, 01497 821188, theswanathay.com)
Ask a local
Brent Blair, owner, Lion Street Gallery, Hay-on-Wye
To my mind St John’s Place restaurant has one of the best chefs in Wales in Julia Robson. An intimate atmosphere and beautiful, simple menu using locally sourced produce. It’s wise to book.
The Old Black Lion is a 17th-century pub with a lovely welcoming atmosphere.
One of my favourite walks is Hay Bluff and Twmpa; it’s around six miles with stunning views. Or just take a flat walk half a mile along the river bank to the Warren and sit on the small pebble beach by the Wye.
Only a 15-minute drive from Hay, Erwood Station Gallery is Wales’s largest privately owned contemporary applied arts gallery. Housed in three Victorian railway carriages, it’s great for both art lovers and walkers too, as there’s an excellent tea room.