A stay at a country house hotel always puts me in mind of JG Farrell’s literary masterpiece Troubles. Set in a crumbling country house hotel in rural Ireland, it charts the decline of the hotel against the upheavals caused by the Irish War of Independence. The politics might be the real point of the novel, but the parts I love describe the decaying grandeur of the hotel: a palm court overrun by exotic plants; herds of stray cats roaming the corridors; a crazed proprietor; and the omnipresent group of old ladies who have taken up permanent residence in the hotel.
It was with these scenes in mind that I sat in the taxi taking me from the station at Llandudno Junction up the road to Bodysgallen Hall – my place of rest and relaxation for the weekend. It’s not that I would necessarily prefer to find my destination in an advanced state of decay and besieged by locals, but variety is the spice of life and we all need a bit of excitement every now and then.
The early omens were promising. As the taxi turned off the road and up the steep and winding drive to the hotel’s front entrance, I could have sworn I saw a cat in the distance, and the hotel’s Gothic outline, silhouetted against the gathering gloom, did lend a certain atmosphere to proceedings. Consequently my hopes were high as I opened the heavy wooden front door, but as I had secretly suspected all along, these were dashed almost straight away.
There were no cats and no eccentric owner prowling the corridors. Instead I was pounced upon by a very friendly young man named Gareth who seized my bags and propelled me in the direction of the efficient lady behind the reception desk – not for nothing is Bodysgallen Hall the AA’s Welsh Hotel of the Year.
A smidgen over three hours from London, the hotel is in North Wales, perched above the surrounding countryside; midway between the famous Victorian seaside town of Llandudno and the walled, medieval town of Conwy, and within striking distance of Anglesey and Snowdonia National Park. Well placed for those wishing a strenuous weekend of climbing mountains or a less strenuous time of it, exploring Conwy and taking afternoon tea in the hotel’s magnificent drawing room.
Originally a private house, the oldest part of the hotel dates to the 13th century, although there have been significant later additions – notably in the 17th and 19th centuries. This long and jumbled history is evident straightaway: nooks and crannies, staircases going up and down, rooms on different levels and the surprise of that first floor drawing room, which is almost the size of a tennis court. Now owned by the National Trust, it has been sympathetically restored and modernised in a way that retains the essential charm of what is a very old building.
Our comfortable bedroom fulfilled all the requirements you might have when staying in such a place: four-poster bed; chintz curtains; historical prints; and a pair of writing desks. But alongside these were some you might not: to my great delight the TV was hooked up to Sky Sports, which meant I could get up at three in the morning to watch England beat India in Mumbai (don’t judge me, I was actually in the stadium the last time they won there!).
After Gareth had deposited our bags, I was tempted to recline on the four-poster and imagine myself as Robert Wynn, the 17th century owner of Bodysgallen, whose coat of arms above the drawing room fireplace features the severed heads of three Englishmen! Instead a brisk swim in the hotel’s pool was required to set me up for dinner. The restaurant at Bodysgallen is in receipt of three AA Rosettes and a glance at the menu shows the head chef and local boy, Michael Cheetham, has lofty ambitions, so I wanted sufficient appetite to do his cooking justice.
There’s been a bit of a foodie backlash against fine dining, but you wouldn’t really expect anything less in a smart 17th century country hotel. An immaculately presented starter of pork belly with Morteau sausage, braised cheek, lardo and choucroute was a pint-sized Franco-Italian hymn to the pig, and a salad of locally caught lobster and scallop with mango and chilli showed decent touch from those behind the stove.
My main of peppered duck with beetroot and onions was lifted from run of the mill bistro fare by a stupendous pie made with the meat from the confit duck leg. The pastry was shorter than Danny DeVito and the meat inside was sticky, dense and rich – I could have managed several of these and dispensed with the duck breast altogether. Across the divide, fish of the day was a locally caught fillet of sea bass with samphire, salsify, spinach and a beurre blanc. All very nicely cooked and seasoned, but at £30 a plate that constitutes the bare minimum of one’s requirements.
In spite of the undoubted quality of dinner, which I had rounded off with an excellent banana parfait with dark chocolate ice cream and toffee popcorn, my favourite meal at Bodysgallen was breakfast. I can’t think of many finer views to enjoy while eating a full English (or Welsh?) than that from the dining room overlooking the gardens: past a tall cypress tree, on to Conwy Castle and then to the snow-capped mountains of Snowdonia in the distance. Perfect fodder to set you up for a day exploring all that this stretch of North Wales has to offer. We decided against Llandudno’s seaside charms for a day spent clambering around Conwy: exploring the castle, wondering through the streets, and taking in Plas Mawr, reputedly this island’s finest extant Elizabethan town house.
For my sins I am a Londoner these days and consequently rely on two rather than four wheels to get around, but a car really would be an advantage and allow you to roam far and wide. However, if you are marooned at the hotel, there are over 200 acres of gardens and grounds to explore. I can thoroughly recommend the twenty-five minute walk up to the obelisk on the top Pydew mountain behind the hotel. From here, the views across to the Irish Sea and inland up the Conwy valley were even better than those from the dining room; memories that buoyed the spirit during that three hour trip back down to London.
A break at Bodysgallen Hall starts at £260 for dinner, bed and breakfast per night for two people sharing a room. So not cheap certainly, but when you consider the quality of accommodation, the excellent food, friendly staff, those views, and the absence of cats and eccentric owners, it starts to look a very attractive option for a weekend break.