Coming from London it feels like a weird fantasy: a hotel on the main road of a market town – a town with restaurants, bars and shops blossoming out of the stonework of every street – but one where your bedroom window has a view of the Brecon Beacons, and you wake up to the sound of birdsong, rather than traffic.
Here at the Swan on Hay, on the edge of the Beacons and just edging over the border into Wales, it’s not a fantasy. It’s just what happens on a winter break, in a town best known for its summer festival season. Come outside of the peaks (the Hay Festival in summer – and to a lesser degree, its little sister Winter Weekend Festival), as we’ve done, and it’s a quiet place that still crams a lot of independent bookshops, butchers, eateries and pubs into its handful of narrow streets.
With all of that to offer, it’s impressive swagger on the part of the hotel’s new management – it was acquired in 2015 by Llangoed Limited, who count nearby Llangoed Hall among their portfolio of hotels – to think they could improve on the existing Swan. It’s swagger with just cause, though, as the newly reopened Swan at Hay’s seen a £1 million refurbishment of its 19 bedrooms and a redesign of the Garden Room restaurant and the bar – the Lion Street Gallery nearby providing the artwork, and local potter Pauline Patterson supplying beautiful, bespoke crockery. And the Swan’s new look comes with a kitchen directed by Jerry Adam, a head chef who could turn a hotel with far less going for it than the Swan into destination dining appealing enough to lure guests from a distance.
So this would make for a romantic break at any time of year, but there’s something about being here in windswept weather that feels like we’ve timed it just right. Hay on Wye’s good at fireplaces, every pub we stop in with a log-burning stove and chairs drawn up near. It’s never raining hard while we’re here, just the softly wet skies and heavy clouds you expect in mid Wales, in midwinter. This is still weather you could ruggedly hike through, and the Brecons are still beautiful and defiantly green in light rain.
But the beauty of Hay on Wye as a winter break is that, unlike other towns of a similar size, there’s a lot more to explore than just the confines of your hotel – though the Swan has enough sofa-filled rooms and relaxed nooks for drinking that you could easily spend a winter weekend in your bedroom, in the bar, restaurant, garden, living room and your free-standing bath (a perk of the suites) without ever feeling claustrophobic. We compromise, halfway between sticking entirely inside the Swan’s walls and doing anything really intrepid, with evenings spent at the Swan’s restaurant and bar – and their opening night launch party – and the days spent exploring the town.
A lot of that exploring centres on the bookshops, obviously: you can’t come to Hay and not dip into some of the almost-40 scattered through the town, ranging from travel specialists to secondhand and antique book dealers. But for those hunting out a gourmet break, the town has a lot to offer. We try the tapas at Tomatitos, with Welsh slants creeping into the Spanish menu – best of the dishes the baked Ragstone goats’ cheese with caramelised onions, proving against all the odds there’s a way to improve on plain, uncooked Ragstone itself. And wishlisted for future visits are River Cafe, with their spot on the banks of the Wye, Shepherds Ice Cream, selling sheeps’ milk ice cream in flavours like damson or chocolate and hazelnut from their shopfront in Hay, and the Hay market day, with local producers setting up stalls scattered through the town centre.
The second and last night of our stay we’re booked for dinner in the Garden Room restaurant, a burst of deep red furnishings and candlelight. It’s an appropriately grand background for the new menu from Jerry Adam – one that starts with startlingly good, homemade brown soda bread and whipped pork fat, takes in the surprisingly-textured tenderness of venison with the nutty crunch of pumpkin seeds along the way, and would merit a visit to the hotel on its own.
We go to bed full, content, and slightly dazzled, fall asleep to silence, and wake up to birdsong.
The Swan at Hay is now open again for guests, with rooms starting at £115 per night including breakfast. The dinner menu from Jerry Adam in the Swan at Hay restaurant is £40 a head for a five course dinner with extra surprise dishes.
Swan at Hay, Church Street, Hay on Wye, HR3 5DQ. 01497 821188. For more information, including details of events and packages, things to do, rooms and dining, visit www.swanathay.com.