Some staycations simply have to be done. We all have our favourite spot in Cornwall, returned to whenever the prospect of foreign travel becomes too forbidding; the Lakes and the Cotswolds, too, rarely visited by this writer, are much loved among our readership, and I have very fond memories of camping trips on the Jurassic coast, many often defining my childhood.
Prince among staycations are those often made on the hills and the coastline of south Wales; the charm of Tenby and Caribbean-esque beaches of Pembrokeshire, the bucolic bliss of the Wye Valley. These are the popular spots, and rightly so, but there are other, lesser known but no less delightful destinations, that sometimes come up from almost nowhere.
Capping off a holiday in the Gower – gorgeous Gower, if a moniker can be coined – was the decision to extend a week that flew by, giving us something else to look forward to. And, in an effort to avoid traffic on the M4, we decided to make our way back over the Severn by a far more scenic route, through the Brecon Beacons, and coming to rest in the market town of Abergavenny.
A former Georgian coaching inn, the Angel Hotel sits centre stage in the town. A porticoed entrance walks you into a lobby from which everything else defies convention. There are bars left and centre, a central courtyard to walk out to almost as soon as you’ve entered, and they even manage to tuck a ‘ballroom’ somewhere behind the lobby’s lavatories.
Far from being an architect’s idea of a practical joke, however, this makes the Angel all the more alluring. Once you’ve got your bearings, you realise you’re in a spot that brings contemporary comforts into an historic heart. Rooms are a blend of muted Fired Earth tones, with dark wood and leather furniture, dressed with thick soft furnishings and touches of opulence in gilded mirrors.
As with many fine hotels, however, it’s the little things that make it. Handmade shortbread, from the hotel’s bakery next door, individual bags of cafetiere coffee, bespoke mugs on the tea tray in the room; a welcome note with a chilled bottle of sparkling apple juice and salted almonds; the DAB set playing Radio 3 giving the room an ambience as we enter.
But it goes beyond the guest offering and enters the DNA of the building; to showcase art is nothing new, and The Angel features art about the hotel in rotating exhibitions, but it’s also commissioned a local artist to create a brand of sorts; Alexis Snell specialises in printmaking and her work can not only be seen throughout but graces all manner of details, from the coasters to the mugs on those tea trays and, of course, their logo.
Similarly, theirs is an approach that embraces and engages what the town has to offer; connections with the art gallery next door, and the Michelin-starred restaurant, The Walnut Tree, nearby. It’s a canny, holistic approach to hospitality, almost embedding itself into the fabric of the town.
And what of things to do when you’re here? Well, we’re in King Coal country, the drive in following the Heads of the Valley road up through Merthyr, right into the heart of mining territory. And just 5 miles from the Angel, high into the Beacons is Blanaevon and the Big Pit.
Wales’ oldest coal mine, the Big Pit closed in 1980, all but emptied of its seams, and three years later was turned into a museum. As we see the gradual finality of coal mining in this country, a visit here, complete with a tour by ex-miners, 90 metres down, hard-hatted and lamped up, you’re experiencing this old way of life as it is slowly eclipsed. With exhibitions through the colliery’s buildings, including the showers (though not using them), and the café in the former canteen (for miners’ fayre), it is, quite literally, living history – and, what’s more, it was the most intrigued we’ve ever seen our little nest of vipers at a museum.
We’re also on the fringes of the Wye Valley, border country, where you’re never far from a castle or two. In this case, Abergavenny’s own, a substantial 12th century fortification with plenty still intact, including an engaging museum in the Keep, and venue for open air concerts and theatre. It overlooks, too, a meadow that follows the Usk, providing a delightful walk to get one’s perspective on the surrounding seven hills of the town.
Following a day out in the valleys, with every vista worthy of an Insta snap, every street in town framed by a verdant hillside, we’d more than worked up an appetite. And where Abergavenny may have provided choice aplenty, it was the multitude of settings that proved the allure of the Angel; should we dine al fresco in the courtyard, or more casually in the Foxhunter? Since the menu works across the hotel, the choice was ours, depending on our mood, and as the mercury started to dip, we opted for the more refined Oak Room, the hotel’s main restaurant, enjoying an absolutely stunning rack of lamb on bean broth and a sumptuous peach tart tatin.
Breakfast, similarly, was a la carte – a refreshing change from the catch-all buffets so ubiquitous nowadays – and as well as all the favourites, perhaps the highlight was a sort of DIY continental, complete with homemade granola, fruit and yoghurt, and a gargantuan croissant, naturally from the bakery. From which, it should be mentioned, all of their award-winning afternoon tea confections are created.
We packed reluctantly, concluding a perfect staycation The Angel proved heavenly. It was, too, a slice of divine intervention; it took the edge off the end-of-holiday slump, breaking up the journey home and bringing us, ever so gently, back down to earth.
The Angel Hotel, 15 Cross Street, Abergavenny, Monmouthshire, Wales NP7 5EN. The Angel is a former winner of the AA Hotel of the Year for Wales, and featuring in the Good Hotel Guide. For more information, including details of their award-winning high tea and Shades of Autumn offer, please visit www.angelabergavenny.com.