Take a trip to Mid-Wales this winter
PUBLISHED: 00:00 23 November 2016
A trip to mid-Wales in the festive season, can be a seasonal tonic, writes Martin Pilkington
Contemplate a trip to Mid-Wales in December or January and it’s possibly the countryside that springs to mind. Thoughts of strolls around the shores of Lake Bala or Lake Vyrnwy may mingle with visions of the Cambrian Mountains and beyond them the Dovey Valley. But gentler, more sensual pleasures abound there too, for those who prefer the great outdoors in the warmer months.
If it’s the sensual you seek then it’s hard to imagine a better place to look than the recently-opened Palé Hall Hotel near Llandderfel, north-east of Lake Bala. ‘It was a four-year-project to prepare the hotel,’ says General Manager Pim Wolfs. ‘The owners Alan and Angela Harper bought the hall as a house to live in, but a friend convinced them they should actually operate it as a hotel. Alan and Angela contacted the brilliant chef Michael Caines and they began to work together to open the most fabulous country house hotel in Wales - and we think the best in Britain in a couple of years!’
Their immediate aims are five star status with Visit Wales and the AA, followed eventually by a Michelin star. Caines is behind half the dishes on the menu, with the rest the creation of Head Chef Gareth Stevenson (late of Abode in Chester), who having worked previously with the maestro shares his love of seasonal and local ingredients.
Amazingly, just 10 miles south from Llandderfel is another establishment whose many aficionados would make a case for it being the finest country house hotel in Wales. The Lake Vyrnwy Hotel has been around since 1890 too, and over more than a century has made comfort a fine art – and of course has famously good fishing.
If all that luxury living leaves you in need of some mental stimulation then a visit to the Museum of Modern Art [MOMA] in Machynlleth, established in 1991 alongside the Tabernacle performing arts venue, could be in order. ‘Throughout the year the galleries – we’ve seven exhibition spaces now - show contemporary art, featuring leading artists from Wales,’ says Curator Lucinda Middleton. ‘Many of the works of art are for sale, and we also exhibit pieces from the important Tabernacle Collection.’
Through December and into January art lovers can enjoy shows by a range of noted figures including wildlife painter Terence Lambert and ceramicist Christine Gittins, plus in the foyer gallery there’s a selection of original works by Welsh artists like Ian Phillips, specially chosen to make Christmas gifts.
Equally Welsh gifts to satisfy actual rather than intellectual hunger can be found at the beautifully restored Talgarth Mill, near Brecon. ‘We do bags of our flour, and our bread making kits are very popular at Christmas - great for under-a-fiver presents!’ says Liz Rose, who manages the mill, ‘And our spicy fruit loaf kit won a two star Great Taste award this year.’
The mill is a big success story all round, reclaimed from dereliction five years ago thanks to a hefty grant from the Lottery. The BBC Village SOS programme filmed the site through a year of the rebuilding work, which brought fame and visitors aplenty. ‘Initially we concentrated on the visitor side, but the milling that we started in a small way in 2011, done by volunteers, has become more important to us. We source as much locally as is practical, like our organic bread flour made with grain from Bwlch,’ says Liz. The less adept may prefer to buy bread and cakes from the mill’s shop and cafe.
Nothing goes better with bread than cheese, and with a little luck or planning visitors to the region could find some from a rather unusual source – the narrowboat of the Borders Cheese Carrying Company. ‘We buy our cheese from selected suppliers, like Snowdonia Cheeses, and Caws Cenarth, and travel to rallies, festivals and other events,’ says Sue Cameron, who runs the Machynlleth-based company with husband Ade, whose great-grandfather as a Shroppie flyman regularly had cheese as his cargo too.
Given the size of their patch, however, it’s not guaranteed you’ll bump into them: ‘We travel all over the area, on the Llangollen Canal, the Shropshire Union pretty much from Birmingham to Chester, and The Trent and Mersey, we do the whole length of that right down to Nottingham and up to Liverpool through Cheshire,’ she says.
After bread and cheese the third element – wine - of what the French call the trinity of the table is a must. Kerry Vale Vineyard is a member of the Welsh Vineyard Association, on the Welsh Wine trail and this year won best wine in the Welsh Vineyards competition, although officially it’s in Shropshire: ‘We’re in a hamlet called Pentreheyling which can only be accessed driving through Wales,’ explains Nadine Roach, whose family owns the 6-acre vineyard on the site of a Roman fort. December is a hectic time for the business, with the vineyard shop and cafe open until the weekend before Christmas, and hampers made up of local products – really local in some cases like the honey from across the road - being prepared.
Bread, cheese and wine, does it get any better? For those lucky enough to visit the Palé Hall or Lake Vyrnwy hotels we’re guessing ‘yes’.