Trees, trout and a tandem make for the perfect short stay:
Once called the ‘’glittering jewel of the Vale‘’, Crickhowell is indeed a lovely little place. But the real gem of the Usk Valley is Gliffaes Country House Hotel, a few miles north of the town, set just above the river in acres of beautiful grounds.
Local friends having enthused about Gliffaes, and knowing the surrounding area well, we couldn’t resist the invitation to get away from London and head for the Welsh hills to experience the place for ourselves.
Along the A40 from Abergavenny, passing through (a non-glittering) Crickhowell, you reach the turning for Gliffaes. A short drive from the main gates, the first impression of the hotel is of an imposing Victorian block of local sandstone, romantically augmented by two Italianate towers.
Stone-chilly from the outside, inside, the house was as warm as the welcome. This was a grand old house certainly, but a homely place. This is the great achievement of the proprietors James and Susie Suter (the house has been in Susie’s family for generations) who have put their heart and soul into Gliffaes and are sharing it with their guests.
Some of the 23 bedrooms overlook the lovely gardens with an impressive cedar tree dominating the view. The outlook from our room, the former library, was of the meadow leading down to the river, in full spate after recent heavy rains, the lush-looking fields on the opposite bank leading up to the bare moors on the hilltop.
A couple of rooms have a small balcony, and with windows opened wide, the rushing sound of the river in the near distance and clouds scudding across the blue sky, it would be hard to tear yourself away, but tear you must, for a good look around the lovely grounds and a walk by the river.
The impressive range of trees which adorn the gardens date back to the early 1800s when the owner, W H West, laid out the lawns, paths and borders, and in common with many of his contemporaries planted a number of exotic trees brought from around the world. My favourite of the arboretum walk was the majestic Cedar of Lebanon, 100 feet of stately elegance rising from the lawn, but the ancient English oaks and giant redwoods were equally impressive.
Back at ground level, the way down to the river was strewn in places with thousands of sweet chestnuts still in their hairy cases, like so many green Tribbles, and spectacular but red-for-danger fly agaric mushrooms. The river was a brown torrent, swollen by a heavy downpour of rain, white horses rushing where the water hit hidden rocks.
On calmer days, the fishing here (trout and salmon) is excellent and the hotel has its own fishing beats (and for breakfast, they’ll even cook you the one that didn’t get away). For non-anglers, the hotel can lend you a couple of electric bikes – or even a tandem – to explore the area (we managed to resist the temptation).
It’s W H West’s son we have to thank for today’s hotel: luckily for us in the 1880s he spent the fortune he inherited on building the Gliffaes we see now. Not so lucky for him sadly – short of money, he didn’t live in it much and eventually had to sell it – but he left us many gorgeous views to enjoy.
The building he created has lots of space for comfortable relaxation: outside on the terrace on a warm sunny day, inside the conservatory on a cool sunny day, or in one of the soothing, traditionally elegant sitting rooms. These have fine plastered ceilings, contemporary works of Welsh art and are well supplied with large, sink-into sofas and open fires.
Summer activities include croquet on the lawn and afternoon tea on the terrace overlooking the valley. Whatever the weather or season, summer warmth or autumn chill, Gliffaes has the right atmosphere to match.
Before dinner at Gliffaes, guests gather in the bar to enjoy a drink while studying the excellent menu. This features dishes made with produce sourced locally (even the tap water comes from Gliffaes’ own spring). The Wood Pigeon starter caught my eye in particular because it was served with corned beef which had been turned into a light pate – not something you see very often on a menu; it was a great complement to the gamey pigeon breast. The crab and Welsh Ale tartlet with its light crust was another good choice.
For the main course, an Assiette of Lamb, a trio of cutlet, confit and crispy heart, was all I’d hoped for, prettily garnished with a crisp, pink and white target of candied beetroot. The Goat’s Cheese served with butternut squash, sweet chestnuts (from the hotel grounds perhaps), mushrooms (not the fly agaric from the grounds, thankfully) and lentils was a tasty, seasonal delight. The cheeseboard was a must because it had my favourite Welsh cheeses, Brie-style Perl Wen and Stilton-like Perl Las; and it was an excuse to have a glass of good port to go with it.
Afterwards in the sitting room, with coffee or Welsh whisky in hand (the Penderyn Madeira is recommended), the atmosphere was convivial and those strangers in the dining room became friends you just hadn’t met yet.
Breakfast the next morning was excellent (scrambled egg and locally smoked salmon was artfully presented to be the closest thing to sunshine on a plate) with an impressive sideboard of juices, cereals, jams and pastries.
One couple told us they’d been coming to Gliffaes for 30 years and it was easy to understand why. Gliffaes is the perfect place for a short stay; there are things to do if you want to, and nothing you have to do, if you don’t want to; sitting and reading is just as good as fly fishing. With a range of historic sites and the bleak drama of the Brecon Beacons nearby, there’s plenty to explore. But you should really stay for a few days, one night just isn’t enough to do it all justice.
Reluctant to check out, we took a last walk around outside, drinking in the air and the beauty of the gardens. We were sad to leave so soon but did so with very good memories and looking forward to another visit – after all, there’s still the tandem to try…. Gliffaes Hotel
Tel: 01874 730 371
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