Dyfi estuary, Wales (review published 2009)

You know you’re staying somewhere classy when even rock gods are turned away for having the wrong attire.
Led Zeppelin star Robert Plant suffered this indignity at the hands of Joan Reen, general manager and erstwhile owner of Ynyshir Hall in west Wales.
Joan recalled the story to my wife and I during a wonderful weekend at the multi-award-winning hotel, on the south side of the Dyfi estuary.
”One winter’s night,’’ she said, ”an old Volvo roared up the hotel drive and a guy jumped out with a long mane of wild, curly hair.
”He wanted a room but he was dressed, well, rather casually. There was no one booked in at the time so I told him we were closed and sent him away.
”My son had seen the man approach reception from his room and came rushing down the stairs. ‘Don’t you know who that was?’ he said.  ‘It was Robert Plant!’
”I had no idea.’’
Luckily, Robert, who owns a property nearby in Artists Valley, returned to Ynyshir Hall and has been a regular visitor ever since, taking great delight in teasing Joan about the incident.

Saturday Extra travel piece

Ynyshir Hall
Hollywood heart-throb Richard Gere almost became the second A-lister to be turned away.
Richard was about to start filming his 1995 Arthurian flick First Knight in south Snowdonia and speculation was mounting in the Welsh media that he would be staying at Ynyshir Hall.
”The Press were determined to find out where Richard would be staying during the shoot,’’ recalled Joan, ”but we were equally determined to keep him safe from any unwanted attention.
”The day he was due to arrive, we were rushing round making sure everything was perfect when two scruffy guys came through the door. I guessed they were reporters looking for Richard.
”I went over with the intention of getting rid of them as fast as possible. Then one of them took my arm, looked into my eyes and said ‘Hi, I’m Richard Gere’.
”That’s when I found out what it means to go weak at the knees. Even though I wasn’t a fan and had never seen one of his films, his charisma hit me like a sledgehammer.’’
Joan said she had ‘’two magical weeks’’ hosting parties for Richard (Lancelot) Julia Ormond (Guinevere) and all the Knights of the Round Table.
”But we had to keep it a secret, which was very hard.’’


Ynyshir Hall
Far from the madding crowd, Ynyshir is the perfect hideaway for celebrities and other famous guests have included The Duke of Kent, comedian Eddie Izzard and newsreader Trevor McDonald.
But Joan admitted that she doesn’t always recognise them.
”When you’re running a hotel seven days a week, there is no time for the cinema and very little time for watching television,’’ she said in her defence.
Perhaps the most famous person ever to pass through the doors, though, was before Joan’s time.
Ynyshir was once owned by Queen Victoria, who put much effort into establishing the gardens, with many of the trees she planted still there today.
Victoria loved the abundance of birds on the estuary side of the estate and this land is now in the care of the RSPB.
Joan is married to Rob, a painter with several one-man exhibitions to his name. In the early 1980s, Joan was teaching geography and Rob art at a school in Buckinghamshire. Nearing their 40th birthdays, they decided on a career change.
”Our first idea was to buy an old property in the country and run art courses,’’ said Joan. ”Rob would do the teaching and I would play hostess and cook.’’
In time, they concluded that it wasn’t a very viable business proposition and decided instead to buy a hotel and run the art courses as a major feature.


Ynyshir Hall
”It had to be a beautiful house in a lovely position. We then spent over two years searching for the right place and had almost given up hope when we found Ynyshir Hall. ”We had a feeling right away that it was special. When we first went up the drive we were enchanted, despite the overgrown gardens and air of neglect.”
They finally moved in in July 1989.
”We knew very little about running a hotel,’’ Joan admitted. ”We didn’t even know how to get a gin from an optic. But we had to learn very quickly.
”The owners had promised to stay on for a few days to show us the ropes, but we arrived at noon and they had left by 1pm. So it was really ‘in at the deep end’.’’
After 12 months at the helm, Joan and Rob became so fascinated with the hotel trade that the art courses took a back seat, then disappeared altogether.
But Rob casts his artist’s eye over the entire decor. His vibrant paintings, which hang throughout the house, are inspired by the natural beauty of the surrounding landscape.
Each of the hotel’s nine rooms and suites are named after a famous artist and the paintings on the walls have been created in the style of the artist.
The decor in our suite for the weekend, the Matisse, was a jaw-dropping blend of pink and jade with a brass bedstead and sumptuous bedspread.
The windows faced the Cambrian Mountains, which we climbed for panoramic views of Cardigan Bay, the Dyfi estuary and beyond to Snowdonia.
The land that surrounds Ynyshir is among the least polluted in the country and has been designated a Biosphere Reserve by UNESCO.
This fact is not lost on chef Shane Hughes, who sources almost all his food from within a few miles of the hotel.
Head chef Shane Hughes and view from Ynyshir Hall
After one of the most creative and truly satisfying dining experiences of my life, Shane explained to me how only the freshest ingredients were used.
”Herbs, salads, fruit and vegetables are grown in the hotel’s walled garden and we gather mushrooms, wild garlic and wild wood sorrel from the surrounding woodlands,’’ he revealed.
”Our local fisherman brings seabass and prawns from Cardigan Bay while the lobster, caught in Borth, just a five-minute drive away, is the sweetest you will ever taste.
”Our butcher, in Aberystwyth, sources all his meat from local farms.’’
It’s no wonder that the restaurant held a Michelin star for six years.
Ynyshir has also garnered many of the highest accolades in the business, including ”best hotel in Wales’’ and ”best country house hotel in Britain”.
So Joan and Rob may have been ”thrown in at the deep end” but they were quick learners.
Joan said: ”The secret of our success is simply dedication and stamina. Ynyshir is our home, our business, our passion and our life.
”Our philosophy is to create a haven from the stress of modern life. Beautiful surroundings, fine cuisine and wines, and most of all a warm and pampering environment.’’
Ynyshir Hall is just over two hours from Birmingham but it feels like a million miles away.
Ynyshir Hall is in Eglwysfach, near Machynlleth, Powys. For more information visit the website

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