Travel: A stay at the Laura Ashley-inspired hotel
Roger Hermiston and Eileen Wise
- Credit: Llangoed Hall
For more than 60 years her name has been synonymous with quintessential English country house style, so it’s perhaps understandable that Laura Ashley isn’t always recognized for what she really was – Welsh through and through.
It was back in 1953 that the legend of the girl from Dowlais, Merthyr Tydfil, was born. As a 28-year-old secretary, Laura lived with her husband Bernard in a cramped basement flat in Pimlico, central London. Inspired by an exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum, she taught herself how to transfer colour onto fabric, working on a silk screen built by her husband in her kitchen. Then their first order, for 20 scarves from John Lewis, set her on her path to fashion immortality.
As we set off on a road trip round Wales with the rolling fields and spectacular valleys of the Brecon Beacons all around us, we discovered something of Laura’s legacy at our first resting place, the five star, Grade II listed Llangoed Hall hotel, close to the village of Llyswen on the banks of the River Wye.
There on the wall, behind glass in the Garden Room, is something of a revered relic. It is a rather ordinary looking grey and white striped tabard (apron), seemingly mended at one point with a safety pin. This was apparently the first garment Laura ever produced in that Pimlico kitchen, the first step on her road to revolutionizing the look of British middle class homes.
Laura’s connection with Llangoed Hall comes through her husband - Sir Bernard by then - who bought this splendid Jacobean manor house not long after her death in 1985, and then opened it as a hotel in 1990. He restored it very much in her memory, with her distinctive romantic fabric designs everywhere, along with that country house style of stuffed sofas, antique furniture and beautiful pots overflowing with flowers.
Our elegant room on the upper floor, in the North Wing, certainly had an Ashleyesque feel, with rich fabrics, a deep comfortable sofa and a four-poster bed. We had needed a glass of the helpfully-provided sherry to calm the nerves after an adventurous excursion down through the expansive gardens to the river, where we had contrived to find ourselves encircled by a group of excitable young cows!
Shiona, Lllangoed’s charming manager was enthusiastic in showing us around the hotel and very proud of the art collection much in evidence throughout the hotel.
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The hotel’s artwork is quite extraordinary, ranging from huge, formal oil portraits to intimate and economical pencil sketches. At the core of Llangoed’s collection are superb paintings from the British Modern movement (1880 to 1930), led by James McNeil Whistler and his pupil Walter Sickert.
Sir Bernard envisaged an Edwardian house party atmosphere at Llangoed Hall, where guests would arrive, tired from their travels or the travails of the working world, to be cossetted by their hosts as if they were indeed friends and not simply visitors renting rooms and patronizing the restaurant.
"I want a great handsome house, classic in proportions, filled with comfortable antiques and pictures that make you linger in the gallery on your way down to dinner," Sir Bernard explained. "A house cheery with blazing wood fire in winter and where, in summer, the breeze is sweet-scented from its gardens."
At dinner, he created the modern-day equivalent of the Edwardian mix of ‘the best of British fare, supplemented by the discoveries of the Continental Grand Tour’. So a rich Comte cheese tart, tender loin of local venison and sweet vanilla panna cotta fitted that bill perfectly!
It was an hour’s drive to our next destination, the Mansion House Hotel in the pretty village of Llansteffan, home to the impressive ruins of a Norman castle sited on a wooden hill. The Mansion House itself has the most glorious position set in five acres of garden on a headland looking out over the Towy Estuary, with stunning views of the river as it wends its way down to the sea. Sunsets here are quite magnificent.
Husband and wife team David and Wendy Beaney (she is a native of Carmarthenshire) – their four children also chip in and help too - bought this Georgian house in 2012 and have lovingly restored it to its original glory, while adding a modern touch or two along the way. The local staff go out of their way to welcome you and make this a very relaxed place to stay.
All the rooms are named after Welsh hill farms and ours, Bri, in an annex to the main house, did not disappoint with a particularly comfortable bed and a super-efficient shower. We dined in the excellent Moryd restaurant (with two AA rosettes), where the highlight was the line-caught sea bass with pesto, balsamic potatoes and black garlic butter.
With the mellifluous voice of a young Richard Burton reading the classic recording of ‘Under Milk Wood’ in 1954 echoing on the sound system in our Audi, we left Carmarthenshire culturally and spiritually refreshed.
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