A Weekend Retreat: The Grove
My discovery of 2012 was Pembrokeshire’s Preseli Mountains. They may not be as high as the Brecon Beacons, nor as steep and expansive as the peaks of Snowdonia (you could walk across them in an afternoon), but the Preselis have a magic of their own.
From the path that runs along their spine, you can see both sides of the Pembrokeshire peninsula, giving the unusual sensation of walking through rugged uplands while also being surrounded by water. Look to the north, and in the hazy distance the mountains of north Wales seem to rise out of the Irish Sea like volcanic islands.
And all along the ridge are mysterious rocky outcrops which you can’t help imagining were the sites of strange ancient rituals. They probably were: experts believe this is the source of the huge bluestones that became Stonehenge. Nearby is a stone circle which, according to local folklore, is the final resting place of King Arthur.
After a day’s muddy ramble among the megalithic remains, it’s odd to return to the Grove, a few miles to the south, where a smartly dressed clientele are beginning to arrive for supper. Candles twinkle at the windows; high heels clatter up the long drive.
The hotel is the creation of Neil Kedward and Zoe Agar, who, in 2007 decided they wanted a change from their London jobs in project management and marketing. The couple sold their four-bedroom house in New Malden and, for the same price, bought this late-17th-century manor house, along with the 15th-century longhouse beside it. Much hard work followed – the roof leaked, the windows were rotten and the grounds completely overgrown – but in less than a year, and despite the financial crisis and some close calls with the bank, they had opened a luxurious boutique hotel. Plaudits flowed, but there was a problem. With only 12 bedrooms it was hard to make any return (“We were paying ourselves less than the kitchen porter,” admits Neil), so in September this year they completed phase two of the project – a new wing, with eight more rooms and an expanded restaurant.
Food is at the heart of the place, and despite this being wild west Wales, the cooking is modern and metropolitan. A starter of gnocchi with truffle, sweetcorn and a thin sheet of apple jelly is the best thing I’ve eaten all year. In fact, Narberth, just up the road, is building a reputation as a foodie hub, and when I visit a festival is under way, its tents filled with local producers of honey, beer, cheese and charcuterie.
Bedrooms at the Grove are big and comfortable; those in the eaves and the converted longhouse have the most character. There’s quirky arts and crafts detailing, some lovely fireplaces and cosy wood-panelled nooks. Just don’t expect the latest in interior design (there’s a tendency towards chintz and over-bold wallpaper, and the light fittings in my room put me simultaneously in mind of a medieval castle and Argos).
But, of course, none of that matters when you can throw open the window and look straight up at the rocky summits of the Preselis.
Molleston, Narberth, Pembrokeshire, Wales. SA67 8BX
Doubles from £150
Narberth station is two miles away; trains take 75 minutes to Swansea (from where there are direct trains to London). The M4 is 30 miles away
Hot holidays: New Year skiing
Excellent early-season conditions have got skiers itching to be in the mountains, and there are good last-minute deals for those willing to travel in the next fortnight. Thomson Ski has a week’s holiday, departing Dec 29, at the four-star Hotel Wengener Hof in the classic Swiss resort of Wengen.
From £1,165 per person half-board, including flights and transfers (a £270 reduction).
Snow on the upper pistes of the celebrated French resort is already 185cm deep, 70 per cent deeper than the long-term average for this time of year, according to the Ski Club of Great Britain. There’s good powder off-piste too. Alpine Elements is offering a week at Chalet Fjord, departing on Dec 30, from £895 (a £472 reduction), again including half-board, flights and transfers.
If you aren’t tied to school holidays, then the week after New Year offers the prospect of empty pistes with great snow conditions. In Verbier, Firefly Collection is offering a reduction of more than £19,000 on the five-star Chalet Kernow, departing Jan 6. The chalet, which has a sauna and wine cellar, sleeps 14. Costs £28,750 including flights for 14, half-board, transfers and a chauffeur in resort.