Special Offa: the mild side of north Wales

Pembrokeshire, Snowdonia, the Brecon Beacons … Wales is not short of dramatic holiday destinations, but in a year that has seen more drama than anyone would want, a less show-offy spot seemed called for – and one that would not be teeming with staycationing Brits.

There’s probably nowhere in the UK more soothing than the historic county of Montgomeryshire, now the northern bit of Powys, bordering Shropshire. Bristling with castles and crossed by Offa’s Dyke, it has, like many border lands, a turbulent past, but the epithet most often applied is Mwynder Maldwyn, the “mildness of Montgomeryshire”. Both people and landscape are known for their gentleness – an alluring prospect for townies feeling ragged after months of worry and home-working.

It may not have dramatic countryside, but it felt very different from the rolling English fields we drove through to get here, with sheep-dotted knobbly green hills above twisting valley floors, and quiet, winding roads linking small villages and the odd market town.

On a hill between two of these valleys is 17th-century Cefn Farm Cottage, converted into a holiday let this spring – just before lockdown – by sheep farmers Dee and Rob Williams, who live a welly’s throw away on the other side of the wooded ridge.

Dee’s directions detailed sweeping bends, five-bar gates and piles of silage bales. “I’ve left the cottage open – just make yourselves at home,” she texted.

Cefn Farm Cottage Wales

Cefn Farm Cottage interior. Photograph: Nesta Lloyd.

The house, built of rough stone and with a slate roof, had no electricity or running water until the mid-20th century, and I felt briefly guilty, contemplating our relaxing break, about the hard lives of most of its previous occupiers. The conversion adds modern comforts to Welsh country character, such as wirelessly controlled central heating and stylish touches like fairy lights over the huge inglenook fireplace.

On the first floor are two bedrooms and a bathroom – all with lots of exposed wood and light flooding in from original windows neatly extended across the eaves into skylights. Downstairs has another loo, a spacious kitchen with high-end fittings, including a new range cooker to replace the old solid fuel Rayburn, and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the terrace and large, lawned garden. There’s even a wine fridge in a lobby by the utility room. A flowery standard lamp in the small dining room and chintzy sofas in front of that inglenook keep things feeling cottagey.

It would be possible in these cautious times to hole up here and socially distance, parking the car in the small orchard and leaving it there. On our first day we walked from the cottage on footpaths into Bryngwyn woods and Glan-Frogan woods, admiring views of the Vyrnwy and Cain valleys to north and south, then returned to the cottage to open a bottle of wine and feast on platters ordered in from nearby Welshpool. Restaurant and deli The Cornstore is, at the time of writing, open only at weekends for dining in, but does grazing platters, homemade soups, desserts and even Sunday lunch for takeaway or delivery.

Other eating possibilities include the Townhouse just back over the English border in Oswestry, where part-owner Carly has added a heated outdoor “arbour” with pizza oven to increase the restaurant’s Covid-safe spaces, and the option of a private dining room at Just3Drops in Llanfair Caereinion, run by former Harrods chef Ruth Kempe.

gothic revival tower on Lake Vyrnwy in autumn

Lake Vyrnwy ‘would not look out of place in Switzerland’. Photograph: Jason Hornblow/Alamy

On other days we walked sections of Glyndwr’s Way, the 135-mile mid-Wales trail that passes through Meifod, three miles to the south. We also made trips to Welshpool, with its picturesque one-mile footpath to the National Trust’s Powis Castle (pre-booked admission only), and the pretty Georgian county town of Montgomery.

The one bit of drama in these parts comes at Lake Vyrnwy. It’s actually a reservoir – created in the 1890s to provide water for Liverpool, 60 miles away – but with its bowl of forested hills reflected in bird-kissed water, and gothic revival tower jutting from its eastern end, it would not look out of place in Switzerland. It was alluring enough even under grey skies to tempt us into tackling an eight-mile hike with lofty viewpoints and several waterfalls. We were on our way back, but still a good two hours from the car, when occasional drizzle turned to horizontal rain that tested even good-quality boots and waterproofs to their limit.

Dee had warned us that conditions might be a bit “pants” that day – I now know that can mean getting soaked to your underwear – but it gave us a good excuse to light the inglenook’s woodburner and gently steam ourselves before it. Montgomery may be known for mildness, but Wales’s dramatic weather applies to all corners of the country.
Accommodation was provided by Cefn Farm (boo through airbnb), which sleeps four from £120 a night

Four more new rural hideaways in Wales and borders

Scandi-style eco cabin

Scandi-style eco- cabin

In the upper Swansea valley, The Cabin at Fforest Hill is a cosy one-bedroom space with outdoor camp kitchen (gas hob and barbecue), hot tub and cabin bathroom metres away, with hot shower and flushing toilet. It sits on the edge of woods overlooking a meadow, and the interior is cosy, with log fire, writing desk and coffee machine. Up the road are the 27-metre Henrhyd Falls, and Ystradfawr nature reserve.
From £60 a night, airbnb.co.uk

Forest of Dean loft

Forest of Dean loft

As a lockdown project, owner Hannah used her redundancy payment to create this suite in quaintly named village The Pludds, close to the Wye Valley Area of Outstanding Natural beauty. It sleeps four in two bedrooms, with bathroom and basic kitchenette, plus a patio with hot tub, barbecue and pizza oven. Continental breakfast supplies are provided. There are e-bikes or inflatable canoes (for use on the Wye, 10 minutes’ drive away) to rent, and it’s great afterwards to sit on the patio, where owls call, bats whizz by and the Milky Way can be clearly seen – this is a dark sky area. Wildlife includes beavers, kingfishers, deer, wild boar and a group of 18 pine martens recently released as part of a rewilding project.
£110 a night, airbnb.co.uk

Glamping @ 68° West, Brecon Beacons

hut at Glamping @ 68° West, Brecon Beacons

With views of the Brecon Beacons, Black Mountains and Crugg, what was a traditional caravan site in the village of Cradoc is being glamped up by new owners with these modern, half-cylinder log cabins. The pods sleep two adults and two children and have a well-equipped kitchenette and decking area (one has its own hot tub). Toilets and showers are in a separate block just steps away. There are walking, mountain biking and horse riding trails nearby, caves to explore, and a historic canal. The town of Brecon, with markets and independent retailers, is just over two miles away.
From £145 a night, 68degreeswest.co.uk

Retreat to your ‘cave’, Llyn Peninsula

living room ‘cave’, Llyn Peninsula

With its colourful cushions and artwork, there’s a Moroccan feel to this new one-bedroom ground-floor apartment a 10-minute walk from the huge sandy beach at Abersoch. The open-plan living areas has a sink, mini-cooker, fridge, kettle, toaster and nespresso machine, and the double bedroom has an en suite shower. The enclosed garden is dog-friendly and shared with the upstairs flat.
From £80 a night, airbnb.co.uk


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