Few Americans venture past the traditional tourist destinations of Britain – London, Bath, Oxford, Salisbury, Cambridge and such, to enjoy the wonders and beauty of the hidden gems of the British Isles. A simple train ride away, there are many wondrous locations in Britain waiting to be explored.
One of those diamonds in the rough is Abergavenny, Wales. Located in Monmouthshire, this small community of 10,000 brings warmth and charm to anyone who visits. Like Rome, once you’ve visited, you’ll want to return again and again.
Situated at the mouth of the River Gavenny, this comforting community is a market town, with roots dating back 5,000 years. The Romans settled here, as did the Normans, who built the town’s magnificent castle, today a wonderful place to take a stroll and enjoy its medieval architectural embellishments. A truly peaceful place to relax and unwind.
On Tuesdays, the community comes to life with the livestock market, but on Fridays, Market Day is awash with vendors in stalls selling everything from antiques to food and clothing. It’s a great place for antique hunters with a good eye to browse for bargains.
From Abergavenny, you can enjoy a wide range of outdoor activities, ranging from river cruises to mountain trekking in the glorious Brecon Beacons – a range of low mountains renown for their majesty and natural beauty. Be sure to make a side trip up to the Brecon Beacons Visitor Centre, for a most exceptional vista across the Welsh landscape. Golf, biking, ballooning, hang-gliding and parasailing, pony trekking and fishing are among some of the local activities.
While there are many hotels in Abergavenny and environs, we found the very best to be the Angel Hotel, in the heart of the community. The Angel is perfect if you plan to stay in town only and ideal for shopping and as a base for close-by activities. The Angel is outstanding, with excellent service and a superb breakfast – one of the best we had in Britain. Its restaurant is exceptionally attractive, comfortable and the food superb. Manager William Griffiths and his wife (who comes from California) run this grand Georgian-style establishment. Great for in-town dinner too!
Just outside Abergavenny in South Herefordshire, the truly exceptional Allt yr Ynys (pronounced “alt ur in-es”) is both a hotel and restaurant. Starting as a grand old Elizabethan manor, it has grown into a 21 room inn, with a Jacobean 4-poster suite that’s a must-stay for honeymoons or special occasions. The restaurant at Allt yr Ynys serves the finest food you can imagine, putting many of London’s best eateries to shame. It is nearly impossible to find anyone who wouldn’t adore this food, and its comfortable setting. The hotel’s lounge is the perfect place for pre-dinner cocktails or after-dinner coffee and liqueurs. Suitable for romantic or business stays, this inn is one of our world-class favorites.
Our old friend Shaun Hill, who created the first Michelin-starred restaurant in Ludlow – the Merchant House, has turned his magical hands to the Walnut Tree Inn, located 2 miles east of Abergavenny. Partnering with William Griffiths, the pair produce amazing results in this historic local favorite. If you love great food and small country inns, this is an ideal place to visit, whether for a delectable meal or relaxing, care free and restful stay in Ivy Cottage – more a home than a hotel.
In September, Abergavenny hosts its Food Festival, one of the world’s finest gastronomic events and a must-visit for any gourmand. Indeed gourmands from around the world travel to this event, making Abergavenny into a multi-cultural, international center of food arts. This multi-day event is a wonderful way to explore the bounty of Welsh and international culinary delights under one roof.
If you can’t make it to the Abergavenny Food Festival, then try to schedule a weekend visit to coincide with the Farmer’s Market in the nearby village of Usk, held on alternating Saturdays. When we visited, our palates were impatiently awaiting the pleasure of the extensive range of enticing, new flavors. Be sure to look for the Cider – more than 20 varieties of ciders ranging from light and bubbly (similar in flavor to the finest champagnes) to sweet and intoxicating. Who knew cider could be so exciting? Local cheeses, charcuterie and breads compliment the diverse range of foods produced regionally. Keep in mind, Wales is well know for lamb and outstanding venison. It was here, many years ago we discovered the concept of “food with an address”, a philosophy we have embraced at Epicurus, wholeheartedly.
Nearby you’ll find McBlain’s of Usk, a quaint but superb shop selling fine wines and the finest selection of cheeses we found anywhere in Britain. Discover the glory of English sparkling wine, a potentially strong competitor for French Champagne, with a lighter, brighter sparkle, in our humble opinion. McBlain’s specializes in some of the region’s exquisite cheeses. Keeping in mind that Usk is only a matter of miles from some of the best cheesemakers in the British Isles, it becomes clear why this is THE place to go for your cheese tray.
Overall, a visit to Abergavenny is, in our humble opinion, an absolute must for anyone who enjoys life, good food, outstanding wine and comfort. We’ll be back, many times to visit old friends and make new ones among the warm and gracious citizens of Wales.