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A long weekend in Hay on Wye is just the thing for a cultural fix, some healthy hiking and loads of good veggie food to boot!

We arrived on a Thursday night and found a warm welcome at The Start B&B, easily located on the far side of the town bridge. Advised that restaurants often stop serving around 8.30, we didn’t have time to linger, but quickly found ourselves happily ensconsed in the Three Tuns, about 2 minutes away. It claims to be the oldest pub in Hay on Wye, dating from the 16th century and the lopsided walls, tiny doors and old fireplaces certainly had plenty of character. We went for the bar menu of a goats cheese, spinach and red onion pizza and a tomato and basil linguine, which were both excellent, the pizza having a wonderfully ‘Italian’ light crispy base.

The next morning at the Start, a full cooked breakfast complete with home-made veggie sausages really hit the spot. Fruit, cereal and yoghurt were freely available. We were glad of a good feed as we planned to do some hiking that day, and as the weather didn’t look too bad, we set off.

Leaving our car in Pandy, about 11 miles from Hay, we climbed the Black Mountains to the top – a high climb, but at this point not too steep. From here you get a rare sense of wilderness, as the views are of mountains all around. The Brecon Beacons lie next to the Black Mountains and the stunning vista really cleared the mind and brought a sense of perspective.

At the end of our day’s walk we had a steep climb down, and with aching legs we were very glad to be able to hitch a friendly lift back to our car. Hungry from the walk, we decided an early dinner was in order and stopped at the Skirrid Mountain Inn in Crucorney on the road back to Hay. This popular spot was fairly full already, but we found a table. The oldest pub in Hay yesterday and now the oldest pub in Wales – the Skirrid dates back to 1110! Not surprisingly then, it also claims to have a ghost or two and a certificate by our table officially confirmed the existence of paranormal activity! Fortunately, we saw nothing out of the ordinary and tucked happily into a nut roast and a spinach and red pepper lasagne. Even though this was not the most imaginative selection (a strogonoff was also available), the food was good and satisfying after our active day.

The next day we spent relaxing in the town, and yes, shopping in the second hand bookshops! The Hay Cinema Bookshop has been running in the old cinema since 1965, the first of the big bookshops in town, and could keep a serious bibliophile happy for days. It certainly kept us happy till lunchtime, when we carried our purchases to the Granary for lunch. It was bustling, with all the tables outside in the sun occupied. We were happy to get a large table inside with room to peruse our books and enjoy a good selection of vegetarian options. We went for a buckwheat and courgette bake with new potatoes and salad, which had good rounded herby flavours.

We did some more pottering around the shops in the afternoon – blister plasters were one essential purchase, and the weather was so warm that we simply had to stop for an ice cream in Shepherds. Often voted as some of Britain’s best ice cream, it is made from sheep’s milk and we certainly loved the ginger and the rum and raisin flavours!

(c)Anne O'Connell

Shepherds

When we tried to book a table for dinner that night, we discovered that Hay gets booked out on a Saturday night! Finally we arrived at the Swan and got a table, even managing to warn the chef that a couple of vegetarians would be in that evening. The Swan has been beautifully refurbished and the bistro gave an impression of space, despite there being several groups of diners. This did leave the room lacking a little character and the service was rather eccentric. However, I have to say that the food was excellent. A sweet potato and courgette ‘lasagne’ turned out to be a bake of wafer thin sliced vegetables pressed together. It was imaginative and delicious, but despite the fact that I was dying to know, I couldn’t face asking our waitress to find out how it was done! My husband’s spinach and ricotta cannelloni, while less intriguing, was also very good. This was gourmet food in a rather unlikely setting. The portions were also large and we unfortunately had to skip dessert.

The next day we set off early for more hiking, with a kindly offered lift from our hosts to the starting point of our day’s walk, the Llanthony Priory. This intriguing place is a hotel set amongst the ruins of a 12th century priory against the striking backdrop of the Black Mountains. The bar looked very cosy, but we were sadly too early for a fortifying cup of coffee. A couple of other walkers who had stayed at the hotel told us it was a fabulous place, with gorgeous bedrooms, especially in the tower. We’ve noted this fact for possible return visits!

The climb up the mountains from here is steep, but there were quite a few other walkers around to share out-of-breath consolations. Once again the top of the mountains felt other-worldly, as we could see little other than mountain tops and sky as we walked along the ridge. It’s impossible to lose your way on this route, but we were glad of some excellent weather. At the end of the ridge is Hay Bluff, a popular spot for day trippers and from here we could see back into the town, although to those of us who were walking, it seemed a long way away! We finally did make it back and treated ourselves to some lovely cake and a large pot of tea back in the Granary.

That night we planned to have dinner at a film night in the Globe, an arts centre and café, but the promised film had not arrived and the replacement seemed a rather violent offering for over dinner! So we headed instead to the Blue Boar pub, a place that had caught our eyes earlier as having a good veggie selection. My husband had cashew and parsnip roast with mushroom sauce, a tasty concoction with good earthy flavours. My preferred choice wasn’t available (the story of the evening!), so I opted for the Glamorgan sausages. I was a bit concerned that this would be a bit like repeating my breakfast order, but as the ‘sausages’ turned out to be more like ‘cakes’, I figured this was ok, and decided that the misnaming of dishes must be a Hay speciality.

On our last day and before our trip home, there was just time for more bookshops. I picked up some presents and enjoyed a good browse in Murder and Mayhem, a shop specialising in crime novels, with a unique take on shop design – there’s the outline of a body drawn on the floor! We had lunch in Oscar’s bistro, a sunny and lively spot with a good veggie selection. We opted for a spicy and delicious sweet potato and red pepper soup and a lentil salad.

Then just before it was time to head home we found time for afternoon tea in the Old Stables Tea Rooms. This wonderfully old fashioned tea rooms claims to be Hay on Wye’s best kept secret, yet judging by the excellent reviews and good food accolades on display, that’s not a very well kept secret at all! And it was all fully deserved as the scones, cakes and tea were all top notch!

We headed home then, having spent four whole days without having a bad, or even a disappointing meal. If you love books, you’ll love Hay on Wye and if you’re a vegetarian who loves books, you’re going to have a very good time indeed!

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