If you're in need of a break from hectic city life, why not spend a weekend exploring the Welsh market town of Abergavenny by mountain bike, then indulging yourself in a gastropub or fine restaurant
With epic scenery, A-list gastronomic credentials and plenty of traditional pubs, Abergavenny makes for the perfect break. Nestled between the mighty Sugar Loaf and Borlange Mountains in the Brecon Beacons, with the River Usk flowing by, few towns in Britain have such a spectacular and breathtaking setting. The town also feels pleasantly uncommercialised with many craft shops and independent cafés lining the High Street instead of the usual chain pubs and coffee-shops.
The town is quite small and it's easy to see all of the sights by foot. But, to get a feel of the area and explore the fantastic countryside, the best thing to do is hire a mountain bike. These can hired from Bike Base (Nevill Street, Abergavenny; 01873 855999) for £20 day and include helmet and, heaven forbid, a puncture repair kit. The staff are also very knowledgeable on the local area and provided maps and suggestions on where to go.
We followed Route 46 on the national cycle path east towards Bryn Mawr to Llanelly Hill, a round trip of about three hours. First stop was Abergavenny Castle. The castle, although largely ruins, is well worth a visit and dates back to the 11th century. Despite its romantic aura of Celtic legend, the castle has a macabre past and in 1175 was the scene of an infamous massacre of Welsh leaders. Among the ruins, on top of the motte, is a hunting lodge built in the 18th century by the Marquess of Abergavenny. Today it houses an interesting museum of the town.
From the castle you follow the River Usk through Castle Meadows to Llanfoist. From here you can pick up the cycle path. The path winds uphill through the Black Mountains past the villages of Govilon and Clydach, and is not too strenuous bar a couple of steep sections. On the way you’ll pass sheep grazing on the mountain side and picturesque streams and waterfalls. At Llanelly Hill, after a couple of hours cycling uphill, you’ll be rewarded with amazing far-reaching views of the Welsh hills and famous valleys.
Where to eat
Having burned a few calories mountain biking you can reward yourself in one of Abergavenny’s highly acclaimed restaurants or gastropubs. The town is a mecca for foodies and every September hosts the world renowned Abergavenny Food Festival whose guest speakers this year included Michael Winner, Antonio Carluccio, Tom Parker-Bowles and Levi Roots. The festival takes place along the high street, in the castle grounds and in the Town Hall. The Town Hall, with its typically Welsh clock tower, is worth visiting and hosts food and craft markets throughout the year.
The Hardwick (Old Raglan Road, Abergavenny, NP7 9AA; 01873 854220) is run by Stephen Terry who some may recognise from BBC’s Great British Menu. The Hardwick won the Good Food Guide Newcomer of the Year in 2007 and The Good Pub Guide Country Dining Pub of the Year 2010 for Wales. Despite winning a Michelin star aged 25, Terry’s food here is more rustic then fancy concentrating on seasonal, local produce with an Italian influence.
Also worth checking out is The Bell at Skenfrith which, in 2007, was voted Michelin pub of the year for Great Britain and Ireland and has 2 AA Rosettes. The emphasis here is on classic dishes and good local produce. Furthermore, if you're looking for somewhere special to stay it is an old converted Inn with 5 star rooms.
The Foxhunter (Dantwerry, NP7 9DN; 01873 881101), a Grade II listed building nearby, not only won AA Restaurant of the Year for Wales 2004 but offers foraging courses with a guide who then shows you how to cook your findings. This includes the set lunch (£125 for the first couple).
For the above restaurants, expect to pay around £30 to £40 for a three course a la carte evening dinner, although most offer cheaper lunchtime and set menus.
From experience the restaurant at the Angel Hotel in Cross Street is highly recommended. It features in the 2010 Good Food Guide and has an AA Rosette. The dining room is elegant and formal yet feels relaxed and unpretentious. The three courses tried were flawless. For starters a classic French onion soup with Gruyere cheese (£5.20) was well executed and the Swiss cheese significantly enhanced the richness and flavour of what could have been a formulaic soup. The sautéed Welsh venison main course (£16.40) was a delight with the venison cooked to perfection, sealed and black on the outside, moist and pink on the inside. The creamy fondant potatoes and port and redcurrant sauce were great accompaniments. A warm treacle tart with clotted cream (£5.40) was a wonderfully indulgent finish to the proceedings. The hotel is also renowned for its afternoon teas which include a selection of sandwiches, scones, pastries and cakes, not to mention wide range of teas and coffees.
The Angel Hotel was also the perfect base for the weekend with its central location on the High Street opposite the Town Hall. The 3 star hotel has a modern upmarket boutique feel with a range of rooms at different prices. The standard room at £85 was spacious and clean and good value as it includes breakfast. The breakfast served in the restaurant also has the same high standards using the finest local produce, with a range of options from scrambled eggs with Black Mountain salmon to the full English, sorry Welsh breakfast. If you fancy something a bit more luxurious than a standard room, the superior rooms (£110 for two) have been recently refurbished with Lewis and Wood fabrics, a Villeroy & Boch bathroom and flat-screen TVs. But for something a little more unique you can stay at the Lodge (£240 for four people, £150 for two) with its own sitting room and kitchen. The hotel also has two bars, The Angel Bar for cocktails and jazz on the weekends and the Foxhunter Bar. The Foxhunter Bar has a country pub feel and, with its cosy fire burning away, is the perfect place for a deserved pint of Brains beer after an afternoon mountain biking in the valleys.