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The Bell at Skenfrith, Monnow Valley, Wales

The Bell at Skenfrith“For whom The Bell
  chimes.... Monmouthshire’s
  tranquil Monnow Valley is
  the setting for the beautifully-
  restored The Bell, a 17th
  century country inn with
  oodles of chic — but with a
  very sympathetic down-to-
  earth-approach
...”


IT WAS WITH SOME TREPIDATION that on arrival at The Bell I cautiously opened the curtains of our bedroom to view the famous castle ruins where scenes of the last series of Dr. Who were filmed. Surely it would at least be sinister?

But no, instead I could swear that I could hear the faint clip-clop of the three Billy Goats Gruff as they trotted across the old stone bridge directly in front of our window. More a scene from a timeless fairy tale…

This quiet retreat has all the necessary ingredients to entice both walkers and young families to spend a few days just chilling out or taking part in more energetic country pursuits.

The very extensive makeover of this former ordinary local pub has worked superbly. So often has the imposition of 21st century safety regulations and an unsympathetic owner's ideas spoilt the integrity of such historic buildings, but here a light touch has preserved the ambience and feel whilst celebrating the comforts needed for today.

Flagstone floors, oak beams and comfy sofas in front of inglenook fireplaces are not all that is on offer. The sophisticated bedrooms, with traditional welsh blankets, are both modern and bright with free internet access and DVD/CD players. Our double-height bedroom benefited from a splendid glass chandelier with a black metal frame that tied in perfectly with the exposed roof beams.

Together with large stylish bathrooms stocked with lots and lots of fluffy towels, the whole atmosphere is one of opulence and luxury. Truly a place where you can indulge yourself to your heart's content.

We were welcomed with the most wonderful home-made shortbread, so good that ours had to be replenished whilst we were downstairs. Surely a good indication that dinner was going to be rather special.

Rupert Taylor is just one of several very talented chefs that are putting this part of Wales on the map as one of the gastronomic clusters around Great Britain. His ethos is to showcase the wonderful fresh and locally-sourced produce from both local suppliers and The Bell's own organic kitchen garden.

The results are modern dishes influenced by Rupert's travels which surely must include Morocco and his training with celebrated chefs such as the three Michelin-starred Heston Blumenthal.

Janet and William Hutchings, the owners, have also had the pleasure in exploring wines from far and wide, and it is obvious that they source them from numerous merchants rather than taking the easy options. There were many good value examples on offer including other drinks from, literally, just up the road, one of which happens to be a favourite of mine — cider.

Refreshed by lavish baths and that wonderful shortbread, we ventured down to the bar to join the walkers recovering from their bracing winter hikes by the roaring fire. Actually, the sun had shone warmly in clear blue November skies but the cosy atmosphere was nevertheless extremely welcoming.

Whilst we chose from the enticing menu we tried the local Ty Gwyn cider — a delicious, fizzy cider bursting with apple flavours made from the medieval sounding Vilberie and Brown Snout apples. Both the canapés and cider were truly historic.

The buzzy atmosphere of the dining room indicated that the restaurant was one of the most popular around; the waiting staff were put to the test and we soon discovered why. The pan-seared Cornish scallops with white chocolate were sweet, soft and with a small hint of caramel. I often like to test a chef by choosing scallops as they need close attention — just a moment of too much heat and they're lost. These were quite the most delicious slice of heaven conceivable and we thought it could not get any better… but it did.

Welsh lamb is world-renowned but my slightly pink Talgarth lamb with Moroccan-influenced spiced couscous could be cut with a fork. I cannot remember eating such delicious lamb. Tim's deconstructed tiramisu was wonderful. Mascarpone and amaretto mousse and jelly, espresso coffee ice cream with Tuile au grué de cacao — Ooh Ah! Rupert is truly innovative and talented and most definitely deserves his many awards.

There was a price to pay; the appetites of the more energetic walkers amongst us gauged the size of helpings and a misty early morning walk was the only remedy. However, after a mile up hill all the way, that walk had additional rewards: seeing a deer browsing not far in front of me; enough mistletoe to supply the whole of China; and the opportunity to listen to the babbling brooks and birdsong.

If you prefer the finer things in life, you will certainly like this warm and hospitable inn where you can relax and, perhaps, join the locals in the bar for an easy chat on where to explore.

The walkers walked but we went castle hunting — not much energy needed as this area has the rare distinction of possessing the greatest density of castles anywhere.

The Bell at Skenfrith definitely chimed for us. All-in-all a very pleasurable experience in well thought-out rooms that, while modern, respect their history along with exceptionally accomplished cooking and hearty portions; you'll always leave the table satisfied and replete. — Bonnie and Tim Stevens

The Details

The Bell, Skenfrith, Monmouthshire, NP7 8UH. Telephone: 01600 750235.

Full details at skenfrith.co.uk.

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