‘Friend or foe?’ challenged Dave with a smile as we stepped inside his grade II-listed ex-pub. An effortless, natural welcome offered by a host sporting black-and-white chequered trousers was as warm as any we’ve known. It was especially disarming when Dave suggested a devilish 4pm Pimm’s in the lounge. Urged on by Mr Smith, I concurred. The quotidian street corner and tower of tractor tyres overlooking the neat car park don’t lend a clue as to how lovely it is inside; that’s part of the charm…
Verdant green walls, golden velvet sofas and a stone fireplace large enough to sit in (provided it’s not lit!) – make the intimate lounge all the more enticing. Mr Smith spotted an honesty bar arranged in a customised dresser that unfolds to spill its secret. So bountiful is the selection of exotic whiskies and gins, it would be hard to sample it all (together with the free mixers and juices) however long your weekend. As we nibbled on Aegean olives and freshly roasted almonds, pecans and cranberries, we were presented with the dinner menu to make our decisions for later.
Handed the key to room 4, aka William Williams (which is attached to a tasteful slab of local black slate), we head upstairs to explore. We found our suitcase waiting in our carefully curated room with a mildly creaky oak floor and mirrored black armoire. Mr Smith started humming Bread of Heaven – our room is named after the composer of the Welsh hymn – and then I noticed the words are artfully featured in a lacquered frame with a layer of gold leaf. My attentions had been hijacked by the handmade flapjacks piled high in a Kilner jar alongside a bar of Marou, Faiseurs de Chocolat Ben Tre 78%. The week’s local highlights are printed on a couple of sheets of paper and so we knew we had a ghost walk in town and some am-dram Shakespeare in the offing; but I was still prioritising the eating of that chocolate.
As dinner preparations started wafting upstairs, Mr Smith proposed a quick whirl around Llandovery to scale the stony ruins of its 11th-century castle. From its mediaeval heights, we surveyed the labyrinth of pastel, slate-roofed homes nestling beneath the fecund hills, animated by mischievous swallows and some vocal sheep. Llandovery used to be an important stop-off point for drovers taking their cattle up to London’s Spitalfields Market. Back then, it boasted a beer-swilling abundance of 50 pubs for its population of 2,000 (one inn to every 40 residents must have been jolly), so obviously the hotel has its feet firmly in public-house history. But these days Llandovery is a much more sedate affair; just a handful of taverns and tea houses remain in this town flanked by stunningly gorgeous valleys and imposing peaks.
Inspired by the town’s heritage and our drive through the Brecon Beacons, Mr Smith and I had ordered the rack of Cambrian Mountains lamb with a redcurrant and mint dressing. A large oil painting of these gambolling characters in New White Lion’s candlelit dining room kept the theme alive. Alongside perfectly juicy lamb, Dave’s co-host Kathryn presented baked courgettes, dusted with cinnamon and parmesan. Could we possibly have space for dessert? ‘Don’t worry,’ reassured Dave, ‘whatever you don’t finish, I’ll eat.’ Mr Smith consumed every last morsel of my homemade lemon curd on a crisp raspberry meringue before our host could oblige.
A night in such a comfortable bed amid the raw silence of rural Wales had even urbanite Mr Smith champing at the bit to tackle the wild country around us. Alongside my omelette of sautéed potatoes, cherry tomatoes, roast onion and goat’s cheese, Kath offered various walking routes. But, as Mr Smith tucked into Dave’s homemade granola, the skies opened. Luckily, the walk instructions are laminated for every eventuality, and we head up towards Llyn y Fan Fach. As we embarked on our Carmarthenshire adventure, I impressed Mr Smith with my Wikipedian knowledge of the 480 million years of geological history beneath our boots, a landscape sculpted by mighty glaciers and oceanic flooding. He seemed distracted by the stampede raucously descending the hill before us. What did the sheep know that we didn’t? Undeterred, we forged uphill past fuchsia foxgloves and purple thistles, luminous green moss mottled and crags poking out of the atmospheric low mist.
The Lady of the Lake, as in translates from Cymraeg, is said to have a mythical Welsh maiden lurking in it. A mysterious turquoise, Mr Smith was disappointed not to spot any watery women. More noticeable were the rare red kites: their five-foot wingspans and feathery triangular tails dominating the foreboding sky. At the nearby Llanddeusant kite-feeding station recommended by Kath, we nestled to witness whole families swoop for the offcuts of offal left by the local farmer. Even Mr Smith was impressed, capturing multiple shots on his iPhone (before noticing it was about now when the clock had struck ‘Pimm’s’ the previous day).
It was my turn to deliver us back to our New White Lion cocoon, and my navigation led us to where freshly baked parmesan biscuits and a pristine new dinner menu awaited. Kath even offered to launder our muddy walking socks as we kicked back in the lounge after the day’s exertions. So it was that we were distraught to load up the car and say our goodbyes the next morning – at least we were leaving with a couple of boxes of Dave’s granola. It felt like leaving old friends, not a boutique hotel. If only all our friends could be so hospitable, Mr Smith murmured as he started the engine.