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BR-thMy wife, Nina, and I are inveterate hikers, always on the lookout for a vacation locale where we can explore our natural surroundings on foot and retreat at day’s end to an elegant inn with fine food, an attractive room, and a comfortable bed.


By Sol Hurwitz


beyond-big

 

BR3My wife, Nina, and I are inveterate hikers, always on the lookout for a vacation locale where we can explore our natural surroundings on foot and retreat at day’s end to an elegant inn with fine food, an attractive room, and a comfortable bed.


Our most recent search took us to the coast of mid-Wales and Ynyshir Hall, a historic manor house once owned by Queen Victoria, who used it as a hunting lodge and hideaway, designed its extensive gardens, and planted many of its trees. The house is located on the Dyfi Estuary in the tiny village of Eglwys Fach, midway between Aberystwyth and Machynlleth and seven miles from Cardigan Bay.

 

It’s a setting of stunning natural beauty, ideal for hikers and bird lovers. Its neighbor is Britain’s second largest bird sanctuary, the 1,000-acre Ynys-hir Nature Reserve, a ten-minute walk away.


We arrived at Ynyshir Hall in mid-afternoon and even before unpacking headed for the reserve, a vast expanse of woodlands, wetlands, and grasslands. We took a pebbled path bordered by rhododendrons and hydrangeas, which merged into a wooded trail leading straight to the reserve. From the visitor center, we followed a 1½-mile circular trail that begins at a salt marsh and ends with dramatic views over the estuary. We are not experienced birders, and, aside from a robin and a few gulls, we were unable to identify the many birds we saw. To remedy that, we had made an appointment for a walk the next day with a knowledgeable guide.


We awoke the next morning to a pounding rain, assuming our walk would be canceled. “Oh, no,” the inn’s receptionist insisted. “He goes out in all weather.” Wearing our hooded slickers, rain pants, and waterproof hiking boots, we met our guide, Bob Relph, “With the weather, the birds have probably hunkered down, so this might be a light day,” he warned. In fact, he identified more than two-dozen birds during our three-hour walk.


BR-2As we set out, Bob instantly recognized a blackbird flying across our path. Then, hearing a call, he announced, “a curlew, I can’t see it, but it’s a curlew.” Further along, we saw a bird with a bright orange breast and a flash of white on its gray wings. “A chaffinch,” Bob noted, “quite common around here.”


For relief from the incessant rain, we stopped at a “hide” or shelter with commanding views over the estuary, where we spotted grey herons, herring gulls, egrets, and oystercatchers. Back on the path, Bob identified a lesser redpoll, a siskin, a martin, a warbler, a tree creeper, and a swift, which, according to Bob, “stays in the air, feeds in the air, even mates in the air, and never touches ground.”


A jovial man in his late 60s, Bob had been a French horn player in London’s Philharmonia Orchestra. After retiring to Wales, he became a bird expert and a devoted conservationist. Waving goodbye to Bob, we realized that his engaging anecdotes and commentary had made us all but oblivious to the pouring rain.


The current owners of Ynyshir Hall are Joan and Rob Reen. Joan is the general manager and steeped in the house’s history. “Parts of the house date from the 15th century,” she told us, “and Queen Victoria’s ownership is well documented. It’s not a myth.” Rob is an artist who has put his personal stamp on the interior décor with paintings of his own inspired by the area’s scenic landscape. In the dining room, large heads of sheep, in bold orange and blue oils, line the walls, which are tastefully decorated in matching orange and blue colors. Each of the house’s nine rooms is named for a famous artist (we stayed in “Goya”) and designed in the artist’s style.


Ynyshir’s Hall’s award-winning restaurant makes full use of fresh local produce, as well as fish and shellfish from Cardigan Bay, and lamb, chicken, and beef from local farms. Its 36-page wine list is exceptional. The inn is part of the Relais & Chateaux network and draws an international clientele, including a growing number of Americans. During our stay we met families from Chappaqua and New York City.


Excursions to the charming towns of Machynlleth and Aberystwyth are a must on any visit to Ynyshir Hall. En route to Machynlleth, we detoured to “The Dyfi Osprey Project” where an osprey family inhabits one of only four known osprey nests in Wales. A boardwalk took us through meadows lush with tall, pink clusters of rosebay willow herb to an observatory from which we could see the ospreys and their fledglings. A webcam records the ospreys’ movements, which are live-streamed to schools throughout Wales. We felt proud knowing there are three osprey nests in Rye alone: two at the Marshlands Conservancy and one at the Edith G. Read Wildlife Sanctuary.


Machynlleth, a market town with a distinctive clock tower, was the seat of the first Welsh parliament in 1404. We stopped at the Tabernacle, a neoclassical former Methodist chapel, which is now home to the Museum of Modern Art. Fittingly, it featured bird photographs by a local nature photographer. We then walked north to a trail along the Dyfi and Dulas Rivers that offered views over Machynlleth and the surrounding countryside.


In Aberystwyth, we followed the curved shore of Cardigan Bay to Constitution Hill from whose summit we enjoyed sweeping views of much of Wales’ coastline. In town we visited the intriguing Cardigan Museum, housed in a former theater and cinema, whose collection of 40,000 objects illustrates the history and culture of the local population. A steep climb from the city center took us to the National Library of Wales and the campus of the neighboring University of Wales overlooking the city.


On our final day we stayed close to home to take full advantage of Ynyshir Hall’s extraordinary gardens and trees. Rob Reen showed us the oldest tree on the property, a 400-year-old English oak, and the Persian Ironwood, which Queen Victoria herself had planted. “It gets its name from the bark which resembles rusted iron,” Rob said.


From the garden, Rob pointed to the Cambrian Hills facing the house. “You should have a walk up there,” he advised. “There’s a high hill called ‘the Foel’ and from the top you’ll get spectacular views of the entire area.” He told us that Robert Plant, of the former rock group Led Zeppelin, has a house there, and the hike to the summit inspired him to write ‘Stairway to Heaven,’ one of the group’s most famous songs.


We leaped at Rob’s suggestion. A short walk from the house’s driveway led us to a waterfall cascading from the Einion River. A nearby sign to “Artists Valley” pointed to a path to the Foel’s summit. After a 20-minute uphill hike on a trail that parallels the Einion, we reached flat terrain, where we had captivating views of the Dyfi Estuary and Dyfi River, the Cambrian Hills, and tiny villages nestled in the valley. We were near the top of Robert Plant’s “Stairway to Heaven”— threatening thundershowers prevented our full ascent — but high enough to appreciate the glorious landscape that inspired him.

 

Perhaps we’ll touch “heaven” on our next visit.

 

— Photos courtesy of Rob Ayres


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