Review: The Swan at Hay-on-Wye, Brecon Beacons, Wales

The Swan at Hay-on-Wye signpost, cosy inn in the literary town of Hay-on-Wye, Wales
Credit: The Swan at Hay-on-Wye

Calling all bibliophiles: with book shops a plenty, cosy pubs, and riverside walks, the town of Hay-on-Wye in the Welsh Brecon Beacons is a great weekend destination

Driving alongside the Brecon Beacons National Park into Hay-on-Wye, home to the famous Hay Festival, you are welcomed by The Swan Hotel on the lefthand side of the road and a Tardis-like book shop on the right.

The earliest known reference of the building dates all the way back to 1771 but it was rebuilt as a coaching inn in 1812 and its Georgian elegance is ageing beautifully.

Located as it is in the heart of the pretty town of Hay-on-Wye, which each year becomes the centre of the literary world, the Swan at Hay, one of three hotels owned by Interesting Hotels, has seen its share of celebrity guests over the years. Everyone from revered Irish poet Seamus Heaney to Hollywood star Kathleen Turner and British comedian Johnny Vegas have bedded down here. The latter loved it so much he extended his stay.

On arrival we were warmly welcomed by Trisha at the stunning Georgian reception desk and showered with leaflets describing all of the attractions of the town – from book tours to kayaking, markets and horse riding, Hay is small but full of interest.

The Swan at Hay-on-Wye, book town of Hay-n-Wye, Brecon Beacons, Wales
Catch up on your reading at The Swan. Credit: The Swan at Hay-on-Wye

Our room was light and airy, with beautiful botanical prints on the walls and sweet little touches like books on the bedstead and homemade cookies by the kettle that made us feel instantly at ease.

After an early evening trawling the town’s book shops (and a bag of books weighing us down), we had a bite to eat and were treated to Hay hospitality in the form of local beer and Welsh song at nearby pub, Kilverts.

The next morning we had a lazy rise before heading downstairs to the Garden Room. Here we enjoyed locally sourced meat and eggs in a generous and tasty cooked breakfast served with filter coffee from a shop in Hay and all the fruit and pastry one could possibly ask for.

Well rested and well fed we headed out further past the town to the River Wye and walked along its peaceful banks, taking in the sights and sounds of the Welsh countryside and the occasional party of picnickers or kayakers we met along the way. More time in the afternoon was spent immersing ourselves in books – you really have never seen such a variety of literature as here – before heading back to The Swan for a cheeky cocktail in the cosy 1812 Bar before getting dressed for dinner.

For dinner we were seated by the spectacular floor-to-ceiling windows of the Garden Room. Our first glimpse of the food was the spectacle of charcoal bread being delivered to another table. Wafts of smoke surrounded what looked like burnt dinner rolls and I’d wager that everyone was unsure of the wisdom of this method of baking. We were all wrong – the activated charcoal rolls with salty butter were absolutely delicious and came with a side helping of perceived digestive health.

To start, I had salmon mousse and my partner went for heritage tomato and goat’s curd, both of which were intricately styled on artistic bowls made at a local kiln, and delicately flavoured. It was a lovely start to the meal. The real joy, though, came with the mains. I ordered the venison burger (made with meat from The Welsh Venison Centre near Brecon) with a beetroot bun, blue cheese mushroom and absolutely perfect chips. My partner had beef, which was simply described as ‘brisket and fillet with potato and onion’ but which delivered so much more in flavour and came with what he described as one of the best sauces he has ever tasted. We finished off with a sweet and creamy panna cotta with pistachio and gooseberry and accompanied it all with a great bottle of Malbec.

Again a great night’s sleep was followed by a wholesome breakfast. This time I went for French toast with bacon and maple syrup, which I highly recommend.

Hay is a wonderful place to visit and a genuinely hard place to leave. With so many more books to discover we will no doubt be back and we will certainly stay at the Swan again when we do.

To read more about the history of Hay-on-Wye and our favourite book shops, see Volume 85 Issue 6 of BRITAIN