the bell (note the corporate lower-case letters) at Skenfrith, Monmouthshire could easily be overlooked. You need to know it’s there and it’s worth the drive down a few country lanes to reach – although some guests have been known to arrive by helicopter. It’s a restored 17th century coaching inn and was in a state of deep dilapidation when it was rescued from total ruin by William and Janet Hutchings. The work has been extensive but it’s been so sympathetically executed that original features have been retained and there is a sense of architectural continuity and harmony. This charming traditional white building nestles by a stone bridge which straddles the river Monnow – whence comes the name of the county.
the bell was re-opened in 2001 and already has an enviable reputation. Visit Wales has awarded the bell Five Stars and they are well deserved. There are polished black flagstone floors in the bar and restaurant areas and the open log fire is a draw in the winter months for those returning from an invigorating walk.
This is a popular region for ramblers and the bell provides a selection of maps for those who want to take advantage of the spectacular scenery. Plenty of history just a few yards away in the village of Skenfrith which boasts the remains of its very own castle. It’s one of the Marches Castles which were strategic Norman fortifications built in the 13th century.
Those aforementioned walkers can take the opportunity to toast frigid toes by the fire, whilst the sofas beckon loungers who might prefer to pass some time with newspapers or a good book. Outdoor sorts and the rest of us might have stayed the night, in which case we will be refreshed from a good night’s sleep in one of the eleven delightful bedrooms. These rooms are far from the rubber-stamp spaces that one finds in those famous hotel chains – one wakes to the same wallpaper and curtains in Paris as one does in Prague. Here each individually-designed bedroom is furnished with tasteful antiques and pictures. There are thoughtful touches such as a jar of biscuits (cookies) and even a little something for a nightcap. All bathrooms are en-suite and sumptuous. Ours was marvellously appointed and piled with fluffy towels, bath robes and the high-end toiletries that one would hope for in such an agreeable establishment – worthy of stealing. The view over the garden at the rear was beautiful, with a tree, bare of leaf but hanging with mistletoe, taking pride of place on a cold February afternoon.
The organic kitchen garden was established four years ago but it is expanding to provide even more produce for the head chef Rupert Taylor. He studied in Bath and his first position was at Homewood Park as commis chef to Gary Jones (now executive head chef at Le Manoir aux Quat’ Saisons). There Rupert was part of the team that gained three rosettes and a Michelin star. Rupert left to join Royal Crescent Hotel in Bath and then on to Heston Blumenthal’s Fat Duck. From there he went to work for Jamie Oliver at his Fifteen Restaurant in Cornwall and then took a “gap year” to travel the world. He loves snowboarding and surfing but returned to join the bell.
Rupert’s Modern British cooking uses mostly locally-sourced and seasonal ingredients, some of which have travelled only a few yards. He liaises with Michele Civil, the bell’s organic kitchen gardener. She is a transplanted Yorkshire lass who bubbles with enthusiasm for her organic fruit and veggies. Her produce has helped to win two AA Rosettes. The kitchen garden has been featured in ITV Wales’ ‘A Little Piece Of Paradise’.
The food is some of the best in Wales. The menu isn’t long but offers something for every taste. Rupert, Michele and the proprietors William and Janet, know the butcher and the folks who dive for scallops; they work closely with other vegetable growers. Your plate will be full of delicious and seasonal fare and the presentation is guaranteed to be outstanding. Yes, one eats with one’s eyes but these dishes are to be savoured. A meal at the bell should be lingered over.
We settled ourselves on a sofa by the bar and enjoyed an amuse-bouche while we contemplated the food menu and the outstanding wine list. We nibbled pork gougons, herb straws, demi-tasses of soup and savoury bites. Ideal to accompany an aperitif. There is even a local vodka so do try a tot of that.
In 2008, William finally achieved his dream of a walk-in wine cellar to house his considerable stock of wine, champagne and cognac. These are all at very reasonable prices per bottle but there is a good selection of more than a dozen wines and champagnes that one can enjoy by the glass. One could create one’s own wine flight without breaking the bank. William’s passion for wine is not just a passing phase: he asked for a subscription to Decanter magazine on his 12th birthday. He was apparently influenced by his uncle who headed the Fine Wine department of Harvey’s of Bristol.
I ordered the Scallops with Chorizo as my starter. The salt of the salami contrasted with the sweetness of those morsels of seafood. Rupert has an eye for imaginative yet apt presentation. My guest chose Mackerel which, although not exactly local either, was a good representation of the finest of British seafood. We have such abundance around our shores that it’s a shame to export it to mainland Europe. Let’s enjoy it at home.
I had expected something exceptional from Rupert and the main courses did not disappoint. My pork dish was a visual and epicurean stunner. The loin was pink as a baby’s bottom and the confit was as tender and flavourful as I have ever had. Quality meat treated with respect allowing its natural flavour to take centre stage.
My companion was wooed by the Brecon beef. A sirloin cooked just rare – blushing but not oozing red. The mini steak-and-kidney pudding was proclaimed a triumph. Once again Rupert shows confidence, skill and humour, and the proof of the pudding was indeed in the eating. A signature dish if ever there was one.
Dessert had the very un-Welsh pineapple as its key ingredient. Pain Perdu (OK, so it’s eggy bread) with roasted pineapple and a fromage frais ice cream was excellent. The fruit and bread element would be simple to replicate at home and the ice cream is well worth trying if one has access to an ice cream maker. Subtle yet memorable.
They are civilised at the bell. They offer breakfast from 9am, but earlier by arrangement. This isn’t motorway services offering food on the run. One is cosseted, pampered and lulled into a cosy and content stupor here. Wander down to breakfast when you have enjoyed the papers and an early morning cuppa in your room. Try the cooked Welsh breakfast along with some toast and Michele’s homemade blackcurrant jam. Take a jar home to remind you of a couple of days of secluded bliss, some gentle exercise, a glass or two of outstanding wine, a night in a four-poster and the chance to read that best-seller by a real fire. One visit will never be enough.
Directions from London
Take the M4 over the new Severn Bridge as far as junction 24. Then take the A449 to Raglan, where it turns into the A40 to Monmouth, through the tunnel and straight over the lights. at the roundabout, take the first exit left. At the traffic lights, turn right onto the Hereford Road. Travel out of Monmouth for approximately 4 miles and turn left onto the B4521 towards Abergavenny. the bell is 3 miles on the left hand side.
the bell at skenfrith
Phone: 01600 750235
Fax: 01600 750525
Visit the bell here
Hotel and Restaurant review by Chrissie Walker © 2018