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Wonderland of hidden treasures

By Exeter Express and Echo  |  Posted: September 19, 2013

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AT the blue hydrangeas you can turn left or right. The right takes you along a grassy corridor, with shrubs and flowers your walls. Then you'll come to a cross roads – the right hand path leads into a tunnel of trees and bushes, straight on is a radiant pine. If you continue here, you'll find yourself ducking under the low horizontal bows of a Persian Ironwood planted by Queen Victoria.

Here, another corridor will escort you to a wide lawn with a weeping willow, your feet may be damp now from the dew, and you will see a wild meadow patch and a swampy quarter with gigantic leaves massing out. A stoney path will lead you into a glade where you will find a magnificent old oak keeping watch over the hills beyond. A wooded path skirting the fields will guide you back to the hall, through a young orchard, to the spongy soft green lawn which gently rolls away as if the Queen had shaken a huge velvet cloth and let it settle.

Ynyshir Hall will make you day dream and her history, demeanour and setting will invoke an Alice in Wonderland anticipation.

We had come to sip tea in the warm late afternoon, early September sun, and had brought books to read in the gardens, but they remained unread – instead we listened. Here, nature still has the upper hand.

We woke each day to the shrill whistles, the chirrups, the fluttering of a multitude of birds, the light rush of wind in the trees – and a mole wreaking havoc with the lawn outside our French windows.

And Ynyshir Hall will make you laugh – within its understated, elegant white walls, is an explosion of colour, a decor of spice and zest effortlessly blended with the charm of bygone eras, Tudor, Georgian and Victorian features throughout – but ask co-owner Joan Reen to show you which is which.

Her husband is Rob a distinguished artist whose dramatic and evocative landscapes of the Welsh hills and their most popular inhabitants (there are around nine million sheep in the country) decorate throughout.

The pair have owned the house for 24 years, they followed keen horticulturalist and conservationist William Mappin who acquired the hall in 1928, and whose granddaughter still visits.

Each of the 10 rooms is named after an artist whose style has inspired their individuality, all have their own guise: playful, romantic, seductive, mellow. And all are sprinkled with thoughtful touches. There are also two stunning, newly converted suites, inspired by Chagall and Miro, whose style and decadence will take your breath away. We stayed in the studio, I giggled when we wandered in. Cate, head receptionist extraordinaire, pointed to the iced water and the brandy, and the walk-in wardrobe. The bed is the kind you never want to get out of and the shower the kind you never want to turn off. I woke in the middle of the night pondering how one acquires oneself a hall. Then realising how silly I was being, my thoughts turned to how I could possibly smuggle the deliciously sumptuous bed out at least?

Joan explains there was the option of doubling the rooms: "There was no way we wanted to do that," she tells me. "The whole point is its intimacy, making our guests feel like individuals, giving them all attention. It's bespoke."

Cate works out which room will suit the guests. "There are those who come back again and again and like a different room each time," continues Joan. "But there are others who have their favourite rooms. There is one lady who always stays in Hogarth, we rang her before we redecorated it, otherwise she would have returned and wondered what we'd done to her room without telling her!"

Mr Mc too started rambling as we brought our tea cups in: "I could call this my second home," he mused.

The estate used to include what is now one of the RSPB's most revered reserves taking in both woodland and the estuary. In 1966 Mappin sold 1,000 acres to the charity who will forever preserve the land he loved.

There are various walking routes that wind through the reserve. We wandered through thick, sweet scented forest alive with the chatter and play of small birds. The path opened out and meandered towards the marshland, the ground became moist as we walked alongside ferns and wild grasses to the next hide where a mass of reeds ought to have been disturbed by wallowing water buffalo as we waited for the elusive pintail. The still of the estuary air was only broken by the gurgle and gulp of water fowl coming in to land clumsily on the liquid runway, their paradise. Along the road towards Aberystwyth is the Artists Valley. Veering off, rising steeply, a narrow lane undulates through a towering forest, dipping down to the valley floor and mounting up again and again through the trees, eventually emerging into an enchanting crease in the mountain layered in pastures and evergreen woods. This, says Robert Plant, Led Zeppelin vocalist and resident (who waved to us as we passed) is the Stairway to Heaven.

The other way out of the hall, towards the quaint town of Machynlleth, where the mid-week street market had us eating Sri Lankan food, buying woven bracelets and fabric, is the Dyfi Osprey Project. For several years a male osprey has returned to his nest here from spring to autumn. From the hide through binoculars we saw two fledglings, with their thigh-high white boots, guzzle fish and prepare for their astonishing journey back to Western Africa for the winter. And here, in the marshes, water buffalo wallow.

A short drive up the road is Coed-y-Brenin mountain bike centre, maintained by the Forestry Commission. Last year we tackled the Beast, a 40km route, the severest of them all. This time we took on the 20km Twar trail. We decided not to embark on another, not wanting to miss out on afternoon tea of hot freshly baked Welsh cakes and Bara Brith loaf back at the hall.

But, and I have saved the best until last, Ynyshir Hall is proud to have as its head chef, Gareth Ward, a food genius, a culinary wizard, a gastronomic artist who uses yeast as a flavour and throws 'Canadian icebergs' onto spiced porridge.

We dined on his 10-course menu with tasting wines. Each dish an intricate, edible sculpture. He introduced himself to us with a miniature oriental garden, a delicate miso soup, followed by a deconstructed mackerel BLT, with a light sweet rosé.

The crab, with sweetcorn shard and coriander pureé, was accompanied by a mellow white and the hay and salt baked carrots, goat's curd and hay ash came with a zingy white with coconut hints.

Next, and reminiscent of an artist's paint pallet, came the king prawn with ham paté and buttermilk. The lamb sweetbreads lay on an deliciously oily ragu with cockles, samphire and slivers of radish – sips of red now.

Starters over, the Middle Eastern lamb barbecue with fresh folds of cucumber, salty sausage beetroot and a hint of mint, only made the oohing and ahhing more prolific. Now, we went for the optional cheese plate, cheddar and blue cheese, which had the intended impact at this point in the adventure. Lager and lime jelly was next with a fresh, tangy ice cream, and a sweet dessert wine. A creamy dollop of soft rice pud, with fresh blackberries from nearby hedgerows followed, with a wood sorrel granita. A walnut whip, Gareth's childhood favourite, was up next, the aero-like chocolate melted in our mouths and found solace with a gooey mallow whip and Merlot vinegar reduction. We were compos mentis enough to notice that there was an 11th course, a yeast porridge concoction with aforementioned icebergs.

"The best way to eat it is to run your spoon right through the middle so you get all the textures and flavours together," says Gareth as he throws the icey sorbet like hail stones over his creation. "The dishes are supposed to flow, to invoke emotions and memories," he says.

They do, and with a tear in his eye, Mr Mc tells Gareth how his iceberg finale reminded him of home and I think I may have seen a tear in his eye too. With this passion, the 32-year-old chef is a hidden treasure within the treasure that is Ynyshir Hall.

For more details visit www.ynyshirhall.co.uk or phone 01654 781209; www.visitmidwales.co.uk

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