by Fiona Duncan, The Telegraph, April 5, 2017
My reaction to the Swan at Hay reminded me of a conversation I had with a young Italian, here to improve her English. “I was whelmed,” she said about the film La La Land. “Overwhelmed or underwhelmed?” I asked. “No, somewhere in between… it was OK, I suppose, but boring. Why? Isn’t whelmed a word?”
Well, it is now and it’ll do nicely to describe my reaction to the Swan at Hay. I wish I could warm to it but this just-relaunched old coaching inn feels more like an ugly duckling, though with one stellar exception – the food.
Businessman Roger Hancox bought the Swan in late 2015. He already owned nearby Llangoed Hall, and now has three more properties dotted about the country, under the umbrella name of Interesting Hotels. All were in need of rescue; Llangoed Hall, formerly owned by Sir Bernard Ashley and a beautiful hotel, is very much the jewel. As for the Swan, however bad it used to be, it still managed to attract such luminary guests as Benedict Cumberbatch, Bob Geldof, Kathleen Turner and Seamus Heaney, all of whom have stayed for the annual Hay Festival. Doubtless there will be more famous faces ensconced here between May 25 and June 4 this year.
What will they make of it? There’s a fine entrance hall, once the turning circle for carriages, and a pleasant enough countrified bar, but the sitting room, with an upright piano against the wall, terrible lighting, serried ranks of boxy sofas and wing armchairs and even an empty coat rail with hangers, reminded me, frankly, of an upmarket residential care home. “Did you say it had been refurbished, or it’s waiting to be?” asked a local friend who came to inspect our “deluxe” bedroom: smart enough with attractive botanical prints, but awkwardly laid out, with passé brocade curtains, matching repro antique furniture, brass wall lights, a utilitarian unframed long mirror on one wall and a bathroom with lighting so harsh we backed out of the room in shock. I preferred other, more contemporary, rooms, harmless and soothing in their pastel shades.
The dining room (“mid-Eighties but not in a good way”) has a busily patterned carpet, deep red walls and fussy curtains that match the fussy dining chairs, plus a frighteningly hideous mantelpiece and sideboard. Despite two huge and gracious garden-facing windows on one wall, correctly left undressed, it had all the buzz of that care home and only the sweet trolley was missing.
No trifle here, that’s for sure; instead, six of us embarked on chef Jerry Adam’s ambitious dinner menu (£40) of Welsh ingredients with sweet and savoury Asian influences. Some of his dishes were knockout and all were admirably light, but were they right for the surroundings?
Jerry is delightful and although just 28 has a great pedigree, having come from Ynyshir Hall under Gareth Ward and Llangoed Hall before that. He has talent and ambition, but his “out there” creations can appeal only to a small section of the clientele, and a much more mainstream menu appears alongside, generating a strong feeling of identity crisis.
Creative food requires a creative ambience and that’s sadly lacking here. Whelmed, I was.
Church Street, Hay-on-Wye, Herefordshire HR3 5DQ (01497 821188; swanathay.com). Doubles from £125 per night, including breakfast.
Read the full review: The Swan at Hay, Herefordshire