Review: Pen-y-Dyffryn, Shropshire

There are dog people and cat people, and the former on the hunt for some rest and relaxation should lose no time in booking a stay at country hotel Pen-y-Dyffryn. A grey-stone former rectory situated on the border of Shropshire and Wales north-west of Oswestry, it is a canine haven. There are no cats anywhere near, and, as a result, birds proliferate in the grounds. Dogs near enough outnumbered humans when we were there, and our whippet, Eddie, settled in straightaway. Next door was a delightful Bedlington terrier who nearly wagged her tail off saying hello, overseeing operations was a black sprocker, and a lanky lurcher took every opportunity to sunbathe

Pen-y-Dyffryn, which means ‘head of the valley’ in Welsh, overlooks the tiny hamlet of Rhydycroesau as well as some thoroughly unspoilt countryside. The well-proportioned house, which is technically in England, was once the rectory, and was built at the same time as the church and the village school in 1840. The first rector, the ‘ponderous and pedantic’ Rev Robert Williams, was followed by Rev Jones and Rev Morris, who both proved more popular with the burgeoning congregation.

In 1920, however, the Church in Wales was fully established with its own archbishop, whereupon the village voted to stay with England. Thus, Rhydycroesau is notable for having one of the few Church of England churches in Wales. Now, village and church are thriving, and there is even an annual pantomime worthy of the West End.

We stayed in the former coach house, which is reached via a steep flight of steps behind the main house. On our arrival, tea was served on our own private terrace-accompanied by a delicious slice of lemon and pistachio cake. The coach house rooms are perfect for dog owners, as there is plenty of room and dogs can run straight out into the lovely garden, scattered with mature trees, including a magnificent copper beach, and a group of inviting sunloungers at the highest point. We were spectacularly lucky with the weather and, even in summer 2012, it was hot enough to make reading a book in the sunshine an inviting prospect.

For me, however, an indoor delight beckoned. With the blinds drawn, holistic therapist Helen Ash ( set up her table in our room and gave me a superb aromatherapy massage. When I told her I was a bit nervous of too firm a touch, she joked that ‘she might stop’ if I squeaked, but, in the event, she used just enough pressure to rid me of knots. Her top tip-use a squeeze of shampoo on dry hair before showering to wash out the oil more easily.

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There was just time before dinner to wander round the garden, and I discovered a gap in the wall where steps led up to a small stable yard. Hotel owner Audrey Hunter was feeding her daughter’s two horses, and we enjoyed a companionable gossip about eventing and hunting. Several packs are accessible from the hotel, including the North Shropshire, South Shropshire, Tanatside and Sir Watkin Williams-Wynn’s. The latter’s founder was an important figure in these parts, and is commemorated by a stone engraved with WWW in the hotel grounds.

A glass of something fizzy and some exquisite canapés in the last rays of the sunshine saw us through to dinner in the comfortable dining room, which is decorated in an attractive mixture of traditional and contemporary styles, and where were treated to some seriously good food. Head chef David Morris created a selection of mouthwatering courses, using seasonal and local ingredients, that were imaginative but never over-complicated. My goat’s cheese starter was wonderfully creamy, the venison rich and pink, and the orange crème brulee with chocolate sorbet and candied orange peel was a delightful take on an old favourite. We perhaps hadn’t been for a big enough walk to earn our feast, but it was worth it.

Walks, however, abound in this beautiful spot, and guests are greeted at breakfast each morning with an idea for the day’s trek, together with local events, such as the farmer’s market in the village hall at the end of the drive, and activities further afield, from visiting Chirk Castle to exploring the mysterious Lake Vrynwy, where airmen developed the bouncing bomb during the Second World War.

Within Pen-y-Dyffryn’s own demesne, tracks wind down to the stream in the valley bottom and up to the ridge above the hotel, testament to an admirable collaboration between farmer and residents that sees Rhydycroesau Woods criss-crossed with well-maintained and clearly mapped paths. There are even ‘organic loos’, should the need arise! Views from the ridge encompass miles of border countryside, and the old Georgian racecourse nearby has no livestock, so dogs can run and run until even whippets are tired.

Before heading south to home, we took up the suggestion to visit the spectacular Pistyll Rhaeadr Waterfall, the highest waterfall in Wales. Slightly marred by tourists-having seen no one for miles, we found hordes eating ice cream and taking photographs-the falls are nonetheless truly impressive. Undaunted, trees cling to the near-vertical bank, and a natural stone bridge crosses it halfway up like an illustration from The Lord of the Rings. I only wish we could have encountered it alone and unsuspecting, as the early devotees of the Picturesque landscape would have done in the 18th century.

Still, at least we know that the perfect peace of Pen-y-Dyffryn awaits our return in its secluded valley-and Eddie for one can’t wait to go back.

Pen-y-Dyffryn, Rhydycroesau, Oswestry, Shropshire (01691 653700; Rooms start at £90 per person per night, for a midweek stay including dinner.

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