Ask anyone why to visit Abergavenny, and you'll probably get hit with the F word. The yawn-inducing cliché that it is a 'foodie destination'. It's a term that has become so overused its meaning is largely redundant; a label slapped on pretty much any place, market or establishment that sells a toastie containing kimchi, a brownie made with miso or drowns something in truffle oil. It's a shame the phrase has become so hackneyed, because it is totally justified in certain places, and Abergavenny is one of these.
The town in Wales is an epicurean haven, put firmly on the map by its annual food festival, local cheesemakers, vineyards, mountain lamb suppliers, bakers and dairy producers. It is a province shrouded in Gaelic beauty, populated with white-washed, slate-roofed cottages that are dwarfed by the herculean hills of the Brecon Beacons encircling it. And yet, despite all the bucolic beauty and burgeoning gastronomic scene, it is a town that remains charmingly unpretentious. Take a stroll on the high street, and you'll find sourdough bakeries, artisanal sheep's milk gelaterias and craft butchers planted between Bon Marche, Greggs and B&M.
What has put Abergavenny on the radar is its annual food festival – a weekend-long extravaganza that attracts over 30,000 food lovers, chefs and restaurateurs looking to celebrate local, national and global food culture. It started over 20 years ago in 1999 by two farmers whose livelihoods were threatened by the BSE (mad cow disease) crisis and the subsequent 2001 foot and mouth outbreak. What was initially set up as a means to mend the reputation of the UK farming industry and discuss its challenges has morphed into this famous weekend-long celebration of the best food from Wales and beyond.
A visit to Abergevanny, whether for the food festival or not, is a trip of pure escapism while remaining on home turf – just a two-and-a-half-hour train ride from London. Having spent very little time in Wales before this, I was aware of a term, which now makes so much sense having visited. Hiraeth is a word that doesn't directly translate into English but describes a profound longing and nostalgia for the Welsh homeland. Take a trip to Monmouthshire, and you might begin to understand what it means.
Where to eat
The Walnut Tree
Llanddewi Skirrid, NP7 8AW
The Walnut Tree sits at the convergence of the Brecon Beacons and Black Mountains, a small converted pub with a Michelin star, led by legendary chef Shaun Hill. The offering here is cleverly realised, seizing inspiration from outstanding seasonal produce like Welsh beef and game, British seafood and French cheeses, combining them with bold, global flavours and removing the frills and frippery you might associate with Michelin-starred dining. The result? A restaurant where everyone is there for the food. It's joyfully affordable for a venue of such an illustrious reputation, and our only advice is to take it easy on the warm milk buns and butter; you'll want space for the pistachio crème brûlée.
The Angel Bakery
59 Cross Street, NP7 5EU
Purveyors of the best viennoiserie, long-fermented sourdough bread and coffee in town, a stop to the Angel Bakery is non-negotiable upon visiting Abergavenny. The bakery appears to have been transplanted straight from the fashionable equivalents you'd find in London Fields or Clapton – adorned with racks of plump sourdough loaves and pastries alongside a deli area stocking jarred Brindisa beans, cultured butter and single-origin coffee. The breads and pastries, which are made by hand using flour from British mills, are pretty spectacular, and don't just take our word for it – the bakery supplies its loaves to delis, cafes and restaurants both in Monmouthshire and further afield to Cardiff and Bristol. We recommend filling your bag with plenty of glossy top pain au chocolat, plump cinnamon buns and rhubarb danishes and taking them up Sugar Loaf Mountain for optimum walking fuel.
The Oak Room
The Angel Hotel, 15 Cross Street, NP7 5EN
Housed in the regal Angel Hotel, it is only fitting that the Oak Room, is complete with flamboyant burgundy walls, a gold mirrored bar and handsome dark wood floors. The restaurant specialises in well-executed British cooking, and the food here is uncomplicated, locally sourced and totally devourable. We recommend whetting your appetite with some warm Angel Bakery bread and butter and a glass of Bollinger before tucking into delicious plates of ham and celeriac remoulade, dressed crab and Dry-aged Welsh sirloin steak with Madeira jus and thick-cut chips. The puddings here are everything you'd hope for from a proper British restaurant, and the rhubarb and steamed sponge served with an ungodly amount of vanilla-laden custard should be firmly on your radar.
Where to drink
The Bear Hotel
High Street, NP8 1BW
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After slamming the nearby hills of Crickhowell, it's reasonable to presume a warm ale and packet of pork scratchings are on the cards, and the place to head for such an endeavour is the Bear Hotel. It's a proper British pub in its purest distillation, complete with hanging tankards, dark wood bar, claret carpet and plenty of nooks to snuggle up in. The claws of the trendy pub haven't yet touched The Bear, so you won't find smoked cod's roe, brown butter or biodynamic wine on the menu, just a pleasing selection of crisps, lager, scampi and other niceties. If you visit in the summer, there is a charming grassy beer garden around the back to soak up the sunshine with a pint.
The Kings Arms
29 Nevill Street, NP7 5AA
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Sit at one of the Kings Arms' outside tables overlooking St. Johns Square, and you might just be transported to a sun-soaked square in Southern France. This dusty pink 16th-century coaching inn dates back to 1405 and is a popular spot among locals to drink, eat and be merry. Plenty of local cask ales are on the menu, including Butty Bach and Hereford Pale Ale from the Wye Valley Brewery, alongside keg lagers, ciders, wines and whiskies. Be sure to swing by on a Friday night for live music, which includes some lively performances from tribute bands.
Where to stay
The Angel Hotel
15 Cross Street, NP7 5EN
This former Georgian coach inn is situated on Abergavenny's main drag, Cross Street, opposite the Angel Bakery. It features all the mainstays you'd expect from a period hotel – towering flower arrangements, huge paintings, wooden floors, sash windows and Chesterfield sofas, complete with warm hearths and plenty of cosy nooks. The bedrooms have a warm country feel while remaining suitably luxurious, with deep pile carpets, thick checked throws, Villeroy & Boch bathrooms and, most importantly, complimentary cheese straws. Leaving the marshmallow-like beds in the morning might induce a tantrum, but it's worth it for a cooked breakfast at the Oak Room restaurant. Beyond the rooms, The Angel has a wood-panelled bar, outdoor terrace, and an eco-friendly Twizy electric car to rent for driving around the nearby moors and mountains. The staff here are wonderfully helpful and will sort you out with maps and information for nearby trails.
Rooms from £150 per night B&B; angelabergavenny.com
Sugar Loaf Cottage
21 Lower Castle Street, NP7 5EE
For those who fancy a place to themselves or are holidaying with a group, renting Sugar Loaf Cottage is the perfect option. It's a beautiful white-washed townhouse that sleeps four across the road from the Angel Hotel on Castle Street. Over three floors, you'll find two en-suite king bedrooms shrouded in light from the large sash windows, a large sitting room with a gas fireplace, armchairs, and a kitchen with views to the garden. A highlight of Sugar Loaf is that you wake up to a fridge full of breakfast supplies, including smoked salmon, ham, eggs, Angel Bakery sourdough, orange juice, and muesli. The cottage also welcomes dogs for an additional charge of £15 a night and a free taxi service to and from The Walnut Tree for dinner.
Cottage from £400 per night; caradogcottages.com/cottages/sugarloaf-cottage
Where to shop
Abergavenny Market Hall
61 Cross Street, NP7 5EH
At the epicentre of Abergavenny sits a huge blue greenhouse, otherwise known as the Abergavenny Market Hall. This magnificent glass-roofed building hosts markets on Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, a flea market on Wednesdays, a craft fair every second Saturday of the month and a farmers market on the fourth Thursday of every month. From local fruit and veg, baked goods, crockery, clothes and plants, there's an army of market stalls to pick up a Welsh souvenir or two.
What to do
Abergavenny Food Festival
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From 17-16 September 2023, Abergavenny plays host to its annual food festival, which goes down as one of the biggest in the UK. This year, it celebrates its 25th anniversary as over 300,000 food lovers, chefs, and restaurateurs head to Monmouthshire to celebrate local, national and global food culture. Expect two days choc-full of activities, including 150 exhibitors, a night market, children's cookery school, chef demonstrations, tastings, talks and debates. The festival has a reputation for attracting appearances from food heavyweights, and this year makes no exception – expect discussions and demonstrations from Andi Oliver, Melissa Thompson, Jeremy Lee, Angela Hartnett, Jeremy Pang, Julius Roberts and many more.
Climb Sugar Loaf Mountain
Dwarfing the whole town, Sugar Loaf Mountain is practically begging to be climbed. It's a calf-burning ascent up one of the highest peaks in the Black Mountains, taking around two and a half hours. Clamber to the top, and you'll be rewarded with panoramic vistas across South Wales.
Climb Table Mountain
Not to be mistaken for the one in South Africa, Table Mountain is a peak close to Crickhowell – a village just 15 minutes drive from Abergavenny. It takes around one hour and a half to summit the plateau of Table Mountain, which contains remnants of an Iron Age hill-fort and provides the perfect flat picnic spot with sweeping views of the Black Mountains and, on a clear day, the Brecon Beacons. The route will take you through ethereal landscapes full of rusty ferns, gnarly trees, dainty streams and plenty of woolly companions.
How to get there
Train: 2hr 25 mins, London Paddington to Abergavenny, change at Newport
Car: 2hr 30 mins
Bus: 3hr 5 mins, Victoria Coach Station to Newport, Kingsway