Review by Fiona Duncan, published 25th June 2006.
I have a strange moment of dislocation as we arrive at diminutive Penally Abbey on the Pembrokeshire coast. I’m expecting a quiet country house hotel, but the first thing I notice, behind the reception desk, is a collection of framed photos of noteworthy guests, including Mick Jagger. Penally Abbey and Mick Jagger? I’m confused, even more so when I turn around and fall over the luggage of actor Damien Lewis and his fiancée Helen McCory who have also just arrived.
Hang on, where am I? (I visit a lot of hotels and mental confusion is never far away). Babington? Tresanton? Cowley Manor? “Were you in the theatre or something?” I ask Steve Warren, the owner. “No connection. We just get the odd actor who’s filming in the area or performing at the Torch in Milford Haven. Mick Jagger was on a walking holiday with his father and son.” Very rock n’ roll.
Something exceptional happens at Penally Abbey; at least it does to us, and to our fellow guests as far as we can see. Many hotels claim it, but few can truly pull it off: you instantly relax, instantly feel at home. Much of it is down to rangy, easy-going, likeable Steve. His modest, unflappable manner sets the pace, whether he’s pouring you a drink behind his bar, taking your order for dinner, directing you on a walk or perched on a chair arm, chatting about this and that. Never intrusive, just friendly and welcoming.
Steve and his wife Eileen, who is the tireless chef, bought Penally Abbey in the mid-1980s and embarked, with young children, on a new career as hoteliers. It’s idiosyncratic and it’s their domain. If you want city slick and urban chic, look elsewhere. If you want character and charm on the Pembrokeshire coast, come here.
It’s a Saturday, early evening, when we arrive. The place is gently humming with contented weekenders, many in their thirties, plus a group of locals celebrating a birthday. We all fan out between the little bar, the Edwardian style drawing room (leather Chesterfields, chaise longue, silver-framed family photos on the piano) the tiny, slightly scruffy conservatory with fairy lights entwined in the plumbago, and the elegant peacock green dining room with its chandeliers and candles and high-backed chairs. The stars slot in easily. “It isn’t always like this,” says Steve. “It’s often quiet as the grave, honest”.
Penally is not an abbey, though there’s a ruined chapel in the garden. It’s an elevated late 18th-century Strawberry Hill Gothic house full of period details, not least the characteristic ogee head doors and windows. All the bedrooms, be they decorous in the main house, cottage-like in the adjoining coach house, or smart contemporary in the newly converted St Deiniol’s Lodge, face Carmarthen Bay, though some views are limited to ‘glimpses of the sea’ as Basil Fawlty used to say.
Our room in the rather creaky main house has a four poster and is spacious, gracious and slightly passé in a pleasing, flowery way. The bathroom, down some steps, is small but serviceable.
At breakfast everyone lingers over the Sunday papers at their square and circular polished wood tables. A ten-minute walk downhill and we are on the beach; another half hour along the sand and we reach candy coloured Tenby where we lunch and stroll, taking a taxi back to Penally in time for tea. Perfect.
Penally, near Tenby, Pembrokeshire (01834 843033; www.penally-abbey.com). Doubles from £134 to £168 per night including breakfast.