Review by Fiona Duncan, published 22nd December 2011.
"You have to be a nutter to do this job," says Neil Kedward, leaning against the arm of a sofa in the cosy sitting room of his divine hotel, The Grove. He has a humorous face and a soft Welsh lilt, and the welcoming, attractive house in which he now stands was, just three years ago, completely derelict.
He and his partner, Zoe Agar, who have never run a hotel before (he was an engineer, she worked for American Express), bought the fascinating, quirky mansion house as an uninhabited wreck and opened it as a 12-room hotel and restaurant just nine months later, in time for the cast of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows to stay.
A slide show of photographs of Neil and his team of local craftsmen on The Grove's excellent website is testament to the toil and care over a long period that went into the restoration. But the hard work didn't stop there. It's tough running a hotel these days, however desirable (and The Grove is eminently desirable).
As we chew over some of the pitfalls that hoteliers face, from the cost of marketing to the problems of staffing, I tell myself that though my job is to pick holes in these places, we are incredibly lucky to have fresh hotels of this quality at all in such straitened times, and should be grateful to gutsy, determined people like Neil and Zoe, who have given their all to producing them and keeping them going.
They've put everything they have into the venture, done it on a shoe-string by sorting it all out themselves, and quite beautifully, too. I'd rather stay here than in countless multi-million-pound country-house hotels.
You fall for The Grove as soon as you spot it, especially if, like my sister and I, you have just driven the length of the M4, and then some, in torrential rain, before staggering dazed from the car. Its charm worked on us instantly. There are two main façades: one three storeys tall, gleaming white and many windowed; the other gabled, with Arts and Crafts elements that are continued inside. Neil was on hand to scoop us up and lead us to the bar for a restorative G & T as soon as possible before showing us to our bedroom, with its own sitting room, which was perfect in every way. There are further bedrooms in an adjoining cottage and 15th-century longhouse and four self-catering cottages overlooking the Preseli hills.
These last are popular with families, and guests are encouraged to help themselves from the burgeoning vegetable garden beside them. Next up: the restoration of the original walled garden, which should be fabulous when finished.
Back in the main house, there is a cosy library with books, games and chessboard and a light-filled room for elegant, inventive breakfasts.
The Grove is as much about food as a place to stay, and head chef Duncan Barham is plainly gunning for a Michelin star, and should get one. There's something special and memorable about local Welsh produce in the hands of a good chef: I noticed it at Tyddyn Llan and the Walnut Tree, and now here, too.
Neil may be a nutter but we need him. Do go.
- Narberth, Molleston, Pembrokeshire SA67 8BX (01834 860915; thegrove-narberth.co.uk). Doubles from £150; singles from £140, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities.
Narberth itself is charming, with a surprising plethora of gift shops and boutiques, and Ultra Comida, a very fine delicatessen selling local and Spanish produce, with a café at the back for tapas. Ladies who lunch in the area will come to Narberth, and to The Grove. Another good place is Welsh Farmhouse, in the High Street, for clothes, gifts and things for the home and garden.
The Pembrokeshire coast is very close. A wonderful walk is the Stackpole Estate Coastal Walk, a stretch of coastline that takes in the huge and beautiful Stackpole Ponds. A walk from the door might be through Canaston Wood, down to Blackpool Mill and the estuary and back – about two hours.
Close at hand, and well worth visiting, are Tenby, which has retained its charm and doesn’t get too crowded; St David’s, with its beautiful coastal walks around St David’s Head and Whitesands; and Porthgain, a fishing village around a little harbour, with an excellent fish restaurant called the Shed, and a good pub, the Sloop Inn. From there you can walk to the Blue Lagoon and there are galleries and craft shops to browse in the village.