the UK Restaurant and Hotel Zine

Michael Pelham gets between the covers at The Old Black Lion Inn, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford

By the banks of the river Wye some 20 miles from Hereford, on the borders of England and Wales, lies an attractive, rather sleepy little town which, at first sight, might seem to have no special characteristics.

But as you walk or drive round Hay-on-Wye you begin to realise that every other shop in the town - or in some streets every shop - seems to be a book-shop. Hay-on-Wye has indeed become the self-styled "Book Shop Capital of the World" and is the world's largest second hand and antiquarian book centre. There are 30 major book-shops in the town, some specialising, while others carry general stock

Begin for instance at the Cinema Bookshop, which makes no attempt to disguise what it once was. Go inside and you will find, on two floors, 200,000 second- hand books on all subjects, most helpfully categorised, labelled and ordered alphabetically by subject. Hard backs, paper backs, rare books, pamphlets, first editions, fine bindings - whatever. It is a gourmet's and gourmand's book feast, which one can enjoy for hours, days or weeks at a time.

If you want to save your money for book buying and are looking for an inexpensive place to stay which provides comfortable rooms and quite unusually good food at very reasonable prices, you could not do better than to book in at The Old Black Lion in Lion Street, on the site of the Lion Gate, one of the entrances to the old walled town. And book you must, for a bed or for an evening meal, for good news travels fast and the inn is nearly always full and many would-be diners are sadly turned away each evening for lack of space.

It is definitely an Inn and not an Hotel and the charming, enthusiastic and hard working owners - John and Joan Collins - want to keep it that way. Indeed, they even have mixed feelings about a third AA rosette, for they think that might make them seem too posh and might scare away the sort of customers they like to have,

Don't be put off by first appearances. If you park in the car park behind the hotel (which, incidentally, is quite an asset in Hay, which has a one way traffic system and little parking in the centre), you are in the kitchen area, even though the Brecon mountains are visible beyond. The front door is on the other side in the fairly narrow Lion Street, which seems, happily, to be quiet and little used at night-time. The tiny reception area leads to a well carpeted staircase and ten bedrooms, each with its own private bathroom or shower and WC.

Some of the bedrooms are quite small but others are large enough to have a sofa and sitting area. And it's all there: hairdryer, tea and coffee making facilities, TV, telephone, plug for shavers, good bed-side lighting (important but rare) and so on. There are Victorian prints on the walls and magazines by the bed-side. The owners' good humour is illustrated by the cartoon of someone smoking and the message: "Would you be so kind as to work with us and resist from smoking in the bed-rooms? Many thanks for your kind consideration".

Downstairs is a small but cosy residents' lounge, which is a definite asset when the inn fills up with people having dinner in the evening. There is a very jolly candle-lit bar and pine tables all around, each with its own candle, where you can eat or drink. There is also a pleasant little dining-room where one can have lunch or dinner in a less crowded situation. Residents having dinner at the inn have a table in the dining-room automatically reserved for them.

Now for the food - which is just what it should be in a country inn. There is a black-board menu (changed twice a day) as well as a restaurant menu. There is always home-made soup and we had asparagus soup, which was freshly made and excellent, with delicious new warm wholemeal bread. We also had some stilton and Guiness paté which was moist, spread happily on toast and was full flavoured without being overpowering. Other first courses offered included Thai fish cakes; baked green-lipped mussels filled with a garlic and herb pesto topped with a cream of ricotta cheese; lavercakes with cockles; Glamorgan sausages.

For main courses we tried wild boar with a satay sauce. It looked a bit like pork but the meat was darker and denser. There was no fat: it was tender, slightly gamey and delicious. My friend had a grilled salmon steak with chives, saffron and nutmeg and a butter cream sauce. The sauce was light enough not to detract from the excellent taste of the salmon. The new potatoes were really new and happily not over-cooked, which seems to happen a lot these days, even if the green vegetables are sometimes nearly raw - which again was not the case here. Other main courses could have been grilled sirloin or fillet steak (good Inn food); venison Bourgiugnonne; roast duck; red sea bream; lemon sole parcels filled with smoked salmon, dill and cream cheese. There were three vegetarian options.

For pudding we had poached pear in white wine and cinnamon and a banana parfait - both classic well prepared and attractively presented.

There are three enthusiastic and innovative chefs who are very keen to please and to offer some unusual dishes as well as more standard fare. At lunch time they offer "Lighter Bites" - triple decker sandwiches; spiced fish curry; naan bread filled with spicy Cajun chicken; warm croissants with cottage cheese and orange segments.

There are 80 bottles on the wine list with house wines at £10.75 and nearl= y all under £20. There is a Leoville Barton '75 if you want to celebrate having found a rare book.

Incidentally, if you already have a book and don't need another, there are plenty of other things to do and see. The countryside around the Welsh Marches is exceptionally beautiful. The Black mountains to the south and the Brecon Beacons to the west offer spectacular scenery and fine walking. Fishing can be arranged on the river Wye but salmon are, sadly, hard to come by these days. Hereford is an attractive city with a fine cathedral where the ancient Mappa Mundi and the magnificent chained library are both excellently displayed in a new and adjoining buiding.

To sum up: here is a small, unpretentious, friendly country Inn providing simple, comfortable accomodation and serving good food at prices which represent excellent value. First course are mostly under £5 and main courses about £12.

The Old Black Lion Inn, Lion Street, Hay-on-Wye, Hereford HR3 5AD.
Tel: 01497 820841

Single rooms £27 Double or twin £49 to £60 - per room including full breakfast. For minimum 2 night stay £45.90 to £48.90 per person per day = for room, dinner, bed and breakfast.

Michael Pelham is proprietor of Pelham Tours who organise gastronomic, sporting and other tours in the UK and in Europe.
Pelham Tours: Old Way House, Beaulieu, Hampshire SO42 7YL.
Tel: 01590 612264 Fax: 01590 612747. e-mail:

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