800 word article which ends with driving directions and reservations information. Pictures available


By Pam Hobbs

Tenby,South Wales: I have to admit to being a wee bit unsociable when I first arrived at this 18th century mansion perched above Carmarthen Bay in the south-western tip of Wales. After all, everything I wanted was here in my room: A four poster bed topped by a cosy duvet, velvet settee and armchairs, good lights for reading. Should I get peckish there are tea-making supplies and cookies and complimentary sherry. There's a British whodunnit on the telly. The bathroom is the sort I could happily hang about in for an hour or two. What's more, a rain storm is raging outside, sending palm trees into a tizzy and terrorizing delicate flowers into throwing themselves against my window. All in all it's a good night to be indoors, wrapped in a thick terry robe, cosseted by the comforts of my spacious room here at Penally Abbey Hotel.

I love these small country house hotels where guests are welcomed as friends, then encouraged to relax in comfortable splendour. At Penally an unfussy, casual atmosphere pervades. Perhaps it's the family photographs on the piano, or the teddy bear reclining on a conservatory chair - the tea and chocolate biscuits served by the fire when I arrived wet and windblown from the storm - the butterflies flitting in through an open window when it is over. Most of all it's the genuine hospitality accorded by our hosts and their staff.

Fifteen years ago Elleen and Stephen Warren were living in Windsor, where she worked as a chef and he was in restaurant sales. Both felt ready for a complete change when they happened upon this mansion in need of some tender loving care. Undaunted by its antiquated plumbing and absence of central heating, they bought the historic home in February 1985 and were ready for a few guests when the holiday season started that May. Still it took a lot of hard work, borrowed funds and imagination to bring it to the level of comforts they offer today. Now there are 12 spacious bedrooms and 14 bathrooms in the main house, plus more in an adjoining coach house. All are beautifully decorated and furnished, largely with antiques. Dining is a gracious affair, with silver and crystal twinkling beneath an enormous chandelier, soft classical music and fresh flowers on the tables.

In recent years Penally has become known to celebrities such as Mick Jagger (who came with his Dad for the salmon fishing) and actors wanting time out from London's stages. Still it is the loyalty of perennial guests that the Warren's enjoy most. Several couples became such firm friends they took over the hotel for Christmas week last year, brought a few relatives, sent Elleen and Steve packing, and catered for themselves. Lovely thought that it is to play house in an l8th century mansion, I wouldn't have been so quick to part with Elleen who cooked her way through France and Belgium for a decade to hone her culinary skills. Here at Penally she keeps the menu simple, often favouring traditional Welsh dishes and local seafood. (Her Welsh lamb, be assured, is a dish long remembered.)

Little is known about the property's history except that it is the site of a 6th century abbey. Remains of an l8th century chapel make a nice backdrop for wedding photogaphs, as do the exotic blooms that prosper in South Wales' balmy climate. Some couples hold their reception here following a marriage service in the church next door. Non-denominational ceremonies can be performed in the hotel lounge.

Unless there's a wedding, the most activity you will see here is an exodous following breakfast. Fishermen and golfers set off to do their thing. Hikers head for the trails in the Pembrokeshire Coast National Park. Steve tells me there are four castles nearby, and that I could drive to Laugharne immortalizedby Welsh poet Dylan Thomas in only thirty minutes. But on this warm and sunny morning I opt for a few hours in neighbouring Tenby, a resort town of medieval alleys and fabulous beaches, boat tours and trips to Caldey Island, and a waterfront pub I know that serves the freshest fish and chips west of Blighty.

IF YOU GO: Train passengers from London are met at Penally Station. From Cardiff it is roughly a 90 minutes' drive if you can resist stopping often to admire the scenery.