With Mr. B.B. in Cardiff ‘suffering’ through a Five Guys (no choice: it was a work social), I took the other man in my life to Cefn Mably Arms for pie. Have they kept up the standards since his last visit in… 1993?!
One of the unexpected perks of volunteering with Contact the Elderly is the fact I’ve become good friends with a fellow foodie – even more excuse for noshing adventures!
My nonagenarian friend, Mr. A., loves his “proper pub grub” (as he puts it) and recalled how he used to enjoy frequenting the Cefn Mably Arms in Michaelston-y-Fedw (just outside Cardiff).
A quick check on Trip Advisor revealed the establishment was still in business, so I quickly arranged a dinner date…
Would it live up to its historical reputation?
Or was I about to ruin a dear old friend’s fond memories?
A welcome start
Having successfully managed to negotiate the lanes between Caerphilly and Michaelston-y-Fedw, we arrived at a very busy car park. Fearing I was about to dash Mr. A.’s hopes by failing to book a table, we were relieved to find the pub was quiet – mainly a few locals propping up the bar.
From the outside, it had that unmistakable country pub vibe – with a tidy and inviting beer garden (if the sun ever shines again, maybe we’ll get a taxi over).
Inside, the pub is split into two: bar to the left and restaurant to the right.
The décor has been well thought out – a simple mix of modern and traditional. It felt very cosy, in fact – reassuringly, it’s not trying to be something it’s not. Clearly, popular with the locals, but we didn’t feel unwelcome.
Don’t gnocchi it without trying
We were quickly seated.
There was only one other table occupied at the time (6:30pm). Over the course of our meal, it did become busier – but the tables are generously spread out, so it still felt quite intimate.
In the evening, both a ‘pub classics’ and restaurant menu are on offer.
Mr. A. suffers with macular degeneration, which severely affects his eyesight. So, I had a thorough review of both menus as I read out the options.
The bar classics had everything you would expect / demand, with fish and chips, pie, gammon steak, burger, scampi, pub curry… Although, I was a bit disappointed to see just two vegetarian options – penne arrabiata and a vegetarian burger.
The restaurant menu was a bit more ‘adventurous’… well, as adventurous as lamb shank.
Mr. A. went for the steak and ale (Butcombe real ale) pie with chips and peas. I chose beetroot and goats cheese gnocchi with pesto and spinach fricassee (from the restaurant menu).
We skipped starters – Mr. A. is an unashamed ‘puddings man’, and he wanted to make sure he had room left after his pie!
I was bit surprised when my main arrived – a humungous bowl of…pink potatoes?! Not what I’d expect from gnocchi – even if it looked fabulous!
“Truth be told, it was quite exciting!”
I was a bit nervous.
They were a tad dense. However, they were cleverly filled with light, fluffy goats’ cheese.
Truth be told, it was quite exciting!
The creamy and satisfyingly shiny pesto sauce was full of flavour, but, despite packing a real punch, it didn’t overpower the goats’ cheese. A clever combination. With a fresh rocket salad it was a real winner of a dish.
However, given the denseness and the portion size, I was struggling from about a third of the way in – and fretting that I would miss out on a pudding!
I didn’t finish it.
Mr. A. was very pleased with his pie – even if it did lack a base and sides.
The pot was densely packed with quality, tender meat. It was topped with a light, flaky puff pastry – and the ale flavour real came through in a deep gravy.
The chips were also nice and crispy – I couldn’t resist stealing a few! – if nothing special.
It was so good in fact that Mr. A. cleared the lot – even if it meant the pudding was at risk!
Desserts – or Terrible-su
It’s seems odd to complain when there are seven desserts to choose from – three specials (sorbet, tiramisu, white chocolate cheesecake) and four on the main menu (Eton mess, Belgian waffle with berry compote and white chocolate ice cream, vanilla crème brule, cheese board). However, Mr. A. was disappointed not to find anything with custard.
Maybe these are the summer choices – hmmm, an excuse to come back again?
They were out of Eton mess, so I went with my second choice: tiramisu.
I can’t fault the presentation – it’s one of the best-looking tiramisus I’ve ever had.
However, it was a tough old thing. Although you could taste the alcohol (I assume it had been soaked…in 1993?), the sponge was stale. And the mascarpone was pretty much solid, lacking any creaminess.
Mr. A. played it safe with the vanilla and strawberry ice cream – in fairness, they were more than happy to accommodate this request, despite not featuring on the menu.
I don’t know if the Cefn Mably Arms make its own ice cream, but it was something special – super creamy with chunks of real strawberry.
Mr. A. left a very happy man. For him, the Cefn Mably Arms today is as good as it’s ever been – if not better.
(Phew! I hadn’t sullied any memories.)
It wasn’t perfect, however. The gnocchi were enjoyable enough to start with, but the dish did become a chore. And the tiramisu was an absolute disaster.
Still, I was won over – and the resident dog (Alfie) played a part in that (so cute!).
It’s a welcoming establishment, with polite and attentive service, and fair prices for the decent pub fare on offer. I’m sure if I make use of the beer garden before my next meal, they’ll pick up an extra burp!
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Our meal at The Old Swan would mark the final leg of our all-dayer in Llantwit Major. Would I still be able to taste anything? Would any of my pictures still be in focus? Do I remember what happened?! Find out…
Whilst I don’t miss the busyness, the noise, the torn bin bags, or the vulture-like seagulls dragging rotting meat down the street – there has been one drawback to living beyond Cardiff’s perimeters (even if that’s just a few minutes’ drive from Thornhill): relying on public transport.
For ourselves, it tends to mean leaving just as the party is getting into full swing at around 11pm – for our friend who lives in Llantwit Major, it’s 9:30pm (unless he opts for hotel for the night or a £50 taxi home).
We felt it was the least we could do after five years or so of always meeting up in Cardiff for us to make the journey to him – and, bonus, there was a beer festival on that weekend!
Hot day, stuffy train – let’s get a latte!
To be fair, our journey got off to a good start – our Arriva Wales train hadn’t been cancelled or delayed! This meant we were going to make our connection with time to spare – and avoid adding an extra 40 minutes to a journey already pushing two hours door to door.
“I was living dangerously.”
And the ticket price was another nice surprise – a return costs us £7.20 from Aber to Cardiff Central (22 minutes), but it was only an extra £1 to go from Cardiff Central to Llantwit Major (40+ minutes).
However, this meant I had both the time and the spare change to pick up an overpriced latte from the Upper Crust kiosk… I was living dangerously.
With stops seemingly every two minutes, there was no air flow, and I was building up a bigger sweater than my 40 minutes every-other-morning on the exercise bike – when we arrived, Mrs. B.B. had to peel me off the seat!
The Llantwit Major 150m metre pub crawl
If it wasn’t a ‘thing’ already, it is now.
Five pubs within stumbling distance of each other, occasionally no pavements, cars speeding around corners – all the basic requirements covered.
First up was the Kings Head. And if it looked tired on the outside:
…it was nothing compared to the bar man, who I’m sure fell asleep about three times on serving us – and disappeared on a further three occasions (the slow service would end up costing us a pub!).
“It needs a few signs… beyond those asking people not to fight.”
Being a Brains pub, the options were as limited as you would expect – actually, even worse (no Rev. James?!). There was one guest ale, but it looked too blonde for my taste, so opted for my first Newcastle Brown Ale since… well, my underage drinking days in the local park / bus shelter (roughly twenty years ago).
The bar and lounge are everything I would expect of an ‘old man’s pub’, but it needs some love. It also needs a few signs – two of our party nearly ended up in the cellar when looking for the WC – beyond those asking people not to fight.
I do feel for the neighbours who back onto the beer garden (and I worry for anyone who may be eating from the BBQ!).
…but at least the sign was in tact and it looked like it had received a lick of paint post-1998.
Again, not much choice on tap – Gower Rumour would become our staple for the next couple of hours.
Darker than the clip would suggest:
A few grumbles it wasn’t a gold, but as a malty fan, it was probably my favourite beer of the day – or the last one I feel confident in rating.
It was here that we picked up our pace – well, our drinking pace. Nobody was going to give up our prime spot in the beer garden or cut an inebriated conversation short.
Sorry – we missed you.
Next up was The White Hart – it had an even bigger beer garden! (well, two – front and back).
The White Hart
As with the Tudor Tavern, The White Hart is an impressive looking, traditional pub – stone walls that simply must be painted white.
A pokey looking bar, but at least they had three decent ales on tap (some may argue that fact with Sea Fury) to counter the usual choices (who actually drinks Carling?!).
Gower Gold was popular amongst the group – but I went for a pint of Paradigm Shift. Another malty bitter, but it was lighter than Rumour – dare I say, slightly citrusy.
The Old Swan
After a good few hours of solid (high percentage – Paradigm Shift weighing in at 6.2%!) drinking, we made it to our final destination – and the actual beer festival: The Old Swan.
This is where our host for the day had booked us in for our evening meal. That warrants a sub-heading of its own, but before we move on to the food, a quick mention for the festival.
It was only a small marquee / tent in the beer garden, but there was a decent selection. A bit light on the non-lights, but I found two to match my malty preferences:
Copper Ale from Severn Brewing Severn was a nice bitter that went down far too quickly – fortunately it was only 3.8%. Old Grower from Nethergate Brewery was a fruity porter, but it was heavy going six pints in on a summer’s day.
The beer garden was very busy, but I’m not sure how many people were there for the festival – I’m guessing the weather was probably the bigger draw.
A few nuggets at the Old Swan
On entering The Old Swan, it was immediately clear that “this is the posh one” amongst the five pubs.
“It’s not quite your Juno Lounge kind of pretentious, but it’s trying.”
It’s an old building (dating back to the early 12th century apparently) – stone walls, wood panels, etc. – but there’s clearly been some investment to bring it up to your local yuppy’s expectations. Minimalist in design with modern features, an uncluttered bar area, etc. It’s the type of pub the residents of Pontcanna would love – no surprise that Knife & Fork Ltd also run The Conway.
In fairness, it’s not quite your Juno Lounge kind of pretentious, but it’s trying – too trendy to provide menus. Cue everyone leaving the table en-masse to view the black board, which would have been awkward had it been any busier inside.
Mostly standard pub fare, but there was a decent number of veggie options for Mrs. B.B. in both the starters and the mains.
Service was a little slow – I don’t recall seeing our waiter after he took our orders (except when it was time to pay the bill!). However, he wasn’t fazed by our drunkenness (by this point we were a group of eight) – and it was probably wise to keep engagement with us at a minimum!
The starters didn’t sound all that interesting, which is probably why most of our party declined – including Mrs. B.B.
I was intrigued by the Cajun Popcorn Chicken – and it was spot on:
It tasted even better than it looked. The chicken was succulent, the breadcrumbs crisp and well-seasoned… The guacamole complemented nicely, and the pickled chilli added a nice sharpness vs. any heat.
I went for the Pork Loin:
As well as being a small portion, the presentation was odd – I’m not sure what cutting the loin into the three pieces added from a visual perspective. It was also a little overcooked / dry – and the fat was chewy rather than juicy and crisp.
It’s a shame because the chorizo and red pepper puree (not dissimilar to red pesto) was moreish – and I absolutely loved the crisp rosemary and black pepper potatoes. Although they weren’t quite as sexy as the chips nor the onion ring I stole from a fellow diner:
The pie of the day looked promising:
But Mrs. B.B. opted for something a little scarier looking:
The vegetarian special was aubergine with lentil and tomato compote, butternut squash puree, new potatoes and green beans. Despite its looks, it was packed with more than just lentils – primarily flavour! The veg was nicely cooked if nothing special, but the smooth butternut squash puree was a real hit – it made the dish much richer than had been expected.
We split the bill, and it worked out we paid just over £30 for two mains and a starter. Even if I was a little disappointed with the pork, that represents good value – the food is punching well above its weight.
Despite the begging/appeals/it’s-getting-embarrassing-now from the younger, more hardened drinker among us to stay for one more, we made the sensible decision to go for the 8:56pm train home – we’ve been stung by Arriva Wales too many times in the past. Surprisingly, neither of our trains were cancelled or delayed, which meant it was just the two-hour journey home – although much cooler this time! (in fact, I may have appreciated a latte).
Plus the garage was still open on the walk home, so I picked up one of these beauties:
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Hospitality in the Highlands has improved considerably since a French Connor MacLeod was driven out of his village and paid to not to laugh in the face of a Spanish (or was it Egyptian?) Sean Connery – I either need to watch more films or learn to Google places.
Here are a few of the predominantly food-related highlights from the first half of our 16-day road trip, which took in Stirling, Fort William, John O’Groats – and plenty of midges (first piece of advice: talk little and often – please note: there’s no more advice).
Close, but still Carlisle
I agree, it’s odd to feature Carlisle in a Highlands article.
Plus, I have enough material ammunition to create a standalone piece on the B&B we stayed at: 4-foot long bed, next to the sort of bars that make the Borough look tame, etc.
But the reason I wanted to start here was to wax lyrical about a hot pot.
The Old Bank City Pub and Chop House
It may not look like there was much room underneath those crispy potatoes – but they certainly made the most of it. Plenty of chicken, big chunks of ham and a tarragon and cream sauce I could drink by the glass.
Mrs. B.B. went for the vegetarian option: tagliatelle with asparagus, mange tout and peas. “A huge portion. Probably too much chilli for most people – but I found it made the dish really addictive. Somehow managed to gobble the lot – stretching my stomach in preparation for the meals to come. Often feel cheated when ordering pasta dishes out, but this was definitely worth a tenner.”
A lengthy gin list for the cool kids amongst you – even if the waitress herself seemed surprised that they sold most of them!
But as fans of Strongman, we couldn’t pass up the opportunity to attend a ‘Highland games’ – even if it was just a small local event on the outskirts of Scotland’s biggest city…
We didn’t expect to see the one, the only, “The Mountain from Game of Thrones” (surely a catchphrase now for Colin Bryce), 2018’s European Strongest Man, 2018’s World Strongest Man, 2018’s Arnold Strongman Classic winner… you getting the picture yet?
Yes, Hafthor “Thor” Bjornsson (did I mention he’s also Iceland’s Strongest Man?) was – we still can’t believe this – Chieftain at the Carmunnock International Highland Games. And yeah, he only went and broke the world height record for the 56lbs SHGA weight (and probably for the slowest moving queue to get a fan photo).
Slim pickings on the refreshments (the less said about my anaemic-looking burger, the better), but a good-natured event, with plenty to keep all the family entertained – well, mainly the compere’s scathing putdowns of Thor, the contestants, and the waifs in the crowd who attempted ‘The Manhood Stone Lift’.
A gold ‘old time’ in Stirling
By the time we reached Stirling, there were concerns that factor-50 wasn’t going to cut it.
We hadn’t come to Scotland expecting to get a tan. Fortunately, Mrs. B.B. is a packing magician, and we’d managed to squeeze both of our wardrobes into a Skoda Fabia. Amongst the puffa jackets, rain coats, wellies and woolly jumpers, we had an ample supply of shorts and tees for the heat wave that was to remain a constant.
It’s only a small city, but the temperature certainly helped us work up an appetite as we explored the imposing castle, Wallace Monument and various historical landmarks.
Of course, I had to kick off the holiday ‘proper’ with some ‘proper’ Haggis, Neeps and Tatties.
Friars Wynd obliged – not too dense, plenty of pepper. Although it didn’t look as impressive as Mrs. B.B.’s chorizo and prawn packed paella – which arrived minus the advertised langoustine and calamari.
Mrs. B.B.: “With two key ingredients missing – two key reasons for ordering the dish! – it was disappointing. As much as I like chorizo, I have my limits. It was far too greasy.”
“They weren’t kidnapping the clientele!”
And fortunately, they weren’t kidnapping the clientele! We were a little concerned as people failed to return from ‘the toilet’ – but we checked before calling the police and discovered it’s also a hotel. Phew! Although, I could have made the evening more comfortable for myself had I known at the time.
A little on the pricey side (£24.95!), but give me 3 lamb cutlets and I’ll pay anything. The pesto sauce really complimented the lamb in fairness – something I need to try at home. And there was a decent selection of local beers – something the nearby Wetherspoons failed to deliver on (Lancaster Red the closest geographically).
Mrs. B.B.’s sweet potato, spinach and butterbean stew was “a little pricey for what was basically a plate of veg! It was well cooked – and a nice healthy option as I attemped to compensate for the chorizo overdose the night before – but £14.95?! I don’t think so.”
Victoria Square Guesthouse
With our original accommodation cancelling just days before, we had to up the budget to find a last-minute alternative. And on this occasion, the old proverb that you really get what you pay for rung true.
An 1880s Victorian building, the guesthouse was beautifully decorated and well maintained – with nods to the past, but contemporary in its design and features. Although located just a few minutes from the city centre (and the DJ surely past 5 on the Richter magnitude scale), it was remarkably quiet. In fact, we wouldn’t have known anyone else was staying – had they not drunk all the complimentary sherry each evening!
“Even more rich and luxurious than it sounds.”
And the all-important breakfast: I was particularly wowed by the VS Eggs Benedict – toasted muffin topped with haggis and a poached egg. My only regret was opting for the salmon on day 2 – Scotland’s national dish would prove almost impossible to come by over the subsequent weeks. Mrs. B.B.’s porridge, served with cream, brown sugar and a splash of whisky, was “even more rich and luxurious than it sounds.”
Walking everywhere… but up Ben Nevis
That we reached Fort William in less than a day was some achievement. A 2-hour car drive extended to 8 as we stopped at every passing place roadside gravel patch to take photos of the awesome loch and mountain views. Mrs. B.B.’s protestations that we’d have plenty of photo opportunities over the next fortnight falling on deaf ears.
We sensibly opted out of climbing Ben Nevis, but our stay in Fort William was still filled with action – and even a little danger – as we walked to Steall Falls along Nevis Gorge, visited the Neptune’s Staircase and fought for a prime ‘Harry Potter train’ viewpoint (otherwise known as the Glenfinnan Viaduct for the non-geeks).
Now, for all its founder’s faults – and the occasionally suspect clientele – we’re not adverse to a Wetherspoons. Low effort, decent beer selection (not always the case – see Stirling above), and comparatively tasty fast food. It seemed like a good choice after I’d exhausted us with endless “photo opportunity!” stops.
However, we must have visited on everyone’s first day at work! Orders heading to the wrong tables, angry complaints, refunds being issued in every direction – and then they ran out of coleslaw! (Not ideal when you’ve only ordered a jacket potato with coleslaw).
In fairness, they did offer us a refund – for 2 steaks! And then proceeded to bring a plain jacket potato out post-refund (for the correct amount – we’re honest!). However, we opted against the freebie and moved a few doors down…
There was a table left in The Geographer! (who knew Scotland was such a tourist magnet?!)
I wasn’t convinced by the menu’s ‘Global inspiration’, but my Braised highland venison and mushroom stew was simply divine. The meat was moist, it was packed with flavour and the sweet potato chips somehow remained crisp to the death. It was enough to forgive the lack of air con as the alcohol consumed poured just as quickly out of my forehead.
Mrs. B.B.’s Mexican vegetable and bean chill “was as memorable as it sounds.”
Ben Nevis Inn & Bunkhouse
We may have bottled Ben Nevis, but we weren’t afraid of a battered fish the length of my wife’s forearm (and twice as wide). Well, I was – playing it safe with the inch-thick Ben Nevis Beef Burger, topped with melted cheddar (I still have dreams about it now), streaky bacon, BBQ mayo, tomato relish – and 50p wasn’t going to put me off a pot of coleslaw (it’s rare in these parts).
Unsurprisingly, Mrs. B.B. could only manage a few chips, but thought the fish was a knockout – “light and crisp batter, wasn’t greasy; nice and fresh.”
I had my favourite beer of the holiday at this point – Nessie’s Monster Mash. A smooth, malty ale from the Cairngorm Brewery Co. which currently holds a rare 4.5 rating from myself on Untappd (will I ever give a 5?). I’m sure they feel honoured.
It was at this point in the holiday I made the sensible decision not to feast on a full English (or Scottish!) every day – breakfasts would consistent of fruit, yoghurt and a variation on egg (ok, I had the odd vegetarian sausage) from this point on. No complaints on the poached, scrambled or fried eggs on offer here.
We’d been spoiled at the Victoria Square Guesthouse, so neither the building nor the room offered the same elegance or splendour. But we were, again, just a few minutes’ walk from the town centre, had stunning views of the loch:
…and couldn’t fault a thing. In fact, it seemed remarkably cheap given every B&B we saw (and they seemed to be everywhere) had no vacancies.
Into the mist: John O’Groats and then… well, we couldn’t see where!
My shooting rate remained stubbornly high, but my photos were compromised as we made our way up North (properly up North now!) to John O’Groats and then back down the ‘other side’ via overnight stays in Lybster, Durness and Loch Luichart. The sea mist that was to set in only heightening the otherworldly feel as cyclists appeared in what appeared slow-motion from the clouds.
It was at this point, I had well and truly lost touch with reality – we had the Carry On box set as our companion, the only other vehicles on the road were camper vans – and chickens had made their home at the local petrol station. It would take me a few weeks to readjust to the 30-minute morning queue into Newport when we returned home.
Dunnet Bay Distillers
No longer primed for 5:30am starts, I did put our 11am gin distillery tour (with the makers of Rock Rose gin) in jeopardy – fortunately, we were only 2 minutes late! “No apologies necessary,” we were ushered in and promptly handed a glass of gin and tonic that went straight to my head.
If you’re on trend, you’ll be a gin expert. We’re laggards, so found the tour enlightening in every respect. The engaging guide talked us through the history of everything from the local area to the founder’s various Frankenstein-esque experiments.
It was very good value, with plenty of interaction, a dogged determination to get the wax melter working – and enough gin consumed (and taken away) to cover the entry fee!
Oakwood Traditional Scottish Restaurant & Gift Shop
Sorry, I was a bit too keen to get to the gin then!
The day before the distillery tour, we met up with the Elgin-based in-laws for lunch near Loch Ness at the Oakwood Traditional Scottish Restaurant. It would be one of the best-tasting meals of the holiday.
And it was unexpected to say the least.
There was more than a little trepidation as we pulled in to the car park:
…and the décor certainly had more in common with the hotel in Carry On Abroad than any restaurant we would normally choose to part with our hard-earned cash. But there was a collective sigh of relief, which turned into disbelief, and finally adoration as our eagerness to bequeath plaudits saved us from indigestion.
The laird’s casserole was exactly what the menu promised – rich in flavour (red wine, port, brandy and, of course, gin!) – and the meat was so tender.
“Slow cooked to heaven.”
Mrs. B.B.: “It might not have been all that to look at, but my butternut squash casserole had been slow cooked to heaven in cider, with sun-dried tomatoes and mushrooms.”
This was hearty home cooking at its best.
I couldn’t quite fit in a dessert – but I was happy to steal half of Mrs. B.B.’s bread and butter pudding, which was light and moreish. I’ve regretted not sucking it up and dealing with the heart burn of a full portion ever since – and Mrs. B.B. still hasn’t forgiven me.
Smoo Cave Hotel
Once we’d passed Loch Ness, it was slim pickings on the grub front. The electric cool box and never-ending supply of Shredded Wheat bitesize were both a genius move on Mrs. H.’s part.
However, we did have one hell of a pie at the Smoo Cave Hotel. Well, two – one each!
Crispy pastry, packed with meat – I don’t recall any veg (inside the pastry that is), but I guess there wasn’t room for more than a whole cow – and a decent beer or two (the Raven Ale from Orkney Brewery stands out as a Golden delight).
Hillside Bed and Breakfast
Our hosts – who had moved from Warrington to run the B&B – were welcoming to the point it felt like we were simply staying with friends. It’s a shame we couldn’t see the views – the mist made our accommodation seem even more isolated than it already was, although it did add an eerie quality that elevated our visit to the Smoo Cave (the actual cave – the stares from the locals served the same purpose in the restaurant!).
Don’t loch now..
Having survived the midge invasion in Loch Luichart – there’s a horror book in me now – and a mattress I assume was filled with cement, we started to make our way to The Isle of Skye for the second half our Highlands getaway.
The alcohol consumption would increase, the food bills would set off mild convulsions – and we’d make a four-hour road, ferry and foot trip to find the best.cake.ever!
Don’t forget to check out part 2 – and to follow us on Instagram and Twitter as we try and pad out our lifestyle until we can afford another adventure.