We left Abersoch on a warm late Spring evening, the sun starting to dip over the western horizon, Cardigan Bay alight with the end-of-day colours laid down by that setting sun. Through Llanbedrog we took a left opposite the garage up a narrow lane signed to Tremfan Hall. A few hundred yards on the left there was the large black and white sign declaring our destination, beckoning us to swing onto the drive and into the car park that provides the forecourt to this stunning venue.
It’s difficult to know which way to look when you arrive. Before you the grounds are a well-manicured delight with a stunning iron pergola holding court over the the dramatic stone terrace and a mix of follies, chequerboard slates and plants amongst the lawns that sweep down towards the sea. But please do raise your eyes from the foreground and enjoy the drama. Down to the right, shimmering in the gaps between the mature trees, is the local wonder that is Llanbedrog Bay, the stone and white houses that flank the base of the headland clearly visible in the evening light, waves gently lapping towards the waiting sands. To the left your eyes first alight on the raised mini-headland of Carreg Y Defaid and then are quickly pulled across the bay. First to Pwllheli where the seafront houses on the promenade glow a soft pink in the sunset-fuelled gloaming and then around the coastline to Criccieth Castle, Porthmadog and away over to Harlech.
It’s tempting to linger longer but Sally was gently tugging my elbow, urging me to look behind us. There, a perfect complement to those grounds and those views, is the hall itself. The first impression is that it is like a recreation of a story-book venue for the most fairy-tale of romances (and indeed it turns out that this is a sought after wedding venue for those looking for a special day in a special place). Any number of romantic or period dramas could have been set here, and no doubt they have. A true ‘Victorian pile’ now converted to a classic Country House and Bed & Breakfast, the hall is fronted by a row of stone gables, the main one clad as if by a set designer, with emerald green ivy climbing one wall. Below is the grandest of entrances – stone statues standing either side of a classically elegant stone-colonnaded portico that leads to a warm-timbered double door welcoming you into the bar and lobby of the restaurant.
It’s tempting to say that the sumptuous leather sofas, oil paintings, rich wood furniture and soft lighting where we are seated for a pre-meal drink reminds me of what I’m told an old-school ‘gentlemans club’ should look like. But that would be damning it with faint praise. Because everywhere you look there are signs of the guiding hand and clever blend of contemporary and traditional taste of owner and manager Sue Skinner. The room occupies what was once the hall of this former private residence, with its ornate, carved fireplace an eye-catching feature. The intimate dining rooms are to either side – ours a warm, welcoming, elegant mix of jade décor, paintings of local views and complementary Victorian influenced furniture. This is indeed a traditional venue, offering timeless values and quality but it is a place that still feels right for our times – carefully updated whilst losing none of the original qualities that appeal to the loyal customers we spoke to during our visit.
Sue comes over to meet us and offers us the guided tour of the accommodation side of the business that we’d been promised. She takes us across to another grand entrance opening onto a lobby that is both the equal of and yet somehow more characterful still than that of the restaurant – the paneled walls, unique artifacts (I’ve always been a fan of carved wooden elephants) and superb Italian frescos just a selection of the magic and history surrounding us. Sue talks us through the colourful tale of the creation of Tremfan and the lengthy and varied line of ownership of the hall before the day her long-given promise was called in and she was asked if she wanted to buy it. Given the work needed and the challenges she faced there was no logic at all in answering with a yes. But Sue did anyway and here she is today – proudly walking us through this immaculately and imaginatively restored venue.
Every door she opens tells a different story, the deep timbered windows casting a surprising amount of light into what one could easily imagine would be a dark interior. Anything but, despite the weight and substance of some of the furnishing Sue has sourced – not least the massive table that is the centre-piece of the breakfast room. Sue tells us that this can be a private dining room where a wedding party can breakfast the following morning to share stories of the romantic day they have just enjoyed. Or groups of family, friends or business associates can rent for private dining with the benefit of the range of food on offer from the restaurant next door.
We have a peek into Sue’s own suite – a heart-warming combination of the traditional hall merging into a big farmhouse style dining kitchen looking out over the private hot tub on her lawn where she can relax after a long day hosting guests! Back in the guest accommodation we head up the magnificent staircase and wander from bedroom to bedroom, each unique, each beautifully finished and furnished with Sue’s wonderful eye for interiors. Sue declares each of the five en-suite rooms her favourite, not least the Red Room with its views over the lawns and on to the sea, with possibly her ‘favourite favourite’ the fairy tale suite housing an ‘outlandishly comfortable’ and impossibly romantic four poster bed. The room becomes yet more intriguing as a closer inspection reveals a ‘secret bathroom’ magically engineered into the rich wooden panelling of the walls. As we traverse the landing I comment on the fresco on the landing wall and hear another story – of the Italian based painter, a relation of the original owner, who came for a few weeks and stayed for three years to complete this remarkable piece of art.
As we explore Sue tells us more of the long history of the hall and how she came to own it – promising the then owner – a friend – that should she ever sell then Sue would buy. Seven years later the call came and here we are. The hall was originally constructed to the design of the local scholar and publisher, John Gwenogfryn Evans (1852 – 1930), who both wrote himself and translated historic Welsh texts, leading to an honorary degree from the University of Oxford. It subsequently passed through a number of hands before being lucky enough to come under Sue’s spell. From private home to not so private drinking club, from hurried sales at auctions to various ventures successful and otherwise, the place has a rich history. Yet Tremfan feels as though it was built to eventually become this bespoke mix of fine dining and sumptuous accommodation.
Back to the restaurant and we settled down to enjoy the food from the a la carte menu, inspired by the finest and freshest local produce. Head Chef is Sue’s hugely talented son Nigel Skinner, whose reputation extends far beyond Llanbedrog and the Llyn peninsula and which is indeed the source of the only cause for a potential hiccup we discovered on our trip (all will be revealed later although a clue is just how busy they were on what would logically have been a relatively quiet evening). I had a chicken and liver terrine followed by a mixed fish grill, Sally The ‘Old Smokey’ fish special starter followed by rump of lamb, all supported by an extensive wine menu that it’s fair to say we both enjoyed. The dessert menu comes in a leather folder, with a charming note, “We hope you have enjoyed your meal at Tremfan Hall and that you have a little room left to spoil yourself with our delicious desserts.” It’s hard to imagine that the answer is rarely anything but a yes.
I would not pretend to be a food critic so I will simply tell you that the food was stunning, every taste an invitation to return. And a quiet chat with fellow diners confirmed Tremfan passed the best test of all – many were repeat customers, several traveling significant distances to enjoy the dining experience on offer. The service was great (Sue is a practiced exponent of the art of front of house – a quiet word here, a smile there – always in the background and always available to come into the foreground as needed), our waitress being Nigel’s partner the friendly Sandra. If the setting was incredible and the service charming, Nigel’s food was more than a match.
Sandra shared a little secret which was to come and try the Sunday Lunch which has become quietly famous in these parts. With a fixed price of two courses of Nigel’s cooking for just £17.95 and a sensibly tailored childrens menu at £10.95, it is the perfect, high value introduction to Tremfan Hall. There is always a vegetarian choice on the menu here, and any preferences, dislikes or allergies can be shared when booking, so that Nigel and the team can create a dish to suit your dietary needs. Gluten free bread is available on request and no flour is used to thicken their gravy, making it suitable for gluten free diets.
With a warming Baileys to finish, we said our goodbyes, promised to return (we will!) and headed back home through Llanbedrog into Abersoch, talking through our evening. Sally was already forwarding photos of our meals, the restaurant, the guest rooms and views to family and those generous friends that had sent us there in the first place. After a long discussion that only potential hiccup we could discover about the Tremfan experience was the news that the combination of the magical hall and its setting, Sue’s hosting, Nigel’s legendary skills in the kitchen and the friendly, attentive service mean that it is regularly booked out. Which rather tells its own story. We learned a lot on our visit but perhaps the most valuable lesson of all is to book early – you’ve been warned!
Written by Kevin Bell for the Summer issue of Abersoch Sensation Magazine. To subscribe and have each issue delivered to your home – Click Here
All photos by Totally Abersoch