A Merchant Ivory setting and Edwardian service - the sepia-tinted appeal of Llangoed Hall
Before I went to Llangoed Hall, a luxurious country house hotel on the banks of the River Wye, someone told me a story. The hotel was created six years ago by Sir Bernard Ashley (husband of the late Laura), and is now one of three run by Ashley House - the other two are in the US. Early on in its life an American came to stay (they are always American in these stories), a writer who was talking at the literary festival held nearby at Hay-on-Wye. The man was a guest of the BBC and it wasn't until he left and was presented with a chit to sign that he realised he was staying in a hotel: he'd thought he was a guest in some absentee landlord's pile.

It was a good story - or it was until I found it written up in the hotel's glossy brochure. This inevitably set me doubting: was the story just the figment of an advertiser's over-fecund imagination? No doubt a bit of both. But then that is the thing about a place like Llangoed Hall: it is a modern hotel, run as if the modern world had never happened.

The brochure offers lots of stories about Llangoed Hall. It says it occupies the site of The White Palace, Wales' first parliament. I'm told it changed hands in the 19th century, as the result of a gambling debt. I know that after WW1 it was given a very grand going-over by Clough William-Ellis, the architect who designed Portmeirion, the eccentric toy-town of a coastal resort where The Prisoner was filmed. He created the building more or less as it is today - a large Lutyens-esque mansion of stone, brick and Welsh slate with towering chimneys. Another story is that Sir Bernard Ashley first spotted the building when helicoptering across the Brecon Beacons: he landed on the lawn, and bought it there and then in exchange for the helicopter, his Rolex, and a signet ring. Well, I made that bit up, but he did first spot it from his helicopter and bought it pretty soon afterwards.

Ashley's aim, his publicity material explains, has been to recreate a place where "guests are greeted and cared for by their hosts as if they were indeed guests and not people simply renting rooms or patronising the restaurant". And, as you would expect from a man who has made a fortune out of merchandising mock-Victoriana, it is all done with great expertise. There are no reception desks at Llangoed Hall, no lobby, no bar, and certainly no banks - money must not be seen to be changing hands. The chintzes are Laura Ashley, the paintings and prints, from "Sir Bernard's own collection", are all Edwardian and of a piece. Large fires burn in the fireplaces and you can help yourself to drinks from the trolley (a waiter will discreetly note down your choice and record it on the computerised billing system whirring away behind the scenes). In the summer, the French windows open up, and tea and croquet are enjoyed on the lawn - Clough William-Ellis, a master of illusion, would have felt at home.

And, to be fair, if you enjoy make-believe, Llangoed Hall is the place to enjoy it. The house is situated at the bottom of a deep green valley with the local hills and Brecon Beacons making for a memorable skyline. Waiters and guests have the annoying habit of whispering to each other as if this was a sanatorium and not a hotel, but the service is impeccable and the food is reputatedly some of the best in Wales.

The chef, Ben Davies, first won a Michelin star three years ago, but we refused to let this put us off and decided to visit Llangoed Hall for a Sunday lunch. After drinks around the fire, we were shown into the yellow dining room. Our fixed-price meal (the only option for Sunday lunch) began with an unheralded cup of Jerusalem artichoke soup, just as it ended with some fine home-made petit-fours - the little extras that have become de rigeur in all Michelin-style restaurants. The salmon in "a filet of smoked salmon with a lemon and mint vinaigrette" had the slightly muddy taste that farmed salmon has. A warm quail salad, though, proved sweet and tender and admirably unfussy - just warm quail and... well, salad. For main course, the traditionalists among us went for roast sirloin. This included a rather dry and puffy Yorkshire pudding, and a bland array of (admittedly tenderly sauteed) vegetables - broccoli, carrots, courgettes and beans - but the sirloin itself was a very fine example of the stuff - marbled, juicy and cooked to perfection. (I liked, too, the ying-yang combination that went into the accompanying horseradish mayonnaise.) A dish of Welsh lamb with spiced couscous came with the same vegetables as the beef, but here, too, the meat was wonderfully tender and succulent.

Rogers's Law states that you cannot make a grown-up dessert with a banana; one of my companions had a banana and almond roll which, while good in its way, proved the point. Both the passion fruit delice and pistachio and white chocolate ice cream, on the other hand, were fine adult dishes. The delice - basically a passion fruit mousse with a jellied coulis - was particularly good. Llangoed Hall's wine list is strong in all regions and all prices, especially, I thought, the lower ones; we drank a lovely Cotes du Rhone (St Gayan, 1994) for pounds 16.

Indeed, although our meal was a fine example of a modern Sunday lunch (and one admirably reliant on local ingredients), it is the price that remains fixed in the memory. With the Merchant Ivory setting, the sotto voce atmosphere and Edwardian service, our meal still only came to pounds 30 a head. I think, in the end, I prefer the real world, to the imaginary one of Llangoed Hall, but I had to admit that by real-world standards, the imaginary one came pretty cheap. The apocryphal American was surprised by getting a bill at all. We were pleasantly surprised by ours

Llangoed Hall, Llyswen, Brecon, Powys, LD3 0YP (01874 754525); breakfast, lunch and supper, 7 days a week: all major credit cards, wheelchair access.