We drank camomile tea on the lawn, ate laver bread and sang to the sheep

WEEKENDS AWAY
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The Independent Travel
The night was completely black - no street lights, no building lights. The air smelt of grass. Silence, until the loud "Baaaaaaa!" of a sheep burst through the bracken. The front door opened. Colour blazed. Warm hallos were exchanged and the scent of wood polish, coffee and open fires inhaled. We had arrived at the weekend retreat Ynyshir Hall, buried snugly between a bird reserve and the market town of Machynlleth, Mid Wales. It was like sinking into a warm feather bed.

It had been a long slog up from London - four and a half hours on the train. But the sniffy teenager and the butch guy who swore were forgotten the moment we stepped off the train.

I didn't know anything about the area - except that it would be quaint and full of sheep. I didn't know what to expect of the hotel, either - except that one of the owners was an artist and had his own paintings displayed on every wall. But by the time my companion and I left, we'd sung to the sheep, eaten laver bread (seaweed and oats) and drunk camomile tea on the lawn. We'd also made a friend: Mrs Reed, mother of two adult children, former teacher of geography in Lancashire and now the manager and owner of Ynyshir Hall.

The hotel has eight rooms and caters for "people who appreciate beauty". Each room is named after an artist and decorated with old furniture, rich, contrasting fabrics and original paintings. There are beds of every size, most big enough to fit four or five people. And there are nice little touches: Welsh spring water in cobalt-blue bottles, bathrobes, coat-hangers that match the curtains.

Our bedroom had a brass bed the size of a small stage, starched white sheets, a bathroom that was big enough to house an easy chair, and a view over the gardens.

We'd asked for a late-night snack before bed. It was served to us in the bar. I'd expected the usual: tuna and a few lumps of cucumber buried in a nest of lettuce; or a Caesar salad. But not at Ynyshir Hall. Here a "bar meal" means marinated Italian beef, smoked salmon and crunchy asparagus.

So far, very pleasant. But where on earth was everybody? I asked Mrs Reed. "It's the clean air", she replied. "It knocks people out."

The next morning I got up and flung open the curtains. It was drizzling. But there was plenty to do, I was assured. How about the Centre for Alternative Technology (examples of solar and wind power, animals, organic gardens, vegetarian restaurant)? Or King Arthur's Labyrinth - a maze of tunnels and caverns carved into the mountains, where visitors can take an underground boat-ride and listen to legends about King Arthur. Why not try the leisure centre, complete with pool, sauna and sunbeds? Or the brand new Celtica museum that tells the story of the Celtic people using actors and sophisticated audio-visual equipment (see panel, right, for more details).

We decided on power trekking on "quad machines" (four-wheel mini-tractors) at nearby Brynmelin Farm. I lasted an hour and a half. I left my companion looking muddy-faced and radiant and went back to my favourite pastimes: reading newspapers in coffee shops, looking at buildings and visiting art galleries, in this case the museum of Welsh modern art in Machynlleth. Then there were the knick-knack/ antique shops, the old bookshops and the arts and crafts place for presents.

To me it was a weekend of bliss: not so much "culture" that I felt overwhelmed; a quiet, easy pace of life. I got the bus back to the hotel then settled down to more reading in the end-of-the-day sun, sitting under a magnolia bush.

But by the end of dinner that evening, the joy of quietness was beginning to wear off. "I couldn't stand living round here for more than a week," I said to my companion as I wandered sleepily off to bed. Our last morning in Wales was spent on the Ynyshir bird sanctuary. I sang "I Dreamt I Walked in Marble Halls" to the sheep while my companion lay on the grass and watched the sky.

Then it was time to go. As the train pulled away I felt a bit sad to leave our weekend retreat. But I was looking forward to the noise and traffic of London.

Ynyshir Hall, Eglwyffack, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 8TA (01654 781 209). Double rooms from pounds 95

Dovey Valley Power Trek, Brynmelin Farm, Llanwrin, Machynlleth, Powys SY20 8QJ (01650 511252)

Six places to visit in mid-Wales

1. Celtica, a theme park of Welsh culture that opened last April on the A487 just south of Machynlleth. It sets out to document "the Celtic people who emerged from the crucible of European history 3,000 years ago". Open 10am-6pm daily, apart for a few days around Christmas. Admission pounds 4.65 for adults, pounds 3.50 concession, family ticket (two adults, three children) pounds 12.75 (01654 702702).

2. The Centre for Alternative Technology, on the same road two miles north of Machynlleth. A compendium of ideas of better ways to live, housed in an old slate quarry and featuring a water-powered cliff railway (that operates between Easter and October). The centre opens 10am-7pm daily until the end of October, when hours are reduced. Admission for working adults is pounds 4.50, schoolchildren pounds 2.50 and everyone else pounds 3.50. Call 01654 702400.

3. Aberystwyth has a cliff railway of the electric variety (celebrating its centenary next year, but closing for the winter at half-term). Aberystwyth's literary heritage is considerable, with the National Library of Wales alongside the university college above the town. Tourist information: 01970 612125.

4. Newtown, whose literary heritage is represented by the WH Smith Museum (open shop hours from Monday to Saturday, free), devoted to the man who started the newsagency chain. An alternative is devoted to Robert Owen, the paternalistic employer who moved north to the Clyde valley to create a workers' "paradise". Open sporadically; check in advance on 01686 625580.

5. Portmeirion, Wales' best bid for a man-made paradise. Sir Clough Williams' series of bizarre architectural cadences tumble into Tremadog Bay to create a weird urban fantasy. 9.30am-5.30pm daily: pounds 3 for adults, pounds 1.50 for children, lower from 1 November. Call 01766 770228.

6. Cader Idris. Climb this 2,930-foot peak on a short-break holiday operated next Easter by English (sic) Wanderer (01740 653169). The trip is rated "Moderate" and covers nine to 14 miles a day. Price pounds 276, excluding transport to Machynlleth.

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