Wales in their own words : Hilary Jones & Pontganol Cottage, Brecon Beacons National Park
In my blog series Wales : In their own words I am introducing readers to the people behind the businesses I have got to know and love in my travels around Wales. A huge thank you to Hilary of Pontganol Cottage who kindly gave up her time to answer my questions.
What does your business do? She’s a little self-catering cottage in Llangynidr village in the Brecon Beacons National Park, near Crickhowell.
What is your most popular product? Stays at the cottage.
What is your personal favourite? I love the bathroom at the cottage - it’s got a roll-top bath that sits underneath a skylight, so you can lie in the bath and stargaze (with a glass of wine or a cup of tea!).
Where are you based? The cottage is in upper Llangynidr village, just further along the canal from Crickhowell and not far from Glanusk where the Green Man Festival is held. Llangynidr is a wonderful place, with a local shop and post office, cafe overlooking the river, a deli and two pubs - one just 500 yards from the cottage.
How long have you been in business? I started to renovate the cottage in 2013/4 when I was made redundant from a job that I’d been in for seven years. She opened in November 2014.
What are your hours? The cottage is open for bookings all year round (although this year has been different due to lockdown) - the village is gorgeous in every season, with walks along the canal and the river, or into the glorious mountains.
What is the easiest/most fun part of your business? I absolutely loved decorating and styling the cottage as I live in a very modern, glass-filled, all-white minimalist house so the cottage is an excuse to indulge a different side of me! I can spend ages looking for interesting books to leave at the cottage and treats that guests will love, like toiletries from local business Myddfai (also featured in this series) and I love adding little touches that you might not expect to find in a holiday cottage, like little handwritten notes about how things work. I was always keen that the cottage would feel like a cross between a boutique hotel and a home from home so guests would feel instantly at ease there, I really hope that comes across to guests when they stay.
What is the hardest part of your business? I work full time as a copywriter and run the cottage alongside juggling writing contracts. As a result it’s sometimes hard to keep track of all my bookings from different platforms, answer queries and have time to write little welcome cards, which I do try and do for every booking (mainly because I can’t be there to welcome guests myself).
Where do you live? I live just outside Bristol, where I can look across the river Severn to Wales. I grew up over the mountain from the cottage (in the Sirhowy valley), and the cottage belonged to my Great Aunt, who left it to my mother for me. I inherited the cottage when I was 21 after visiting most weekends as a child - and sleeping on the landing where the day bed now is!
How do you relax? I’ve recently been able to take up gardening after living in the centre of Bristol in a flat for the last 10 years, so I’m now growing fruit, flowers and veggies. I also do yoga and am a voracious reader.
If you weren’t doing this what would you do? I’ve always fancied renovating houses full time, even after crying whilst repointing the flagstones in the cottage kitchen on a cold dark night one November.
Is this the career you thought you would have? When I was really little I wanted to be an archaeologist, but as I got older I decided it was far too science-y and that writing would be the way to go instead. I always knew that the cottage would be part of my life thanks to my amazing Great Aunt and when I had the opportunity to turn her into a holiday cottage after the long-term tenant moved out, I was spurred on by the fact that it meant I could stay there again too.
Where did you train/learn? I went to Exeter University and studied English and Medieval English and then did a Masters at Cardiff University in English. I’m also a trained youth worker, and I did once start a HMRC fast track training scheme, but there were way too many numbers for me.
Where did you grow up? In Pontllanfraith, over the mountain (in the Sirhowy valley) from the cottage. My parents were from Llangattock and Brecon and had moved to the rather more industrial valleys for work.
Where else have you lived? Exeter, and after I first left university, Bath, where I bought my first house (well I didn't that about Bath, my grandparents lived in Bath and I am often visiting family so when we can let's meet up in Bath!).
What is your favourite meal? I love mediterranean dishes and small plates like tapas. I’m also ridiculously fond of pretty much any cheese (but not blue cheese).
What is your favourite telly programme? I don’t really watch that much tv, but I enjoy cookery programmes like Masterchef.
What book have you enjoyed recently? The Garden of Evening Mists, Tan Twan Eng, set in Malaya in the ‘50s. It’s a beautifully crafted tale.
Are you a Welsh speaker? I know a little having grown up in Wales but I was brought up when it was uncool to speak Welsh. Having said that it then became compulsory for everyone to learn it in schools again a year or so after me, and of course now it has had a huge revival. I still find it hilarious in Welsh supermarkets when I see the sign for carrots which is ‘moron’ in Welsh.
Would you ever really leave Wales? When I was younger I couldn’t wait to leave the valleys and spread my wings, now I love going back to the cottage and can really appreciate how amazing and special the whole area is. Crossing over Llangynidr mountain from the valleys to Powys most weekends, my parents used to both say ‘God’s county’ at the same time when you can see the huge view that takes in Llangorse Lake and beyond.
What makes Wales so special? I think for me it’s that sense of the untranslatable ‘hiraeth’ that I get from being there. I’m just totally at peace. It helps that it’s beautiful too. I didn’t notice when I was little, but going back as an adult really helps you see those stunning wildlife-filled landscapes, friendly faces and the brilliant local shops and communities that make Wales so downright lovely.
Do you do online sales? The cottage can be booked online - through Brecon Cottages, Airbnb or Holiday Lettings by TripAdvisor.
Do you attend events? I love the Glanusk Estate Fayre and NGS Open Garden for catching up with people (yay, thank you, sadly it was cancelled this year but pop Sunday 16th 2021 in your diary) and Crickhowell Literary Festival. I’m also a member of Brecon Beacons Tourism so I try and get along to things they put on when I can juggle them around work.
Where is your happy place? Walking down Cyffredyn lane from the cottage heading towards the canal or the river beyond. It always reminds me of the walks I took with my parents, where they pointed out birds nests, wildflowers and animals.
Where is your favourite hidden gem? I adore the coastline around Pembrokeshire as it’s where I holidayed every year as a child. There’s a beautiful little sandy beach called Skrinkle Haven that’s a world away from the madding crowds.
How had you adapted your business during the early part of this pandemic? I’m afraid to say I haven’t really, I hadn't been able to go and spend any time at the cottage, so I couldn't add any new content to the cottage instagram page, but I keep in touch with guests who have bookings in the future as best as I can.
Could you recommend one of your favourite websites? Hmmm, well I’m a bit of a magpie and I love Rockett St George for gorgeous interior pieces and inspiration and Ted talks for really interesting stuff on just about any subject you can think of!
Anything else you would like to say? Just a massive thank you to Nellie for this absolutely lovely idea - thank you for thinking of me and running these pieces. I’m really enjoying finding out about all the people behind other Welsh businesses. (My pleasure it has been a real joy to learn more about the people that are part of my Welsh world!).