Travel editor Neil Sowerby laps up the luxury at the AA’s English Hotel of the Year, unclouded by nostalgia for grim self-catering Lakes sojourns of yore...
AN off-season break on the edge of Knipe Tarn. Sounds like roughing it in the Lakes. Remember Crow Crag, Uncle Monty’s “horrible little shack” in Withnail and I? The eponymous hero, consolatory wine bottle in hand, declares: "This place is uninhabitable. We could be found dead here next spring."
Luxury! Our first holiday as a married couple, just before the last Winter of Discontent, was in an unloved, unheated unswept cottage that made Crow Crag look like a five-star condominium. Neither of us could drive, so we bussed it to Cockermouth and took a taxi onward into the remotest corner of North West Lakeland.
Only the beautiful surroundings, often viewed through rain squalls, made up for that shipwrecked feeling. The nearest pub didn’t do food and our meagre supplies slowly ran out. The final mince and a can of tomatoes made a spag bol sauce, but the pasta slipped from the sieve onto the floor. Rescuing it onto our plates, by the light of a single bulb, we consumed our last supper, chewing gingerly lest fag butts and mouse droppings had made it into the mix.
The Lakes doesn’t have to be like that. Even in those days the great hotels, Sharrow Bay, Miller Howe, Holbeck Ghyll and the rest were wooing gastronomes north and swaddling their customers in creature comforts. Times change. Sharrow Bay’s parent company Von Essen went into receivership in 2011, Miller Howe no longer figures in the Good Food or Good Hotel Guides, Holbeck has switched hands but retains its Michelin-starred cachet.
Other stars are in the ascendant, notably Gilpin, recently named AA Hotel of the Year 2011-12 after being voted Best Small Hotel 2010 in Visit England’s national tourism awards. The website still pays lip service to this Relais & Chateaux stalwart’s original title, Gilpin Lodge, but expansion means it is now Gilpin Hotel and Lake House.
The Lake House fascinated me from first sight. On a previous visit to Gilpin co-owner Barney Cunliffe took us down to see the work in progress on their “extension” a couple of miles from the hotel proper. Eventually we attended its launch lunch a year ago and now we were back for a stay. It exceeded expectations.
Barney’s mum Christine masterminded the design following on from the success of her garden suites at Gilpin, this time with a vaguely vintage Agathie Christie murder mystery feel to it. Mulberry curtains, Colefax and Fowler wallpaper, fabrics from Zoffany and Pierre Frey – a litany of decor chic. But there’s also a continuation of Gilpin’s quirky touches – a leather stuffed cat in each of the six suites, hats on antlers in the hall and a lounging leprechaun statue on the patio.
Granted Knipe Tarn, the pine-ringed private lake it fronts onto, can feel forbidding on a grey winter day, but the palest of sun transforms it. The first thing we did on arrival to was to push out a rowing boat from the jetty and float off through the marshwort and water lilies. Tranquil except for the occasional harsh honk from the wildfowl. There’s 100 acres to tramp round, too, and not a soul in sight.
Then there’s the advantages of staying in a six-suite boutique lodging. There’s no scrum for the facilities, be it the outdoor cedar hot tub or the indoor swimming pool, while spa treatments are done in-room. As the autumn night drew in I was happy to flop in the lounge with a glass of picpoul and a book from the amply stocked shelves (a louche Rupert Everett memoir, as I recall) before a taxi arrived to whisk us to the main house for dinner.
Gilpin chef Russell Plowman produces consistently immaculate food from locally sourced ingredients worthy of what is now a stupendous wine list (ask for a look round the walk-in wine cellar). The Good Food Guide 2012, while still lauding the food, said Gilpin had forfeited some of its “cherished charm”, which is arrant nonsense. From front of house Gill, 20 years at Gilpin, downwards the staff display a charm rare in such a high-flying establishment.
There’s always a welcome on your return to Lake House, too. Part of the deal is that one of the staff stays up until all the guests are safely stowed in bed. It is little touches like these that have kept Gilpin onwards and upward while Lake peers have floundered.
It would be easy just to play the pampered hermit at Lake House, but you don’t have to go far to find a great walk with at the end of it a great pub. Here are my current Lakes faves:
Gilpin Hotel and Lake House, Crook Road, Windermere LA23 3NE (www.gilpinlodge.co.uk, 015394 88818, e: firstname.lastname@example.org).
In Lake House, expect to pay around £500 for two people sharing, including a five-course dinner and bed & breakfast. Rates also include a chauffeur to and from Gilpin in the evening (if dining). The Lake House Suites range in price with Adgie in the first tier, Ethel, Maud, Beatrice and Gertie in the middle tier, and Harriet in the top tier. We stayed in Beatrice, which has an extra bedroom, which could accommodate two youngsters. For full tariff, visit www.gilpinlodge.co.uk/Hotel-Tariff-42.cfm.
Gilpin is 80 miles from Manchester by road and three miles from Windermere rail station.
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