Until the end of the 18th century, the Lake District was little regarded. The land was poor, so there were no great aristocratic estates, a fact famously noted by the poet William Wordsworth in his guidebook to the region published in 1810: “Neither high-born nobleman, knight, nor esquire was here; but many of these humble sons of the hills had a consciousness that the land ... had for more than five hundred years been possessed by men of their name and blood.” Wordsworth was born in the town of Cockermouth, at the northwestern edge of the Lakes, where his family home is now a museum. But most of the other writers and painters associated with the region — Constable, Turner, Coleridge and the art critic Ruskin — were tourists. During the Napoleonic Wars, it was impossible for the English to travel in Europe. So starved of the Romantic landscapes of the Alps, they learned to make do with their own country’s nearest equivalent. And it is this combination of scenic beauty and rich cultural associations that was doubtless responsible for the Lake District’s being added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in July.
In the relatively recent past, my recommended hotel in the Lake District was Holbeck Ghyll, overlooking Lake Windermere, but it was dropped from The Andrew Harper Collection after several trenchant complaints from members. On this trip I had hoped to visit Gilpin Hotel & Lake House, also near Windermere, but alas, it was fully booked. I am assured by reliable informants that this is now the region’s preeminent property. Denied the opportunity to experience Gilpin Hotel for myself, I made a reservation at Forest Side, which overlooks Grasmere, a village (and adjacent small lake) that lies just to the northwest of Windermere. (Wordsworth lived at Grasmere from 1799 until 1808, in very modest circumstances at Dove Cottage. Today the cottage is maintained just as it was at the beginning of the 19th century.)
Forest Side is a large Victorian house, built of Lake District stone, which was renovated and converted into a hotel in 2014. First impressions count for a lot, and on this occasion mine were negative. The steps leading up to the front door looked as though they might last have been washed or swept around the time of the millennium; the receptionist was abrupt, and her desk and the surrounding area of the lobby were a wilderness of disorganized paperwork. Fortunately, our room turned out to be spacious, bright and tranquil, with a king-size bed, sofa and an array of large sash windows overlooking lawns and woodland. Once again, the interior design was contemporary and wholly lacking in regional character. If I had been blindfolded, led into the room and informed that I had been teleported to Los Angeles, I would have been quite prepared to believe it. One welcome aspect of modernity was the well-lit and stylishly appointed bath.
I soon discovered that my experience with the receptionist was not entirely typical. Other staff members, including the French maitre d’, were charming. The restaurant, which was awarded a star in the 2017 Michelin Guide, has been responsible for much of the favorable publicity that Forest Side has garnered of late. And dinner did not disappoint. We opted for the six-course tasting menu, and it was exceptional. I particularly enjoyed the duck-heart salad with horseradish, burnt green kale and pickled walnuts, and the aged Shorthorn rib with golden chanterelles cooked in bone marrow. Each course came with an interesting wine pairing, and the sommelier could not have been more pleasant or informative. In the morning, breakfast was also outstanding, and my poached eggs with foraged wild mushrooms and sourdough toast were utterly delicious. At both meals, the cheerful young staff members were friendly and energetic. Although I remain unconvinced that the hotel will appeal to affluent American travelers — weekenders from London again seem to be the intended clientele — the restaurant certainly lives up to its laudatory reviews.
The southern edge of the Lake District is roughly 90 miles north of Manchester. As a result, Windermere attracts large numbers of visitors and is best avoided in July and August and on weekends, except in winter. The landscape around Windermere is also softer and prettier than elsewhere; my own preference is for the harsher, more elemental landscapes slightly farther north. For example, the 27-mile drive from Ambleside to Wasdale Head, over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, is spectacular. (At the top of Hardknott Pass, there are also the remains of a second-century Roman fort that was once garrisoned by a detachment of 500 cavalry. And the Wasdale Head Inn is a simple but atmospheric pub generally regarded as the birthplace of British rock climbing.)
I also recommend the drive from Keswick to Cockermouth along the B5289, a minor road that crosses the dramatic Honister Pass before descending to the serene lake of Buttermere. Ultimately, however, it is only on foot that you come to appreciate the region’s true character. The Lake District is a hiker’s paradise — the Lake District National Park contains nearly 2,000 miles of public trails — and there are walks suitable for every level of fitness. (Hotels will arrange for a local mountain guide, or you can engage the services of a qualified Blue Badge Guide.)
From Grasmere, we headed northeast for 55 miles to Brampton, a small market town that lies 14 miles east of Carlisle, the county town (administrative center) of Cumbria, and three miles west of Hadrian’s Wall, the famous Roman defensive fortification built at the beginning of the second century. Farlam Hall is an outstanding 12-bedroom country house hotel that has been a Harper recommendation for many years. A manor has existed on the site since 1579, but the present building dates principally from the mid-19th century. Since 1975, the hotel has been owned and run by the Quinion family — Barry Quinion oversees the kitchen, while his wife, Lynne, and his sister, Helen, run the front-of-house — but at the time of writing, the property is for sale. Forty-two years is clearly a long time to run a family business, but it is always a little sad when such a distinguished tenure draws to a close.
When we visited, in early fall, the Quinions were still very much in evidence and the levels of comfort and hospitality were as impressive as ever. Our tranquil room (No. 2) had an appealing view over lawns and a pretty stream. Its décor was thoroughly traditional, with gold-striped wallpaper, a heavy floral quilt on the king-size bed, full-length curtains, a pair of armchairs and a writing desk. The bright adjoining bath provided two sinks, a walk-in shower and a whirlpool tub.
The hotel’s public areas are similarly traditional, with chintz sofas in front of log fires and period furniture. The large formal dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows and looks out across a small ornamental lake. Barry Quinion’s menus employ Cumbrian products whenever possible — my local lamb was superb — and the service is gracious and prompt. Several well-traveled people of my acquaintance regard Farlam Hall as the exemplar of the English country house hotel. I do not disagree. I can only hope that when the property is sold, its new owners will maintain the standards of excellence that have been established and refined over nearly half a century.
- Hotel at a Glance -
Farlam Hall 94
The dignified old house; lovely, tranquil gardens with a stream and a small lake; warm hospitality; fine cuisine.
The fact that the property is now for sale, having been owned and run by the Quinion family for the past 42 years.
Good to Know
The hotel is just over two miles from Hadrian’s Wall.
Rates: Deluxe Double Room, $320
Address: Brampton, Cumbria
Telephone: (44) 1697-746-234
View Farlam Hall Hotel Listing
Lord Crewe Arms
Driving directly east from Brampton, we came to the county of Northumberland, most of which is, by English standards, wild and empty, especially the Cheviot Hills, which extend into southern Scotland. The tiny village of Blanchland is located at the southern edge of Northumberland on the border of County Durham and has a population of around 135 people. Blanchland Abbey was founded in 1165 for a white-robed order of monks, who had come to this remote corner of northern England to live in prayer and contemplation. Today the former abbot’s lodge is the Lord Crewe Arms, a 21-room hotel that also incorporates the village pub. At the beginning of the 18th century, the land belonged to Lord Nathaniel Crewe, bishop of Durham — the city of Durham, with its stupendous Norman cathedral, lies 30 miles to the southeast — but in 1721 Lord Crewe died, leaving his estate to a trust, set up to provide financial support to schools and colleges, including the University of Oxford. Nowadays the village of Blanchland still belongs to Lord Crewe’s trustees, and all the inhabitants are tenants. As a result of this curious arrangement, Blanchland has hardly changed in the past 296 years, and there are few prettier or more atmospheric villages anywhere in England.
On arrival, we made our way from the parking lot through a lovely walled garden, bright with roses and hydrangeas, that was once a cloister for the monks. Nowadays, in sunny weather, guests sit on wooden benches beneath spreading white umbrellas. The main hotel building comprises a succession of medieval rooms, with beamed ceilings, stone-flagged floors, cavernous fireplaces and stone walls hung with heraldic shields, as well as bloodcurdling displays of axes, swords and spears. The accommodations are located in a number of adjacent cottages as well as the main house. Our room, Jeffries Rake, was on the second floor of a converted cottage and accessed by a private staircase. It came with mushroom-colored walls, beige fitted carpet, heavy lined curtains, a writing desk and a leather armchair. A double bed topped with a white duvet and a tartan rug faced an impressive stone fireplace. Overall, it seemed quiet and cozy. The adjacent bath was well-appointed, with a large tub, a single old-fashioned pedestal sink and an effective walk-in shower. Being rather narrow, however, it was convenient for only one person at a time.
After a glass of Pinot Noir in the stone-walled candlelit pub, The Crypt, where hotel guests were greatly outnumbered by villagers downing pints of Lord Crewe Brew, the local ale, we headed to The Bishops Dining Room on the second floor for dinner. There chef Simon Hicks serves sustaining traditional fare, using the best English ingredients. Typical appetizers include “Crewe cured” whipped salmon with toast, and Kentish smoked black pudding with blackened carrot, followed by mains such as rump of veal with hazelnuts and grilled broccoli, and salt-aged porterhouse steak with Truffle Hunter mustard. It being the appropriate season (August to October), I opted for the roasted grouse with spiced red cabbage, which was memorable. The portions are generous, as many of the hotel’s guests spend all day in the fresh air, notably shooting pheasant, partridge and grouse on the surrounding moors. (Many Americans come to hunt on estates in northern England, and we encountered one enthusiastic shooting party from North Carolina.)
- Hotel at a Glance -
Lord Crewe Arms 93
The exceptionally pretty village; atmospheric medieval public areas; the excellent restaurant.
Due to the remote location, there is no cell phone service.
Good to Know
The hotel often hosts shooting parties that have come to hunt on the nearby moors.
Rates: Canny Room, $250; Suite, $300
Address: The Square, Blanchland, Northumberland
Telephone: (44) 1434-677-100
View Lord Crewe Arms Hotel Listing
After an idyllic couple of days in Blanchland, we headed north to Scotland. Edinburgh lies a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, but we opted to a take a longer route along the coast in order to visit Alnwick Castle (seat of the Duke of Northumberland, as well as the location for Hogwarts in two of the Harry Potter movies); Bamburgh Castle, built on a dramatic outcrop overlooking a spectacular stretch of North Sea coastline; and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which was an important center of early Christianity until the Viking invasions in the eighth century.
As we had been away for two weeks and needed to be back in the United States, we concluded our journey at The Balmoral in Edinburgh. However, travelers with sufficient time who wish to see more of the lovely border region can stay at my recommended Cringletie House hotel, near Peebles, 98 miles north of Blanchland and 20 miles south of Scotland’s capital.