Adrian Mourby

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Until the end of the eighteenth century England’s Lake District was populated mainly by farmers, sheep and itinerant traders. When Daniel Defoe made his way through in 1724 he described the landscape “the wildest, most barren and frightful of any that I have passed over in England, or even Wales itself”.  By the end of the century, however, dramatic landscapes were becoming fashionable. In 1778 Thomas West produced his Guide to the Lakes, which ushered in an era of modern tourism. 

Eleven years later, in 1799 the poet William Wordsworth arrived on the shores of Grasmere in search of inspiring -but also calming- landscapes far away from crowds. Fellow poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Robert Southey, and Thomas de Quincey joined Wordsworth at Dove Cottage in Grasmere and became loosely known as the Lakeland poets. 

Wordsworth did much to promote the Lakes as a destination for the discerning tourist with his own guidebook of 1810. This popular publication encouraged those who were prevented from visiting the mountains of Switzerland by Napoleon’s wars the chance for some home-grown grandeur.  (The poet later regretted his promotion of the Lakes when the Kendal and Windermere Railway opened up the area to mass tourism in 1847.)

Windermere was always the most popular lake amongst  visitors. Today it boasts the highest concentration of hotels outside of Britain’s seaside resorts. At over 11 miles long, it is also the largest natural lake in England. While tranquil to gaze upon now, it was actually carved out by a crushingly massive glacier 17,000 years ago. Beneath the calm, idyllic surface, the waters of Windermere drop down over 200 feet into peaty darkness.

To the north of Windermere lies Grasmere with its much-vaunted Wordsworth connection.  And to the west is Coniston Water, which was the home of the great Victorian art critic, John Ruskin and where Arthur Ransome, the author of Swallows and Amazons, learned to sail as a boy. 

During the nineteenth century there was a proliferation of mansion-building around the lakes as wealthy northerners from both Yorkshire and Lancashire created holiday homes, especially around the shores of Windermere. Many of these were subsequently converted into hotels during the twentieth century. Some purpose-built hotels were constructed too, and some coaching inns were upgraded from a purely functional place to change horses to residential retreats, far away from the pollution of wealth-generating cities like Manchester and Liverpool. Beatrix Potter’s family lived in London but from 1882 onwards they holidayed for several months a year on the shores of Windermere and she eventually bought her mother a house on one side of the lake while she lived – safely out of reach - on the other.

Today the Lake District is remarkable for its lack of modern hotels. Many of these historic buildings have been modernised, but the lake’s shoreline retains a picturesque late nineteenth/early twentieth-century Arts and Crafts feel and there is no shortage of places to stay if you’re looking for a complete escape from modern life.

Here below are just ten hotels I’d recommend – all very different but all equally delightful. So as not to show favouritism, they are ordered from north to south.

Wordsworth Hotel

Half a mile from Dove Cottage - now a museum to William and Dorothy Wordsworth – there stands a hotel named in honour of the famous poet. Wordsworth lived on the shores of Grasmere for eight years arriving in 1799 in search of inspiration and a calmer life. Here he wrote some of his best early poems. The cottage had been a pub known as the Dove and Olive Branch until just before Wordsworth and his sister arrived. In their day you could see the lake from the cottage’s bedroom but that view was later obstructed by some tenements built after the Wordsworths moved to a bigger house, south down the lake.

Today literary pilgrims and visitors to Grasmere stay in the village at hotels like The Wordsworth. It was actually built in 1854 as a shooting lodge for the Earl of Cadogan and  redeveloped in 1874 as the Rothay Hotel, named after the river that runs nearby. In the 1890s it used to advertise itself as “the nearest hotel to the resting place of William Wordsworth in Grasmere Churchyard”. 

Today the Wordsworth has been considerably extended with a spa, large car park and two conservatories. One of these lies off the warm, cozy bar with its deep red leather sofas. The other runs across the front of the hotel and contains its Signature fine-dining restaurant. The hotel uses William Wordsworth’s signature as its logo.

There are a few pieces of nineteenth-century art in the corridors and on the staircase. Bedrooms are not large, but that is to be expected of a rural hotel of this era. There is however a more spacious Woodrow Wilson Suite to the rear of the property, named after the American president who was a huge fan of the Lake District. Wilson’s mother was born in Carlisle and he visited the north end of the lakes six times between 1896 and 1919. On two occasions he stayed here at what was then the Rothay Hotel. In 1903 the visit was for six nights in the company of his wife, on her first trip to Cumberland. Wilson also stayed here in 1908 when he returned to the Lake District on his own.  

Grasmere is such an attractive town with a lovely Wordsworth Visitor Centre and hotels like the Wordsworth to relax in after a day wandering this dramatic landscape.

Like the old Rothay Hotel in Ambleside (now The Wordsworth), this nineteenth-century country house takes its name from the River Rothay which runs close by. When it was built in the 1820s it actually stood far  south of the town of Ambleside. Although the old town has encroached and a lot of traffic passes by these days along the A593, Rothay Manor still feels as if it is out in countryside.  

The man who built this elegant black and white villa was Joseph Crossfield, a successful Warrington soap manufacturer and merchant who wanted somewhere healthy to lodge his family during holidays. Crossfield and his wife Elizabeth had a home near their soapworks called Mersey Bank so they named their new home at the north end of Windermere Rothay Bank. An unusual but charming original feature was a cast-iron balcony running the full length of the front of the house at first-floor level.

Later the veranda underneath the balcony enclosed into the house and the balcony itself was lengthened. Today Rothay Manor’s best six rooms have access on to this balcony which has been divided up into six private terraces.  

Joseph died in 1844 after a short illness when he was aged 51. His grandson became a wealthy MP and the Crossfields company eventually became part of Unilever.

In 1936 the house became an unlicensed hotel with “garage accommodation” and changed its name to Rothay Manor. Today it is owned by the Shail family and run by the youthful Peter Sinclair. Working with chef Daniel McGeorge, Peter has been raising the profile of Rothay Manor as a fine-dining hotel. 

Pre-prandial drinks are served in two maroon lounges either side of the main entrance. Both have working fireplaces for the winter months. Dinner and breakfast take place in two interlinked dining rooms decorated with Lake District prints and large modern chandeliers.

The style of Rothay Manor is relaxed, the service excellent and the food a good reason to drive all this way. OK, “garage accommodation” is now just a large car park but then the hotel runs to nineteen rooms these days and there are plans for even more suites in the grounds.

There are many, many hotels around Windermere but very few actually on the lake’s shoreline. Of those whose grounds run down to the deep dark waters, few are as impressive as towering Langdale Chase.

This hotel was built in the 1890s as a private home by Mrs Edna Howarth, the widow of a wealthy Manchester businessman. He had died soon after buying the land for their Windermere holiday cottage so Edna decided to build something much grander for herself and her daughter to live in year round. It took a staff of 16 to look after the two ladies in such a huge mansion.

Externally the house nods to the past, with stone casements, a Jacobean roofline and tall Elizabethan chimneys. Inside it goes full historical with dark panelled drawing rooms, lots of old oil paintings and elaborate fireplaces. One features an overmantle carved with the date 1892, the work of the famous Grasmere Hermit who lived on an island in the middle of Wordsworth’s lake.  

A portrait of Mrs Howarth painted in Impressionist daubs is displayed in the music room.  This salon also features a Steinway grand piano that was evacuated from London during the Blitz - and never returned.

The illusion of stepping back into the past at Langdale Chase was continued by the next owner of the house. John Bouch Willows was an avid collector. Willows was responsible for installing the old oak fireplace in the entrance hall which bears the date 1662 and the names of a seventeenth-century Earl and Countess of Thanet. He also contributed the china collection on display in the hall today.

In 1930 the Dalzell family - Gertrude Annie Dalzell and her daughter Dorothy - bought the house and converted it to a hotel. After Gertrude’s death in 1954 Dorothy then became the sole proprietor until 1974 when she sold it to the Schaefer family. The Schaefers ran it as a country house hotel until 2017 when it was acquired by the House of Daniel Thwaites. Rather neatly, the original founder of this brewery group, Mr Daniel Thwaites left his family’s Lake District farm in the early 1800s to make his fortune as a brewer.
These days Langdale Chase is a hugely popular venue for wedding receptions and weekend escapes. Substantial investment by the Thwaites group is planned to develop a spa in the old stable block, to turn the old boat house into the most sought-after hideaway on Windermere and to redevelop the restaurant with its panoramic view of the lake. There might even be a new launch commissioned to replace the 50-foot Lily which Mrs Howarth named after her daughter and which subsequently carried Prince Philip across Windermere in 1966 and Prince Charles in 1977.

Ask to see the guestbooks from the 1950s and 60s which are available for anyone to peruse. Among the American millionaires and titled English visitors it’s fascinating to see how in the 1960s the hotel started requiring guests to provide the number plate of their car. Up until this point most guests arrived by train and were chauffeured to Langdale Chase.         

Broadoaks is a small, oak-panelled Edwardian house surrounded by green fields up in the hills, somewhere between Windermere and Troutbeck.  It was built in 1836 by Colonel John Hutchinson who is responsible for planting that enormous sequoia tree on the front lawn.

After Colonel Hutchinson’s death his nephew,  Henry Ormerod Hutchinson inherited the house. He in turn sold it to William Grimble Groves in 1899 and in 1900 Groves let it to Mr C H Slingsby. Slingsby was responsible for many of the improvements to the house that we see today, including the music room of 1904. This long barrel-vaulted drawing room with its delicate plaster relief work in the style of William Morris still houses a Bechstein baby grand piano that was commissioned for the room.

Today guests are welcome to play the piano and sometimes the hotel provides a pianist during pre-prandial drinks.

The house was sold on a number of occasions during the twentieth century before passing to Charles and Joan Pavelyn in 1990. They were responsible for turning Broadoaks into a hotel, which was bought in 2007 by its current owners, Tracey Robinson and Jo Harbottle.

Tracey has filled the music room with old family portraits and the bar with signed photos of famous people who have not necessarily stayed at Broadoaks (eg Robert Redford) and those who have (Mary Berry).

All twenty bedrooms are very different from each other.  Two of them have working fireplaces and three have reclaimed lavatory seats, including one that belonged to the Victorian actor, Forbes Robertson. The owner of the loo in question wrote to Tracey explaining that he had good reason to believe that it would have been used by the eminent actress Ellen Terry, great aunt of John Gielgud. (The provenance of the other lavatories is less august.)  

The hotel has a lovely policy of serving its afternoon tea in vintage bone china teacups and saucers donated by members of the public. For every cup received by  Broadoaks’ Te-Cycle programme the hotel makes a donation to the Lake District Foundation charity.

This is a pleasant, fun hotel to stay in, particularly if you are a dog-lover because so is Tracey. All rates at Broadoaks are DDBB (Doggie, Dinner, Bed and Breakfast) and there are kennels at the rear of the hotel for those who want to dine (for example) without their furry friend.

The hotel’s restaurant, Oaks Brasserie prides itself on Cumbrian produce with a French twist under executive chef Sharon Elders. As she herself puts it, “Modern French fine dining classics combined with our own Cumbrian favourites.”

Caroline and Jonathan Kaye run this colourful twelve-room hotel across the road from St Mary’s Church on the outskirts of Windermere village. It was built in 1854 as a private residence for the Reverend Addison and boasts ornate neo-gothic ogee windows. The architect, J.S. Crowther also designed the sturdy slate church opposite.

The house was sold a number of times in the twentieth century as the large cedar tree on its lawn grew ever bigger. It was turned into a B&B in the 1960s and in 1980 into a 12-bedroom boutique hotel.

Jonathan and Caroline took over Cedar Manor in 2007 and began refurbishing, using sustainable materials and their own funky sense of design. The couple are committed to making Cedar Manor a very green hotel but their rooms have made a vibrant use of every other colour too. There are playful references to the medieval pointed windows in the shapes of mirrors, headboards and behind the bar. This is style with fun. The Coach House, a two-storey suite in the grounds is one of the most luxurious – and expensive – suites in the Lake District.

Cedar Manor doesn’t offer dinner but rather a substantial afternoon tea that can knock the unwary traveller sideways. It is served from 130 pm so is in effect the kind of lunch that will leave you not needing any supper: finger sandwiches, warmed fruit and plain scones, clotted cream and homemade strawberry jam, plus a selection of homemade desserts and cakes.  To top off the experience, Jonathan and Caroline have chosen a local supplier, Penningtons, to provide their loose-leaf tea and filter coffee. Everything is presented on a bone china tea service from Royal Crown Derby, using a range unique to Cedar Manor.  

The Old England Hotel is a Lake District institution. It sits in a prime position above Bowness Bay half-way down Windermere with the Royal Windermere Yacht Club nearby.

The hotel takes its names from a Georgian mansion that stood here in the former fishing village of Bowness. In 1847 a railway line to the Lake District was established with the Windermere station on higher ground to the north of Bowness (the villagers didn’t want trains actually pulling into Bowness itself). Lucrative tourism was now a real possibility and so in 1869 a man with the unlikely name of Thomas Vllok bought the Old England mansion and demolished it to create a substantial hotel built out of the dark local slate. The front door faced St Martin’s Church and its gardens ran down to the lake.  A pony and trap ferried railway passengers the one and a half miles to the hotel’s door.

Since then the Old England has hosted Kaiser Wilhelm II, David Lloyd George, the Sultan of Zanzibar, the Emir of Afghanistan, Prince Philip (in 1966) and Prince Charles (1997). It also witnessed the landings and take-offs of Britain’s first hydro-plane, which in the 1920s used to be moored just 100 yards from the hotel.

Today the hotel has 106 rooms, berths for 12 boats, a spa, swimming pool and a more modern Lakeside Wing. Although the best of the public rooms is the lofty bar and lounge in the oldest part of the hotel, the uninterrupted view of Windermere from these Lakeside rooms is priceless.  

Perched on a high hill overlooking Windermere, Linthwaite House was built in 1900 as a private home by the Pattinson family. It was originally named Burns House, possibly because of the stream (burn) that ran down from the tarn, a small lake above the house. The Pattinsons spent nearly twenty happy summer holidays here. As so often happened in the Lake District in the 1930s, Linthwaite House eventually became a hotel. 

Extra rooms were added on sympathetically behind the main building, although this did result in an unusually long house, lengthened even further at the front by a conservatory that overlooked the lake below.  This last extension was added by Mike Bevans who bought Linthwaite House in 1990, having admitted that he fell in love with the hotel on first sight. 

In April 2016, Linthwaite House, by now a 30-room country retreat set in 14 acres of grounds, was bought by Analjit Singh to become the fourth property in his Leeu Hotel Collection.

The Leeu group owns five-star boutique properties in the Cape Winelands of South Africa.  They’ve done a great job refurbishing Linthwaite’s interior, filling the hotel with contemporary South African art from Everard Read Franschhoek Gallery. 

Linthwaite is the company’s first hotel outside South Africa although a new Italian property is due to open in Florence in 2022. Because of its arresting artwork, the hotel feels more like an art gallery and gourmet dining experience with superb views thrown in.  A walk around the grounds takes in a lot of sculpture. There are statues of lions absolutely everywhere (Leeu is Afrikaans for lion) but also springboks, a tiger and few nudes for good measure. The level of investment is impressive. Walking up to the tarn, which used to be a rather boggy experience, now brings guests to a jetty with two rowing boats and the Tarn Cabin, where you can sit and watch people row up and down the lake, or play noughts and crosses on a wooden tray.

There are also six new Lake Suites in the grounds.
Dining in Linthwaite is at Henrock, a stylish room with modern chandeliers that runs along one side of the house.  The quality of service and food are both impressive. Altogether Leeu have made an excellent job of their first European property. 

Gilpin is an extraordinary Lake District success story, the transformation of a family’s second home to top of the range luxury hotel in pretty much one generation.

The original Gilpin Lodge was built in 1901 in a style influenced by the Arts and Crafts movement. Joseph and Harriet Cunliffe bought it in 1919 to escape the smog of Manchester.  Their grandson John - the man who was to create the modern Gilpin phenomenon - grew up visiting his grandmother at Gilpin Lodge and staying at the nearby lake house (which was also a family home). The lodge was sold in 1961 after Harriet Cunliffe’s death.

John had a long career as a hotelier, including London stints at Browns Hotel and the Café Royal.  He also worked for a company who catered major banquets, at one point finding himself with Mrs Thatcher picking up discarded cigarette butts after a large Downing Street dinner so the carpet would not be damaged. 

In 1987 John’s wife Chris saw that Gilpin Lodge was for sale she urged him to buy it, given that Gilpin was in his blood.  Since then John and Chris and their two sons have poured a great deal of love, money and flair into developing Gilpin, aided by their Michelin-starred chef, Executive chef Hrishikesh Desai.

Sadly John Cunliffe died earlier this year, shortly after publishing his memoir, Slightly Perfect. Son Barney and his wife, Zoe, continue to run the Gilpin, alongside Chris, while architect son Ben is responsible for the design of the hotel’s many extensions. 

Inside the grounds there are now five Spa Lodges which seemed the ultimate in Lake District luxury until the larger Spa Suites were unveiled earlier this year. There are also Garden Suites, each with its own hot tub, two restaurants, and llamas patrolling the grounds.  

Today the five-star Gilpin dedicates itself to friendly luxury. It takes no conference, wedding or exclusive use bookings. Neither does it take children under age 7. (Weddings and exclusive use are possible at the nearby Lake House however.)

Gilpin is an example of that remarkable British phenomenon that can be seen with hotels like Portmeirion, Llangoed Hall and Burgh Island, and in restaurants like Outlaw’s in Cornwall and Rick Stein’s Padstow empire.  If your location is good and you believe passionately in what you’re doing - and never stop making the guest experience even better -  then people will drive hundreds of miles to enjoy it with you.

Storrs Hall is something of a Lake District anomaly. It’s a Grade II listed neo-classical Georgian mansion with 17 acres of grounds right on the shores of Windermere. As such, this is one of the few eighteenth-century “gentry” houses built beside a lake that was to be colonised by the Victorians a few decades later.

The house was constructed in the 1790s to the south of Bowness for John, 6th Baronet Legard, a distant relative of the BBC sports journalist Jonathan Legard who can often be heard on Radio 4 today.

According to house legend, the poets William Wordsworth and Robert Southey, and the novelist Sir Walter Scott were early guests of Sir John. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy were particularly manipulative of the connection – as many writers often are  – getting the Legard estate to give them feed for their horses and other provisions. In return, it is said that Wordsworth recited his poem ‘Daffodils’ in the drawing room of Storrs Hall. 

This is a fine room with large rectangular glass windows on to the lake and just off a beautiful circular lobby lined with stained glass. No wonder Wordsworth thought Sir John could afford to subsidise his Lakeland sojourn.

Storrs Hall is also home to a National Trust-owned folly, called “The Temple", situated on the end of a stone jetty jutting out into Windermere. On its four of its eight sides Sir John commemorated four great British admirals: Nelson, Howe, Duncan and St. Vincent.

After 14 years of owning Storrs Hall Sir John became increasingly crippled by gout, and eventually sold the house in 1804. The next owner was Colonel John Bolton who greatly beautified the hall but who has been under a reputational cloud recently because of owning slave plantations in the West Indies. 

In the twentieth century Storrs Hall was used as a girls' school and as a youth hostel as well as hosting the staff and pupils of a boys’ school who were evacuated to Windermere during World War II.

Today the hall is a 30-bedroom hotel with six modern Lakeside Suites and a recently refurbished boathouse. This stone retreat has its own outdoor hot tub, steam room, private terrace, and fire-pit. 

In the main building there is no obvious reception, no gym or spa and no lift. Storrs Hall retains the impression of a grand family home.

The one marvellously vulgar touch however is the bar, whose counter is a glorious piece of Victoriana taken from the Tower Ballroom in Blackpool. It occupies one of the drawing rooms and is fully functioning with ornate stained glass windows that come down to be locked at closing time.

Most of the buildings around Windermere date from the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries when the Lakes took off as a tourist destination – or a place for the wealthy to build holiday homes. But Lakeside in Newby Bridge at the south end of Windermere began life in the seventeenth century as a coaching inn, a staging post between the busy market town of Penrith and the coastal port of Barrow in Furness. As north-south trade increased with the development of Lancashire’s cotton mills, the inn expanded on shores of Windermere. 

It is believed that John Ruskin stayed at the Lakeside Hotel with his parents in 1826. The great art critic was only 7 years old at the time, but the scenery of the Lake District so impressed the precocious child that in later life he bought a house on nearby Coniston Water where he died in 1900 at the age of 80.  Today “Ruskin’s Brasserie & Bar” commemorates his childhood visit.
When the hotel was sold at auction in 1954 the particulars quoted a landing stage for steamers (still in situ) and a dining room with dance floor for 80.  Today a large modern conservatory wraps around the rear of the hotel and overlooks the gardens. Here drinks and light meals are served all day while open fires, oak panelling and ceiling beams remain as souvenirs of the original seventeenth-century coaching inn.

The stained glass of the hotel’s elaborate front door also recalls earlier times, with the Automobile Association and Royal Automobile Club badges on either side of the porch, a reminder of how people toured the Lakes by car between the World Wars. The stained-glass image of a pitcher with the word “Grog” and a fox’s face with the words “Tally-Ho” commemorate the hotel’s role as a centre of the local community in the early twentieth century.

Meanwhile across the car park more up-to-date tourism is represented by the Lakes Aquarium, where you can take a simulated walk under Windermere in a glass tunnel as fish swim overhead.

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