It doesn’t take long to reach the Lake District from London; just three hours from Euston station to Oxenholme and a quick change gets you to Windermere. It feels, however, like a different world.
For those who have been stuck in cities for far too long, and are apprehensive about the possibilities of getting abroad this year, this is the place to go. In fact, it’s the place to go even with international travel opening back up. And yes, there will be rain. But if you stay in the two hotels mentioned below, it won’t make a difference.
The Samling: impressive and sophisticated
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The Samling is about a 15-minute taxi ride from Windermere station, set back from the busy road that winds around the lake. Nestled in its own impressive grounds, with winding woodland trails, an ornamental water garden, a Georgian arbour and wildflower meadows, the hotel feels secluded and peaceful.
The hotel has an impressive and sophisticated feel, with a large communal lounge painted in cool greys and silvers, big sofas and modern fireplaces. Despite the cool decor, the staff are warm and friendly, with great local knowledge and they clearly take great pride in looking after their guests.
The suites, detached from the main building, give the feeling of staying in your own private luxury cottage. We stayed in Kentmere, a short walk from the main building, set over three floors, starting with a marble clad bathroom featuring a generous bath and separate walk-in shower. A short flight of stairs leads to the sitting room which is flooded with light from its position facing out over Windermere and decorated in soft neutrals and rich navy blues. The top level, open to the original eaves and beams, has a very comfortable super-king sized bed, although annoyingly the big skylight didn’t have a blind so the room never got really dark at night.
With the weather still holding, a little wander was in order. From the hotel, you can easily access Stagshaw gardens, which is owned by the National Trust but free to enter. It’s a haven of gushing water, and huge blooming floral displays of rhododendrons. From there, it’s possible to hike up to Wansfell Pike, after you clear the beautiful woodlands, the grass embroidered with bluebells and delicate, fragrant white wild garlic flowers. A dip in the outdoor hot tub after you get back (free, but book) with a glass of bubbles and a view over the lake is a pretty special way to unwind after any hike.
Was it the champagne talking (Pol Roger, a favourite of Sir Winston Churchill’s, and the hotel’s standard), or is that an original Picasso hanging in the bar? It is, and there are several other originals to gaze at, which is a stunning draw for art enthusiasts. The seven-course Samling tasting menu was faultless, with the experience only enhanced by the most stunning floor-to-ceiling views over the lake. The highlights included a delicately exquisite mushroom tart, a huge, fat scallop and rich but tender lamb. The service was impeccable, and the attention to detail exemplary.
The sommelier, Robert Patla, was knowledgeable and wonderful; his infectious passion and pride made it all the more sad to think of the hotel languishing for so long under lockdown. Do take advantage of a tour of The Samling’s cavern of wines with Patla as your guide; he told us some brilliant stories behind some of the rarest and most intriguing bottles, and generously topped us up with a dazzling selection of wines over dinner.
Rothay Manor: spacious and elegant
About ten minutes up the road from The Samling is Rothay Manor, a very attractive and compact country house, and with a distinctly different feel. It’s far more boutiquey, a masterpiece in subtle creams and greens, ferns and leaves, William Morris-inspired textiles, and floral statement wallpaper. Someone has clearly taken time over the interior decor and it shows. The lounge areas have beautiful character, with fireplaces, coffee served on intricate silver trays and embroidered cushions.
There are prints on the walls of local maps, old sepia photos and beautiful botanical illustrations. You can imagine Charles Darwin reclining in one of the wingbacks, after a day’s exploring. The hotel has a beautiful black and white exterior, with a huge lawn – ideal for sitting with a cold drink or indulging in an afternoon tea.
Our room was spacious and elegant, its balcony overlooking the hotel garden below letting in the light and fresh air. All around our room were huge big billowing trees, which were cleverly reflected in the room’s mirrors and wallpaper, making it feel as though you were suspended in a luscious green canopy.
The food, on the whole, was very accomplished. The barman behind the tiny, but very charming bar, studded with old glass bottles, conjured up a mean bellini, followed in quick succession by a perfect pink triangle of Cosmopolitan. We enjoyed a more casual bistro-style dinner in the Brathay Room, although the hotel is also famed for its fine dining, with head chef Dan McGeorge crowned “Champion of Champions” in the final of the BBC’s Great British Menu TV series earlier this year.
My starter – a truffle croque madame – was confidently retro and utterly melty: think gooey gruyere trapped in crispy bread with a gently puckering fried duck’s egg on top ready to burst. The mains – local Cumbrian lamb with hispi cabbage was outstanding, as was the dexter sirloin steak with satisfying peppercorn sauce. A gigantic slab of sticky toffee pudding for dessert was perfection itself, although the atmosphere of the Brathay Room was just slightly stuffy and overly formal.
There are lots of local walks from the hotel, which is handy for those wanting to explore the area without a car. You can easily get to Ambleside and Windermere in about ten minutes, similar to The Samling. One particularly lovely walk, recommended by the hotel, takes you up to the romantically-named Lily Tarn, which is beautiful for a spot of wild swimming. It’s another short but strenuous climb but you gain height quite quickly and are rewarded with stunning views over Windermere. Ambleside is a short walk away, which has mini golf, a cinema, shops and a couple of charming pubs, including The Golden Rule and The Unicorn. The only let down is that the area is quite traffic-heavy and touristy.
Both hotels make a visit to the Lake District blissfully simple, even for travellers without cars. They are both exceptionally luxurious and special in their own way, and actually complement one another well for anyone hoping to spend some peaceful days in what can be a touristy, but undeniably beautiful, part of the country.
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