Early autumn is the ideal time to visit the Lake District; the fact that the summer holidaymakers have gone home adds to the peace and tranquillity, the spectacular scenery is tinged a wonderful shade of copper and it’s still mild enough to enjoy being outdoors, whether it’s picnics, boating, hiking or pony trekking you plan to experience. And having always been put off from visiting the Lakes due to the epic five-hour drive from London, we were delighted to discover how enjoyable the journey proved with Virgin Train’s First Class service from Euston to Oxenholme. Reducing travelling time by almost half thanks to a speed of 110 mph and no chance of meeting rush hour traffic, we arrived at 11am having caught up with emails courtesy of the free wi-fi and enjoyed a hearty ‘Great British Breakfast’, freshly prepared on board and setting us up for the day.
Whilst you might baulk at the extra expense, it’s worth it when you consider how much more comfortable the seating is compared with economy, along with being able to make use of the First Class lounge up to two hours before you travel, which offers free wi-fi, complimentary hot and cold drinks, snacks (fresh fruit and pastries at breakfast), and newspapers, all in a private seating area away from the hustle and bustle of the main concourse. The benefits continued on the train with plenty of legroom and all seats featuring a table with a power socket and reading lamp, with the stewards meanwhile ensuring that travellers are offered a hot drink soon after embarking, followed by either breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea or dinner depending on when you travel. The breakfast was of a surprisingly high standard, easily beating the comparable Eurostar business class, and shows what can be achieved when it comes to preparing food on public transport.
After taking a short taxi ride to Kendal we stopped off for a quick coffee at the independent Brew Brothers before collecting our Avis hire car at the Riverside Hotel. As with the train, sometimes it makes sense to upgrade and the Ford Focus proved considerably better than the entry level Fiat Panda, especially when it came to negotiating the twisty Cumbrian hillside lanes. Making sure our Sat Nav avoided the motorway, few roads in England can be more scenic than those leading to Sharrow Bay, a hotel proudly positioned on Ullswater, widely regarded as the most beautiful lake in the country and serenly still in the late September sunshine.
Founded in 1949 by Francis Coulson, who bought the former fisherman’s lodge the year before, whilst the establishment initially opened its doors as a four bedroom hotel, it quickly gained a reputation for warm hospitality and comfort with a touch of luxury, gradually growing in both size and ambition, especially after Coulson met Brian Sack in 1952, who planned to stay for the summer but ended up moving in. Sharrow Bay went from strength to strength, experiencing its heyday in the 1980s and 1990s when the restaurant achieved a Michelin star, and although Coulson passed away more than ten years ago (you’ll find his headstone in the garden) his vision is still very much upheld today; personal service with staff who remember returning guests by name, partnered with traditional British food reflecting a bygone era. I’m just not sure if it’s inappropriate or amusing that the website quotes ‘Francis and Brian’s late rates’ when the couple are sadly no longer with us.
Much of the clientèle return year after year and Miss Marple herself wouldn’t seem out of place due to a décor reflecting quintessentially British country living; open fires, comfy sofas piled high with blankets and cushions, and cabinets crammed with antiques and chi chi ornaments once collected by Coulson. A multi-million pound refurbishment programme begun in 2013 when it was bought back by former owner, Andrew Davis of the Von Essen hotel group, which fell into administration in 2011, and Sharrow Bay continues to bask in old-fashioned charm. There are few luxury hotels in the UK which have retained such a unique ambiance, and whilst I love the quirkiness, even I can see that the ornaments might need to be scaled back if the hotel is going to attract a new audience.
With 17 bedrooms located in the main house, garden annex and Edwardian lodge, for couples in search of the ultimate romantic break, lake view rooms are a must. Our traditionally styled four poster première deluxe room, Silver, featured a magnificent panorama of Ullswater and the surrounding fells from both the bed, sitting area and luxury modern bathroom with free-standing tub, ensuring we made the most of the unparalleled scenery. Tea and coffee making facilities included scrumptious homemade shortbread biscuits and, although there was no mini bar, anything we required via room service arrived promptly.
The restaurant no longer has a Michelin star, but guests can still be sure of three good meals a day, commencing with breakfast featuring Sharrow’s own delicious marmalade, and with Coulson’s famous sticky toffee pudding (a dish he is said to have invented) served at both lunch and dinner. Overlooking the lake, the restaurant understandably receives more window-seat requests than they can satisfy, but if you are lucky enough to get one, few dining venues can be more memorable. It will therefore be interesting to see what happens when it is turned into a bistro in order to provide guests with even more lake-view seating.
Currently aimed at the fine-dining audience and under the command of executive chef Colin Akrigg who has been at Sharrow for over forty years, the only thing that may make residents avoid dining in the restaurant two nights running is the lofty pricing for food that is more country house fare than contemporary haute cuisine. And indeed the hotel’s decision to convert the restaurant to a bistrot-style operation would be much welcomed. The afternoon tea, however, is a particular forte here. We sampled this on the terrace shortly after arriving and it featured soft, buttery sandwiches, homemade scones (including an unusual apricot and wholemeal version), and strawberry tarts with wonderfully rich short pastry.
After that we needed a walk, and thankfully Sharrow Bay has 12 acres of gardens and woodlands to explore, along with half a mile of lake shore. The wider area offers up rambling opportunities galore and a climb to Aira Force waterfall was a particular highlight; a 70-foot cascade described as the most impressive of its kind in the Lake District. If you feel like taking it easy, however, hop on board one of the Ullswater Steamers for a lake cruise.
As the inspiration for William Wordsworth’s ‘Daffodils’ poem, and where Donald Campbell set the world water speed record with the ‘Bluebird K7’ in 1955, Ullswater feels far more remote than the larger and more famous Windermere and is a dreamlike destination that was always crying out for a boutique hotel like Sharrow Bay, celebrating English style and the home-from-home ethos. Like all legendary hotels around the world, it’s the kind of place that gets under your skin, and whilst it’s healthy for places to move forward, it would be heartbreaking if too much changed.
Sharrow Bay, Lake Ullswater, Penrith, Cumbria, CA10 2LZ. For more information and to book visit the website. For more information on Virgin rail services to the Lake District visit the website. For more information on Avis car hire in the UK visit the website.