The advent of a new administration can be an unsettling time. It could be argued that the previous leadership had been in charge for a bit too long and may have taken their eyes off the ball – but it’s also reassuring knowing that the folk at the helm have been doing it for a little while and know the ropes. And then the new man in charge sweeps in, with energy and vigour bursting out of his well-cut seams; with plans for valet car parks, supercar hire, free wireless signal in all the suites and Michelin-star picnic lunches. Oh I’m sorry, did you think I was talking about politics? No, no. This is the far more delicate matter of the new ownership of a luxury country hotel.
In a not-at-all-extensive poll of my friends and family, conducted in a way which YouGov would most definitely not approve of, I asked what matters most when choosing a country break in the UK. My analysis told me the priorities are: fabulous food, a wine list which is extensive but not so long you’ve finished your aperitif in the time it has taken to choose a bottle, beautiful surroundings, peace and quiet, a warm welcome and a nice bathroom. Good choices, I think. If you do too then you should vote for Holbeck Ghyll (and I promise that is very nearly my last political reference).
I’m lucky to be able to say that I’ve been to Holbeck Ghyll in the Lake District before. For my honeymoon, actually. Been there and loved it. I’ve encouraged other people to go there, eulogised about its considerable charms to anyone who mentioned even a fleeting interest in the Lakes. Then the news came through that it was under new ownership. What would this mean for Holbeck Ghyll’s future? For mine, come to that? The only way to find out was for my husband and me to go back and see for ourselves.
You know how sometimes your travel plans mean that arriving earlier than check-in time is unavoidable? And how sometimes the staff make it oh-so-clear that this is dreadfully inconvenient, and they would so much rather that you just went away and stood outside until 2pm, madam? Not here. The staff at Holbeck Ghyll welcomed us as if we were doing them a favour by gracing them with our presence so early. With admirable charm and humour the chap behind reception quite reasonably explained that if our room was ready then wouldn’t that be marvellous, and if it wasn’t then maybe we could be tempted to a light lunch? Out of the corner of my eye I think I spotted another member of staff plumping up the cushions in the lounge just in case we were heading that way.
It turned out that our room was ready and so we headed over to the Lodge suites a short distance from the main house. They’re named after Beatrix Potter characters but don’t let that put you off. Cutesy doesn’t normally do it for me either, so once you get over the names you’ll be fine. The big advantage of these suites is that the lounge area is in a bay window with what I think is the best view I have ever seen anywhere. ‘Breathtaking’ doesn’t get close to doing it justice.
Now there isn’t all that much to actually do at Holbeck Ghyll. Although the new PM – sorry, sorry, I meant ‘owner’ – is looking to change that. The lack of things to do may well actually be one of its strong points, especially for city escapees in need of a change of pace. There are plenty of cracking walks close by and you can pop into the nearby villages should you want to. If you do find yourself looking for something to do other than admire the view and / or your companion, then I recommend ordering some food. Whatever the time of day, you won’t be disappointed.
Mid-afternoon: hot chocolate, fruit-cake and homemade shortbread to die for (look, I was very hungry and slightly hung-over); breakfast: I think between us we tried everything on offer and boy, was it good; lunch: sandwiches which were neither too small to leave you hungry nor too large that the fruitcake later on would be out of the question. And dinner…ah, dinner. The chef is the well deserved owner of a Michelin-star and I have no idea why it’s not two. From the canapés to the petit fours, via courses of true magnificence, it was a delight. The cheese trolley deserves special mention, as does the young waiter whose first night it was doing the cheese and who looked pleased as punch with his new status. Our dinner took three and a half hours and we enjoyed every minute and every mouthful. The one small note of discontent was that after dinner we got the impression that enjoying the hotel’s lounges wasn’t really the done thing. The previously roaring log fires were on their very last embers and nobody was around to plump the cushions now. We’d been eyeing up a late evening game of Scrabble but sadly it was not to be.
This ‘early to bed, early to rise’ approach doesn’t come at all naturally to me or my husband. Our arrival at breakfast was our usual dash in ten minutes before the end of service which we’ve perfected in hotels all over the world. We still managed to make the most of the breakfast feast though, and the spa body treatment I’d stupidly booked for shortly afterwards was beginning to look like a dodgy idea. Crystal in the spa delicately agreed that yes, maybe we should rethink the treatment planned. Without showing a trace of annoyance she devised a more suitable treatment for me and discreetly put away the tin foil accoutrements she’d prepared. Now if you’re lucky enough to have Crystal work her magic on you then I think you’ll agree that she looks like the kind of person who geese need not worry about going near. But give the girl a body brush and you’d better hold tight. As several layers of skin were being removed I began to wonder if maybe she wasn’t quite so nonchalant after all about me being an awkward customer. Four weeks on and I can still feel the benefits.
The spa’s sauna and steam room are not that great. Frankly not up to the modern standards you’d expect and I assumed that this must be an area the new owner has his eye on renovating first. Definitely something I’d ask him about when we met for coffee later on. But I’m afraid I didn’t. The tranquillity of Holbeck Ghyll had obviously slowed my brain, but mainly I was just disarmed by Stephen Leahy’s passion for making this the very best country house hotel “bar none”. Bringing up the one thing which I saw as being a bit of a blot seemed, well, just terribly negative. Kirsty Wark’s job is probably safe.
I’d long forgotten any worries I had about a new owner spoiling the things which had made me fall in love with Holbeck Ghyll to start with. They’re all still there, even a little better than they were before. When Leahy tells me that since moving to the area in best Escape to the Country style he’s discovered that “Heaven does exist and I think I’ve found it”, it’s fair to assume he has a deep respect for the place he finds himself in. Leahy only took the keys in January this year and has a very hands-on approach to his new enterprise. Future plans include more suites, restaurant expansion and making his personal collection of supercars available for the guests to hire. For now though, he’s focussed on placing Holbeck Ghyll at the pinnacle of customer service and as the greenest hotel in Cumbria.
Leahy walked me around the grounds, giving me an insight into his hopes, plans and frustrations. Where once I was nervous about the changes he might bring, now I can’t wait to return and enjoy them. Sadly, for now, it was time to leave. Our bags packed and a train to London to catch. The sun was dancing gloriously on that view I told you about, entreating us to stay for one last glass of wine and raise a toast to it. So we did. I asked our waiter for a glass of the white wine I’d so enjoyed over dinner the previous evening, and could I have another look at the wine list to remind myself which it was. There was no need. He immediately remembered for me. I have no idea how and didn’t think to ask – by now it was just accepted as being typical of the new administration’s efficiency. If only all transfers of power could be so seamless.