Lucy Self visits a luxury Lake District hotel with expectations as high as the hills surrounding it…
You might not know Holbeck Ghyll, a luxury hotel set in the Lake District, but you may remember an episode in BBC’s award-winning The Trip when Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon dine in a wood-pannelled restaurant, swapping quips such as Brydon’s (on the pumpkin and Gruyere pre-starter) “my bouche is amused…” to Coogan’s retort “can you not look into my eyes when you eat that.”
If you watched the part mockumentary, part culinary voyage across the North of England, then you’ve already had an introduction to Holbeck Ghyll’s classic, immaculately-cooked food, extensive wine list and charmingly old-fashioned interior without even realising it. If you paid particularly close attention to that episode, you might have even noticed Coogan talking to his assistant on his mobile after dinner, a breath-quaking view of Lake Windermere glistening winningly in the background.
I did watch it. And those soft-edged shots of the hotel must have lodged themselves somewhere in my brain, because when I was planning a cycling trip to the Lake District, it was my immediate choice. (On that note, the show aired in November 2010 and the hotel enjoyed a 13% bump in reservations the following year).
After struggling up a pretty much vertical road the main building, the site of any resting point would have been welcome but Holbeck Ghyll’s ivy-clad, country-house exterior was like a soothing balm to our weary calves. This feeling of being cocooned was further felt after an expert welcome from the reception team, and seamless tour of our suite, particularly when our lovely hostess pointed out a complimentary decanter of local damson gin.
Our Beatrix Potter Suite, set in an out house behind the main building, was more of a one-bed bungalow complete with vast patio overlooking Lake Windermere and the tree-lined hills beyond it. Décor was perhaps a little dated but, like the deep sofa in the living room and huge bed, felt inviting enough to sink into.
Talking of sinking, the mod-con adorned bathroom had a bath big enough for a pool party. As well as standalone walk-in shower and double-sinks with genius steam resistant mirror. All touches, from the perfume of fresh lilies on the writing desk, fan of glossy magazines on the coffee table and post dinner turn down service, are subtle reminders of the hotel’s caliber.
On the website, the introduction to the restaurant says: ‘Some people visit the Lake District for the scenery. Others come for the incredible food. At Holbeck Ghyll we are proud to combine the two.’ After sampling Head Chef David McLaughlin’s menu, it’s impossible to disagree. Nothing startles, jars or particularly stirs the palate, but each dish is made with infinite care and, most crucially, taste in mind.
First a pretty procession of skillfully made ingredients, tiny halves of just-boiled quails eggs; golden cubes of breaded ham hock; bright white florets cauliflower, curls of carrot and biddy button mushrooms all preserved in their picked state by a sharp bath of vinegar; and a field-fresh train of pea puree scattered with peppery micro leaves, meant to convey a scotch egg. And three perfect scallops paired as the flavour gods intended with Jerusalem artichoke pureed into silk.
Then hearty, meat-heavy mains for active country folks and cycling tourists. A great hunk of Lakeland venison, sliced to reveal a claret centre matching just so with juniper-rich gravy, lifted by crunchy hits of fat fried gnocchi and bright green leaf garnish. And a fine fillet of Aberdeen Angus beef, accompanied with late spring vegetables – the last of the jewel-like broad beans, baby leeks and mushrooms probably picked from the nearby woods.
Not all, but in some places service is as relevant as the cooking. Here, it makes the evening. McLaughlin’s food is easy to please and the restaurant team mirror this intent this in a way that makes the whole thing hugely enjoyable. Crumbs swept, glasses filled, wine matched, cheese trolley wheeled over – all with minor fuss and maximum charm. Particular praise has to go to the latter, a gloriously kept array of local and French cheeses, which we gorged on until we felt quite sick.
After an even greedier cooked breakfast, and a warm goodbye from reception, we were back on bikes, careening down that vertical road. Had my TV-watching expectations been met by Holbeck Ghyll?
To borrow from Brydon. It certainly amused my bouche….