At first sight, Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel might not seem the ideal place for a Lake District luxury break. Located on the Crook Road above Windermere, it lacks views of Cumbria’s biggest lake. There is no on site spa, almost a sine qua non for success at this level. Being two miles into the countryside may be too far for those who wish to explore town as well as rural landscapes. Its 20 acres of grounds are mainly rolling craggy hillsides and woodland rather than manicured lawns and gardens. And the modest exterior of the 1901 original house is not as imposing as others in the area.
All these have not disadvantaged Gilpin Lodge in the slightest, as its many accolades testify: It currently holds four red stars for its hotel and three AA Rosettes for its restaurant and remains a member of the prestigious Relais & Chateaux Association; The AA crowned it England Hotel of the Year for 2011-12; and it was voted Small Hotel of the Year in the English Tourist Board Awards for Excellence.
Indeed, Gilpin Lodge has made a virtue of its supposed weaknesses, creating a truly memorable experience for its guests. It provides in abundance the Relais & Chateaux mantra of five “Cs”: courtesy, charm, character, calm and cuisine. The unrivalled quality of its accommodation and public rooms, together with its reputation for fine dining, compensate for the absence of panoramic views. For those who insist on a lake view and spa facilities, there is now the option of booking one of the six suites at the Lake House, with its own private lake, pool and sauna. Alternatively, complimentary access to the Old England Hotel Spa leisure facilities on Lake Windermere is available to those staying in the main house, where they can also benefit from in room spa treatments. Nor are more physical leisure pursuits ignored as the hotel has arrangements with nearby providers of golf, pony trekking, horse riding, mountain biking and fishing.
Gilpin Lodge’s small domestic scale, as suggested by its symmetrical gabled facade, is the secret of its success. It is the quality, not the quantity of the hotel’s expansion that so impresses. From a small bed and breakfast in 1987, owners John and Christine Cunliffe have transformed Gilpin into an exquisite country house hotel of just 20 rooms and suites, with six more luxury suites in the Lake House. They have given ample scope to their two sons Barney and Ben to oversee and develop Gilpin. Barney manages the Hotel whilst his wife Zoë runs the Lake House (opened in 2010). Architect Ben designed the new kitchen, Garden Room, the spectacular garden suites, the Champagne Bar and Gardens, and the conservatory as well as the new rooms at the Lake House. Christine, working with designers, is responsible for the interior design – no mean task given the constant expansion and refurbishment. Essentially a family run operation, with a wealth of experience in the hospitality industry, Gilpin Lodge offers a degree of team work and personal service unmatched by its rivals. In keeping with this ethos, the hotel’s website must be unique in its comprehensive coverage of every aspect of hotel life, including detailed descriptions of each room and suite.
Barney Cunliffe is the imposing figure seen hosting breakfast and weekday dinner at the main house. Apart from strategic planning, administration and numerous meetings, his contribution to the day to day running of the hotel is very much a personal one, meeting guests, taking a genuine interest in what they have to say, and offering assistance when needed. Having mentioned at dinner I needed directions to the Blacksmith’s Arms at Broughton Mills, I was supplied at breakfast the following morning with a print out of my destination, a large scale map, and further advice on a route to Lake Wastwater. This typifies the tireless service and meticulous attention to detail that make an excellent host.
At interview, Barney was keen to stress the very hands on nature of his management philosophy. In this way, guests are treated to a very individual style of service. “To make each couple leave with a special memory” is his mission statement. As the hotel does not accept bookings for weddings or conferences, he and his staff have every opportunity to get to know guests personally, quickly assessing whether a formal or more relaxed form of service would be suitable. Accommodating their preferences in a professional way is paramount and, given the high rate of return visits, this is greatly appreciated. And, just as staff quickly get to know the guests, so I found myself warming to them, including remembering their names – a major achievement for me: Tim, the restaurant manager, exemplified the balance between formality and warm friendliness; Suzi and Adam who served at table chatted and joked in the relaxed atmosphere they helped to create; and Ziggi, the sommelier, spoke engagingly about his wine cellar.
Barney’s style of personnel management is equally flexible, allowing room for individual development. Whilst observing occasional weaknesses in service, he prefers a quiet word afterwards to immediate intervention. This approach pays dividends in terms of staff retention and he is rightly proud of his long serving, dedicated team; for example, Sarah, his House Manager, has been at Gilpin Lodge for 20 years.
Gilpin Lodge’s success in the competitive market of Lake District luxury country house hotels has meant there is little seasonal change in demand. The recession, Barney explained, has not significantly affected trade. Excluding January, occupancy rates range from 65% in February to 80-85% at its highest. Recently, the peak season has moved from autumn to summer, with the rise in international visitors clearly noticeable. Although many regulars come from Yorkshire and Lancashire, there is no significant geographical pattern in guest origin; thus, Gilpin Lodge’s reputation attracts guests from across the UK.
Whilst many would say Gilpin Lodge has already achieved perfection, Barney is keen to move the hotel even further forward: improving the reception area, tweaking accommodation in the main house (with each suite having its own conservatory), and adding spa treatment rooms to the Lake House are amongst possible future developments.
The public rooms, with different origins, various shapes and sizes, and contrasting décor, merge into a harmonious whole.
The spacious lounge features a magnificent open shelf display and bookcase. Decorated and furnished in shades of brown, yellow and white, it oozes luxury and sophistication. A variety of clubby armchairs and settees, in a range of sumptuous materials, offer guests an ideal place to relax. Large mirrors add to the sense of space and clever wall, table and ceiling lighting give an inviting feel at night. In winter, the built in fire provides a warm cosiness, whilst all year round, the room is ideal for pre dinner drinks and post dinner coffee.
Leading off the lounge is the latest addition, the ultra modern Champagne Bar. Especially popular in summer, this stunning terracotta and beige room features contemporary spotlighting, red bucket armchairs, designer bar stools and a walk in wine cellar, in which guests are free to peruse the 250 bins. The outside multi level terrace, punctuated by ponds and raised beds, provides another space for relaxation, especially at night when mood lighting adds a soft, enticing glow.
The four dining rooms, served by the same kitchen, all have well spaced tables dressed in fine napery. Otherwise, they could not be more different. Indeed, many returning guests have their favourite tables in their favourite rooms.
The original Dining Room has a classic Georgian look with oak chairs, chest of drawers and grandfather clock. The Morning Room at the front of the house benefits from a large bay window and has a more feminine quality with its high backed upholstered chairs. The Conservatory, a modern glass roofed extension decorated in orange, has a light, airy feel and faces a small enclosed garden with water features. Its hidden, cosy corners, give it a more intimate feel. Most recent of all is the Garden Room designed by Ben Cunliffe. This themed room, with its floral décor, indoor plants, flowers and branch like wall lights and chandeliers, has wall to wall patio doors which bathe the room in light all year round. For diners, the most attractive feature may well be the supremely comfortable low backed armchairs, upholstered in corduroy style material, which help to make eating here a joy.
Gilpin Lodge offers 20 main house rooms in ascending categories of luxury: Classic and Master rooms and Junior and Garden suites. All are individually named and designed. The six garden suites, located on highest part of the site, have feature fireplaces and walk in dressing areas, and private gardens and decking, floodlit at night. A major selling point is their sunken cedar wood hot tubs. This facility, Barney tells me, has proved popular not only with young couples, but with older ones too.
The Kentmere junior suite in which I stayed offered spacious, attractive accommodation with two aspects, one with French windows opening onto its own furnished terrace by the garden. The beige and cream oriental design wallpaper was complemented by a lacquered Chinese set of drawers, chest and coffee table. A large two seater settee facing a digital flat screen television and DVD player offered added comfort. Ample reading matter, fresh milk in the mini bar, tea and coffee making facilities, home made biscuits and a flask of iced water showed pleasing attention to detail. Guest information was comprehensive, including the origin of the room names; Kentmere, I discovered, comes from “a hidden valley past Staveley, whence the Gilpin family (originally spelt de Gylpin) came.” The luxurious bathroom featured double sinks, a walk-in shower and a Jacuzzi bath. Mouton Brown toiletries and the fluffiest towels I have ever used added to the indulgent experience of using the room. Being serviced twice a day, the rooms were kept spotless and tidy.
Although I did not stay there, special mention must be made of the Lake House, a mile from the main hotel. Zoë Cunliffe was kind enough to give me a tour: In effect a boutique hotel in an oasis of calm, its six suites are luxuriously appointed and overlook Knipe Tarn, its own private lake. Downstairs, the open plan lounge and conservatory – which also serves as a breakfast room – offer ample space to unwind. Whilst buffet breakfast and afternoon tea are taken in the Lake House, guests are chauffeured to and from the hotel for dinner.
From beginning to end, staying at Gilpin Lodge Country House Hotel was a real joy. The luxurious accommodation, excellent facilities and seamless personal service all made for a memorable stay. Little wonder guests are sad to leave but eager to return.