“Had William and Beatrix Heelis stayed at Holbeck Ghyll they’d never have bought Hill Top.” Lloyd Owen’s comment typifies the high regard in which the hotel is held. He and Renée Zellweger stayed a fortnight in April 2006 whilst filming Miss Potter. Joseph Fiennes described Holbeck Ghyll as “gorgeous (with) fantastic views, hospitality and food.” And it was no surprise that Michael Winterbottom chose it for his quirky series The Trip, which saw Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon lunching in the restaurant during their gastro tour of the north.
Not that the hotel needs celebrity recommendation to attract visitors; indeed its stunning location, luxurious accommodation, excellent restaurant and friendly, professional service speak for themselves. They have made it a magnet for discerning guests, many of whom return. A member of the Small Luxury and Pride of Britain hotel groups, Holbeck Ghyll currently holds four AA red stars and three Rosettes in addition to its Michelin star which it has held for twelve years.
Named after the rocky stream that cascades down its woodland grounds, Holbeck sits proudly on a hillside between Bowness and Ambleside, commanding views of Lake Windermere and the peaks beyond – Scafell, Langdale Pikes and the Old Man of Coniston. This is an important selling point but by no means the main one.
The original house of grey stone and slate, complete with bay windows, gables and turret, presents a solid and imposing façade which totally belies the elegance and comfort within. Bought by Lord Lonsdale in 1888, the first president of the AA for use as a hunting lodge, it was given an Arts and Crafts makeover with its well-proportioned solid forms, brick fireplaces, wooden fittings and stained glass windows above the main staircase. Overall, Holbeck Ghyll has a distinct period feel without seeming antiquated.
This is immediately evident in spacious oak panelled reception hall with inglenook fireplace, real log fire and cosy Parker Knoll chairs. Equally relaxed seating, in a variety of styles and sizes, can be found in the two lounges, with their Bergerac furniture, heavy curtains, oak panelling, rich red walls and polished wood floors with rugs coverings. This contemporary chic avoids over elaborate chinz which is the bane of so many country house interiors.
The main Dining Room, lit by a tall bay window giving lake views, emphasises the traditional hunter’s look with its oak panelling, varied sized bare wood tables with place mats, chairs without arms and sconce lamps. Adjacent is the Terrace Dining Room with its more sophisticated décor: Furnishings of tapestry style green, heavy curtains, larger dressed tables and chandelier lighting. For someone who slouches when dining, the elegant carver chairs confirmed this room as my choice for dinner.
The main house provides 14 individually designed rooms and suites with six more in The Lodge. Using the particularly detailed literature and website, potential guests can choose rooms with twin, double, king sized or four poster beds, whirlpool baths, double showers, balconies, and private terraces.
Behind the main house, a collection of former private houses and bungalows have been adapted to offer extra, adaptable accommodation. Amongst these, all the Mere suites with lake views have recently been refurbished. The most luxurious accommodation is probably the Miss Potter suite, with 325 square metres of living space and a large private terrace, with a sunken hot tub. The Sheiling suite (a separate house) has room for more people with two double bedrooms, two bathrooms, a lounge with French windows and balcony and private garden.
Madison House, where we stayed, is a de luxe cottage suite, originally a private bungalow. With two double bedrooms, one en suite and one single bedroom, separate bathroom, lounge, kitchen and utility room, it is perfect for a family or small group
The lounge, with its pastel shade decor, exposed brick walls, real coal fire, timber lined ceiling, strip lighting and fitted beige carpet has a distinct 70s feel, but no less appealing for that. The LCD satellite television, DVD player and music centre bring the room up to date, whilst the lavender coloured three piece suite offers comfortable seating. The double aspect French windows with panoramic views of Windermere give access to a small terrace with table and chairs, a hot tub – which, sadly we unable to use due to the inclement weather – and a private garden with sun loungers.
In the bedrooms, Egyptian cotton sheets and soft feather pillows provide luxurious bedding. Simple yet elegant dressing tables and mirrors, bedside tables and lamps contrast with the wall mounted LCD televisions. Less is more as a mountain of extraneous cushions which seem to inhabit most hotel bedrooms were mercifully absent. Bathrooms are well appointed, one with an ultra modern deep bath with pull out shower attachment, the other with a huge walk in shower. Slippers, sumptuous fluffy towels, thick bath robes and designer toiletries make using these rooms a pleasure.
Other accommodation features The Lake View rooms and Junior Suites (pictured) which are large, bright and airy and boast fabulous views over Windermere lake and the surrounding fells.
As is often the case, it is the small touches that make all difference: the personalised greeting and hand made chocolates in the reception area; proper hooked wooden hangers in the built in wardrobes – unlike the horrendous security style ones in corporate hotels; a hot water bottle, shoe mitt and sewing kit in the bedroom drawer; fresh milk in the fridge; Hildon water placed in the bedrooms after being turned down; and, best of all, a decanter of locally distilled damson gin in the sitting room!
All of the above make for a care free, agreeable stay with wonderful views regardless of the weather. But Holbeck has a lot more to offer.
The Health Spa, managed by Mrs McPherson, has sauna, steam room and treatment rooms using the therapeutic qualities of E’spa products for revitalisation and rejuvenation.
In good weather, walks to Troutbeck or Ambleside are popular. Alternatively, use can be made of the tennis court, croquet lawn and putting green. For the more active, the concierge can arrange a variety of activities with local providers. These include horse riding, professional bird watching, cycling, climbing, canoeing, and clay pigeon shooting. The more adventurous might opt for a hot air balloon or helicopter ride, or the hire of a supercar. For a indulgent, more sedate treat, a luxury Michelin picnic can be enjoyed after being driven to a location in a vintage 1932 Rolls Royce.
Overseeing the whole operation is Andrew McPherson (left), whose aim is to “create your home in the English lakes.” The high 70% return guest rates are a testament to his success. Managing five deputy managers and 38 staff – a high staff to guest ratio – is no mean feat, but a hands on approach and leading by example have paid dividends in maintaining the high levels of hospitality for which the hotel is renowned. This consistency is partly due to the longevity of service of many of the key players in an industry not famed for staff retention: Head Chef Dave McLaughlin has been in post for 12 years; Mildred the housekeeper for seven; the Head housekeeper and maintenance man for five years and the restaurant manager for four. Capping them all is Lionel, the pastry chef, who has worked at Holbeck for a remarkable 17 years.
From check in to departure, staff at Holbeck could not have been more obliging. The assistant who showed us to Madison House was charming, thoughtful and comprehensive in his description of the suite’s facilities. My fussy request for a brightly lit corner table with carver chairs was happily met. The sommelier kindly listed in detail the wines we had for dinner. And my private interview with the chef was seamlessly arranged.
Whatever the weather, a stay at Holbeck Ghyll is an ideal way to unwind and relax, especially after a long drive from the south. Guests can be confident in the knowledge that the rooms and facilities will be excellent, the food exquisite and the service faultless.