My first foray into England was everything I ever wanted it to be, and more. I was almost too nervous to start writing this post because I wanted to do justice to the place we stayed, which is my most highly recommended accommodation from this venture to date. We stayed at the Hazel Bank Country House in England’s Lake District, which is as wonderful as its environs are beautiful.
Given our budget (not super low as you can probably gather, but we’re not staying at the Ritz every night for a year and a half) and our moderate distaste for discomfort (hey, champagne taste, right?) we tend to stay generally at mid-range hotels and B&Bs and thus our accommodation rarely makes or breaks a particular destination for us. But Hazel Bank, and its most wonderful proprietor, Gary, absolutely made this place for us. This is not to say you wouldn’t enjoy the Lake District staying elsewhere (as we’re certainly no experts on the surrounding hotel options and the beauty of this place speaks for itself in our pictures), but we would highly advise against it, because the experience at Hazel Bank was just so sigh-in-contentedness good.
Gary is the real deal hospitality maven. He is funny and engaging, and born for this job. It takes a certain personality and skill-set to succeed in this business, and he has got it. There is an element of hospitality that cannot be bought, but it can be found at Hazel Bank.
The grounds are lovely. The small hotel is situated in an English manor style home on one of those quintessential rolling green lawns, nestled right into the mountains and lush, verdant landscape that the Lake District affords. White (and the odd black) sheep dot the emerald scenery vistas from the rooms, and you’ll occasionally be graced by the presence of a red squirrel while eating breakfast or dinner on site. The rooms are elegantly appointed with crystal chandeliers, flowing curtains and even a crystal decanter with a taste of sherry and two crystal glasses. Ours offered a beautiful view out the front yard, which was a favorite spot of ours what with its sprawling lawn, croquet course, beautiful old tree, and ample seating for a late afternoon cocktail; the absolute best place to enjoy a post-hike gin and tonic or glass of rose.
The food is, of course, also part of the experience. The included breakfast is English and scrumptious. I believe I ate crumpets every morning. And Alan tried a new treat: smoked kippers. This, apparently, is a small fish, and while tasty, the bone removal process proved too much work for Alan’s first meal of the day. I and the rest of the hotel guests did, however, enjoy watching him learn to maneuver them. The real deal, though, is the dinner service. The four courses are served with a high class flair (table setting with four forks, of course), preceded by canapés and pre-dinner drinks in the lounge, followed by tea, coffee and/or stronger libations for those fancying a brandy or scotch whiskey also in the lounge. The whole process is wonderful. The food is delicious, with a special mention to Donna’s lovely desserts and the lamb crackling that was just out of this world. Gary is expertly skilled to assist in helping you choose a wine to accompany said fare. And the whole ordeal, while classy and civilized to the nth degree, is never stuffy. Gary is attentive yet never intrusive, checking in frequently on your needs and entertaining with his masterful conversationalism (if you will) and sharp British wit.
Of course, the main attraction of the Lake District is the natural beauty and its attendant activities. Perhaps the best amenity that Hazel Bank can offer (next to Gary) is its proximity to Mother Nature’s playground and the convenience it offers for getting out to these hikes.
We were blessed with perfect hiking weather our first day in the district and so we headed out to Gary’s recommended hike, located ever so conveniently, just outside our door. Literally across the street, we began climbing up a steep gully, past an old slate mine, to the top of High Spy.
The views were incredible from the get go, with heather covered hills rising above the green fields and valleys below. The wildflowers were so lovely, lots of purple, with the heather dominating, but also accented by thistle and bluebells.
We continued on, meandering down the long mountain ridge as the views picked up, culminating in a 360º view at the top of Cat Bells where you overlook the lake (Derwentwater), fields of sheep, Keswick and some smaller villages.
We backtracked slightly, and then headed down the mountain to quickly explore the tiny town of Grange before walking back to Hazel Bank along the river. We were rewarded with cocktails in the front yard before freshening up for dinner, and we had to remark on how wonderful the experience was. This is probably our favorite way to travel, or, well, live: being active in beautiful nature and then coming home to comfort and good food and drink. Not bad, not bad at all.
We were also perhaps lucky to have a lovely group of people sharing the experience at Hazel Bank with us, and we very much enjoyed our chats over pre- and post-dinner drinks, and bumping into them up on the mountains (Hazel Bank owned the ridge that day!). The friendly vibe was always palpable, and one of my favorite memories was when another guest requested a curry with dinner on her last night. Gary got a kick out of this, and after busting her chops that night, he surprised her (and us all) with a curried chicken on naan canapé the next evening. The convivial ambiance crescendoed. And last of the company, but certainly not least, I should mention that Gary and Donna have a dog. And not just any dog, the sweetest little boxer, called Toby. I have fallen madly in love with this scrumptious pup.
We briefly explored some of the other areas in the district. We fit in another, shorter hike the next morning for fear of the weather rumored to be coming in. This one also had us walking straight out the door of our hotel and up to Dock Tarn, passing very few people along the way.
We stopped in the small village of Watendlath for a cuppa tea. I love all these little villages and the little tea shops. This one didn’t happen to be my favorite as they had no clotted cream for their scones (the gall!) and were weirdly unfriendly, but it is pretty picturesque, what with the stove, framed badger needle points, and yard full of gnomes.
After that few hour hike before the rain really began, we went for a drive over the Honister Pass to Buttermere Valley. The landscape is much more severe over on this side of the park, a sense that was amplified by heavy rains that caused all the sheep to huddle up by the trees and fences for shelter. The area is more stark and less crowded over there, with rushing streams tumbling down valleys to greet beautiful lakes. We visited the cozy Kirkstile Inn for scones with clotted cream and (obvi) more tea.
To sum it up, in case you couldn’t already tell, I’m mad for England. The whole place (and I base this solely on my experience at one hotel in the Lake District and the fact that people are exceedingly punctilious in keeping left on the motorways) is just so civilized. Having flown into Liverpool, I of course had to plug in my iPhone and play some Beatles as soon as we landed. You can’t drive out of the John Lennon airport without paying homage. But we have some embarrassing news to report. We are ignorant and unworldly and ethnocentric; we had no idea that England uses feet and miles. Here we were thinking that Americans were the only ones. How did we not know this? We were also made to feel a fool for not having an impressive arsenal of odd sayings, such as mad as a box of frogs and full of beans (which means energetic, though it sounds like it would mean full of bologna).
England’s Lake District is a large area in the northwest of the country. All of the Lake District is within the county of Cumbria, but not vice versa. In general, the south and east of the Lake District is a little gentler and more crowded, while the north and west is more rugged and less crowded. We stayed in Rosthwaite, which is a settlement in Borrowdale and is about 5-6 miles from Keswick, the largest nearby town. Apart from how fabulous our B&B was, we really liked this area for its gorgeous scenery and cozy ambience. It is less dramatic and isolated feeling (and admittedly less visually impressive) than Buttermere and environs, and arguably prettier and certainly less crowded than Windermere, Ambleside, etc. Our friend said that for isolation and mountain grandeur he would recommend the Wasdale Head Inn, and in any event would skip Windermere as it is so developed and touristy.
We never drove through Windermere, but we did pass through Grasmere and Ambleside to check them out. The former is pretty small and charming while the latter is a bit bigger, but it still seemed quite appealing. Jenni likened it to a ski town. We strongly considered staying in Cartmel as it is supposed to be an adorable village and foodie haven, but we passed because the mountain scenery and nearby hiking reportedly fall short of other areas.
Transportation: We arrived to Liverpool airport and rented a car for the 2+ hour drive to Rosthwaite. Both hikes we did allowed us to walk straight from our B&B. We also drove around the area some, including over Honister Pass where the scenery is magnificent. There are some buses and often boat transport on the lakes, which means you could do a one way hike without shuttling a car. I think moving between valleys on public transport is probably quite a bit harder than within.
Accommodation: We stayed at Hazel Bank Country House, and as covered above we absolutely loved it. There are so many options in the area, including several very well-located hostels.
Food and Drinks: Pretty much all our meals were taken at Hazel Bank, and the quality was great. The lamb cracklin at dinner one night was fall out of your chair good. Breakfast is included while a four-course dinner costs £24.95/person. We enjoyed a different reasonably priced bottle of wine each night. Our one off-premises bite was at the Kirkstile Inn in Loweswater. It is a cozy pub, the scones were enormous and delicious, and I think they have some proprietary beers. We also stopped at the Caffle House Tea Room in Watendlath for a cuppa. It was cute but not as friendly or warm as we would have liked.
There are various well-regarded dining options around the Lake District. Perhaps most famous of these is Michelin-starred L’Enclume in Cartmel.
Activities: The main activity for most visitors is walking/hiking. Our first day we went up a gully on the western side of Borrowdale past some old slate mines to a saddle. From there, one could make a steep ascent to Dale Head. Instead, we went right for the ridge walk encompassing High Spy, Maiden Moor & Cat Bells before backtracking a touch and descending to Grange and then returning along the river. It was 8-9 miles and the views of the valley and Derwentwater were terrific.
Our second day we headed south right out Hazel Bank’s driveway until perhaps a quarter mile beyond the Stonethwaite bridge when we veered left and made a steep ascent up to Dock Tarn and then descended to the tiny village of Watendlath before returning straight to Hazel Bank’s back door. This hike was perhaps 5 miles, and the views are a little less grand but it was beautiful and far less crowded as we passed only a few people. I don’t know what rules apply, but just near the end of the steep stone stairs heading up to Dock Tarn there was a little grassy circle where a couple appeared to have camped. It was an epic spot with big views of Borrowdale.
The map we used for our area is the Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL4 covering the North-western area. On our way out we considered walking to Easedale Tarn from Grasmere, which sounded nice. A very kind gentlemen we met at Hazel Bank gave us a pocket-sized book listing 10 of the best hikes in the Lake District. These are: a Skiddaw round; Helvellyn; Coledale Horseshoe; Little Dale Round; Scafell Pike; Great Gable from Honister; Bowfell & Esk Pike; Langdale Pikes; Fairfield Horseshoe; and Coniston Old Man.
August 6-9, 2014 (Wednesday-Saturday)