Finest of fine dining and accommodation in the heart of the Lake District
You have to hand it to those merchants of old Liverpool who came to the Lake District – they could spot a great place for a country retreat, somewhere to escape the stresses of nineteenth-century living. They also had the brass to build themselves something just that bit special.
And Rothay Manor Hotel in the heart of the Lake District is a perfect example.
A short walk from the centre of Ambleside, an attractive little town at the head of Lake Windermere, boutique hotel Rothay Manor is set in its own secluded grounds. It dates back to 1823, when it was built by a prosperous Liverpudlian with architectural input (a fine cast-iron balcony running the length of the house) from his French wife, and was converted to a hotel in the 1930s.
Since 2016, new owners Jamie and Jenna Shail have made this Grade II listed building, with its many original, late Georgian features, bang up-to-date modern in its stylish and smart interior décor, gaining four AA silver stars – as well as a reputation for fine cuisine.
In recent years the Lake District as a whole has become a destination for serious foodies, with nearly a dozen three or more AA rosette restaurants across the region, three of which are in Ambleside. Rothay Manor’s own three AA rosettes have been well earned by their talented Head Chef, Dan McGeorge, who takes inspiration for his Modern British cooking from the best local ingredients and his travels abroad.
Rothay Manor’s fine dining menu gives you the flexibility to go à la carte or to design your own five or seven course tasting menu. For the five-course, you choose two starters, two mains and one dessert for the whole table. In reality, what with clever, great-tasting amuse-bouche, canapés, hors d’oeuvres, a tasty selection of breads, and a between-course palate cleanser, the five-course is more like ten, each one a delight. As you might expect, there’s a well-designed and tasty vegetarian à la carte menu.
Dan’s menus tell you what you’re going to eat, the main ingredient and the other elements, but he doesn’t tell you how it will be cooked. The idea is that you focus on the taste, not the techniques, so each dish comes with built-in surprises.
So, some examples
The Scottish langoustine, three barbecued segments are served as part of a ring of tiny carrot columns, enclosing a pool of intense langoustine and carrot bisque; drops of yuzu and timut pepper provide a zingy citrus kick. Delicious.
Red mullet – a crispy-skinned portion of the fish comes on top of a sea urchin custard with slivers of swede in a swede broth; the sea buckthorn berries explode tartly in the mouth. Superb.
Artichoke – Jerusalem and globe, confit and crisps, pecorino gnocchi, truffle shavings, aromatic and earthy – the taste of autumn all on one plate.
Lancashire guinea fowl – a slice of breast on the plate is accompanied by a tiny turnip, with a small bowl of leg meat and grains of spelt in a foam of cream and white wine, it’s umami and it’s sublime.
After a palate-cleanser of plum, plum custard and woodruff ice cream, the pumpkin dessert is a compressed disk of the same, caramel ice cream, quince nougat, tuile, toasted seeds and finger lime. The pumpkin is rich, its starch cut by the intense quince and sharp lime. Lovely.
For slightly less fine dining, there’s the Brathay Room (dogs allowed), which has its own menu, but with dishes prepared to the same degree of excellence as the main restaurant.
The braised lamb shoulder is served with pomme purée, seasonal veg. and a lovely, rich jus. To follow since sticky toffee pudding reputedly originated in the region (it does feature a lot on Lake District menus), it’s good to try it somewhere like Rothay Manor where cooking standards are high. It’s only a simple dessert, of course, but it’s a real crowd-pleaser here, light, flavoursome sponge, butterscotch sauce and vanilla ice cream.
Rothay Manor’s drinks are of course available wherever you’re sitting. The wine list has been put together with input from Master of Wine Miles Corish with a focus on small producers who create quality wines which are also good value. It’s good to see award-winning English sparkling wine producer Exton Park Vineyard on the list alongside top-quality champagne such as Billecart-Salmon Brut.
Happily filled with fine food and wine, you take the wooden hill to one of Rothay Manor’s 19 cosy bedrooms, each individually designed. The rooms exude comfort and style, with huge, plumptious beds, modern bathrooms, fluffy dressing gowns and lovely Noble Isle smellies.
Some rooms have balconies which look out onto the gardens, while others have private terraces. All are named after local landscape features: so Scandale refers (sadly, in my view) to a pretty, nearby stream, not some Me and Mrs Jones-style goings-on from the past; which reminds me, the Red Screes room comes with its own hot tub…
The Fairfield suite has its own sitting area and bedroom (the latter complete with a free-standing bathtub). The striking wallpaper is by Melissa White; William Morris and Sanderson feature elsewhere. In this often plain and cautious era, it’s good to see the use of bold and vibrant patterns – not just in the bedrooms, downstairs in the restaurant, bar and lounge areas as well; and not just wallpaper, curtain and chair fabrics, too.
Tempting though it may be just to relax into a comfy chair by the log fire, it’s good to dust off those walking boots and get out to explore the area. In the hotel lounge there’s a book, Lake District Wet Weather Walks, and not surprisingly it’s very well-thumbed. Rothay Manor themselves suggest a stroll over to Rydal Water. You won’t be ‘cloud lonely’ as you follow in Wordsworth’s footsteps but you won’t see too many people at this time of year.
It’s a lovely walk and on a December day, when all the air a solemn stillness holds (yes, I know that’s not Wordsworth), it can be wonderfully atmospheric. A hike up to High Sweden Bridge and High Pike is also recommended for views over Ambleside and other fells.
A short drive (or boat ride) away is Wray Castle, built 180 years ago when a surgeon from Liverpool (again!) spent his wife’s fortune on a brooding, turreted and towered Gothic Revival fantasy set in its own grounds on the lakeshore. It’s well worth a visit.
While most people might think of the Lake District as more of a summer destination, it’s equally beautiful at other times of the year, despite the, let’s say changeable, weather. And a getaway stay at Rothay Manor at any time – be that spring, summer, autumn or winter – will be memorable for all the right reasons.
It’s too late for Christmas and New Year 2020 but 2021 should see COVID-19 as less of an issue, so it’s an idea to start planning ahead. If your preparations are well in hand, a pre-Christmas break in 2021 at Rothay Manor – there’s plenty of Christmas bling in the hotel and around Ambleside – to put you in the festive mood early. You could, of course, take advantage of the different packages on offer and spend all your Christmas and New Year break here.
And you don’t have to be from Liverpool to realise that Rothay Manor is the ideal place to escape the stresses of twenty-first-century living, at least for a while anyway!
Rothay Manor Hotel
Tel: 01539 433605
We haven’t updated our top British boutique hotel roundup recently – but I’m sure when we do, in January, Rothay Manor will be right up there