Lancashire Life Luncheon - Hipping Hall
- Credit: Archant
A return trip to this Lancashire landmark reveals a relaxed hotel with stunning rooms and outstanding cookery.
There’s an old superstition that 13 is an unlucky number but, for Andrew Wildsmith, it represents the number of years he has been running Hipping Hall.
That means for lovers of seriously good food and great hospitality, the number 13 is a cause for celebration rather than trepidation.
It was in 2005 that Andrew, then a student, took a fancy to this 350-year-old manor house, situated at Cowan Bridge on the inside edge of Lancashire where the county line butts up against Westmorland and Yorkshire.
Back then, it was run as a guest house and a venue for house parties by the family living there. ‘I’d never worked in a bar or put a plate in front of a diner, but running a hotel was something I knew I wanted to do,’ says Andrew.
Not only did he achieve his ambition but he did it with a great deal of style, continuing to notch up a succession of local and national industry prizes, including top billing at the Lancashire Life Food & Drink Awards. It now has an international clientele. ‘From the start, the aim was to create something that was under-stated but over-performed,’ he explains.
Andrew ticked those boxes at an early stage, creating a hotel that was distinctly upmarket but never stuffy. Things are done the right way but without the need for heel clicking, bowing or scraping.
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The recently refurbished rooms in the main house – including a ‘secret hideaway’ suite at the top of the house – have been augmented by lovely rooms in the cottage across the courtyard and a restoration project on the stables has provided a further five stylish bedrooms with lovely garden terraces.
This has become popular for weddings and for corporate gatherings – rumour has it that a big business deal was once thrashed out there.
Andrew’s association with well-known interior designer James Mackie is much in evidence with Hipping Hall’s historic backdrop used as a canvas for furnishings which blend the classic with the contemporary.
But, as Andrew points out: ‘Food was always the main driver.’ In that, he has proved to be a good judge when it comes to working with head chefs and the current incumbent, Oli Martin, is most definitely no exception. He is regarded as one of the rising stars of the food scene.
‘Oli’s talents were raw when he took over but his potential has always been huge,’ says Andrew. ‘He has a really interesting take on thing and he’s a very intelligent chap.’
In a fiercely competitive market, Andrew has managed to maintain the core of his top team. ‘We always work hard to develop good relationships,’ he says. ‘We aim to employ people based on personality. It’s 50-50 with ability. We can train people to wait on table but you can’t train people to be pleasant.’
Oli, who is 30 and lives in Lytham, arrived at Hipping as sous chef in 2014 and took over the kitchen a year later. He’d previously worked at Northcote, Gilpin Lodge and in kitchens in France and Australia.
‘I love working here. It’s a wonderful place in a brilliant location,’ he says with genuine enthusiasm. ‘There is a terrific bounty on our doorstep from the gardens, the countryside and local suppliers. I always enjoy going around and seeing them.’
He’s a particular admirer of Growing with Grace, an organic cooperative based at nearby Clapham. ‘I like to cook in a modern, natural way – clean and simple dishes with four items that work together on a plate.’
That was clearly evident from the latest Lancashire Life luncheon held at Hipping Hall – the second since Andrew took over. The food may be the star of the show but the dining room, a medieval barn with a minstrel gallery and wall hangings, makes for a fine support act.
After some delicious canapés, which included outstanding smoked eel, a starter of Ascroft’s beets with sheep yoghurt and preserved berries was a perfect example of Oli’s keep it ‘clean and simple’ philosophy.
Next came perfectly cooked seared cod with barbecued purple sprouting and an oyster cream that made the taste buds stand up and dance a little jig.
The main course justified our enduring love affair with Goosnargh chicken and this time we reaffirmed our vows with wild garlic leaves as best man and hen of the woods as plump bridesmaids.
Dessert showed the kitchen team’s powers of invention with an apple and honeycomb concoction crowned with a piece of crackling cleverly created using apple skin.
With artisan prosecco to start and fine accompanying white and red wines from importer Buon Vino, of nearby Settle, this was a lunch we felt lucky to attend – 13th or not.
It takes its name from the hipping, or stepping stones in the grounds that cross Broken Beck, which once helped travellers on their way between the west coast and York.
A blacksmith called Robert Tatham saw this as a business opportunity setting up shop on land he purchased. His instincts were correct because the business flourished and in 1668 Robert not only owned 12 acres of land but also Hipping Hall.
In the early 18th century the then owner Edward Tatham married Mary Trotter the only daughter of a local lawyer and became gentry in a generation, building the Hall in its current form. Even then, they had social mobility.
Hipping Hall threw open its doors as a restaurant with rooms 13 years ago and it attained national recognition when it was a destination in the 2010 BBC food comedy ‘The Trip’, which showed Rob Brydon and Steve Coogan eating their way through the Hipping Hall menu.
Since then, Andrew Wildsmith has expanded his business to include two Lake District hotels, the Ryebeck and Forest Side, which is a recent recipient of a Michelin star and winner of the Lancashire Life Food & Drink Awards.