Nanny Brow - inside a remarkable Arts and Craft property near Skelwith Bridge
A magnificent Arts and Crafts movement property in Ambleside has been restored to its former glory for guests to enjoy. Amanda Griffiths reports <br/>Photography by: Kirsty Thompson
When Sue Robinson was a little girl she and her family used to come to the Lake District on holiday and, as they drove through Skelwith Bridge, they would often admire the house perched on the steep side of Loughrigg fell.
Some years later, Sue and her husband Peter, looking to expand their holiday cottage business, purchased a run-down property in the Lakes. When her mum asked just exactly where it was situated, Susan asked if she remembered the house they would admire from Skelwith Bridge.
‘She asked if we were near there,’ says Sue, ‘and I said “No that is it!”’The house, which she and Peter have turned into a luxurious bed and breakfast, Nanny Brow, was built in 1904 by renowned Arts and Crafts architect Francis Whitwell.
Whitwell built it as his own private residence, living here with his wife Daphne and three children, until in the mid 1940s. He sold the house and it became a hotel, which closed around 2002.
Sue and Peter bought the property in 2010 and not only set about re-opening it as a place for visitors but also sympathetically renovating it and reinstating the Arts and Craft features wherever possible.
Take, for example, the comfortable lounge with stunning views across to the River Brathay and the Lakeland fells, which feature the original wooden panelling, fireplace and handcrafted frieze.
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‘It looked like just a collection of blobs really, but we discovered they were animals,’ says manager Mark Jones who worked here before the hotel closed. ‘Using animals was quite unusual in the Arts and Crafts movement – they would have more commonly used fruits.
‘We think Whitwell used animals for his children, because this was primarily his family home. Sue found a special treatment that could be out on to strip back years and years of paint and now you can see every little detail - even the antenna on the snails.’
When it came to restoring the place ,Sue was a stickler for detail. The picture rails are original and when the builders said they couldn’t paper around them, she told them they had too. That’s just one example of the detail she has adhered to.
‘I couldn’t work out why part of the dining room ceiling had decoration on it and the other didn’t,’ she says. ‘I discovered that when it was originally built the door was on the other side and that part was a flower room, where the head gardener would deliver the flowers to the house every day.’
The dining room also contains an original Shapland and Petter Arts and Crafts fireplace with copper inlay, which was bought and installed here. ‘Many people have them brightly polished,’ she says, ‘but I love the chocolate brown effect of it that takes years to achieve.
‘When we first came here it was like the Marie Celeste, the beds were made and the dining room set for dinner. it was like the previous owners had just upped and left.
‘It took me two weeks to strip all the beds and bedding – the Salvation Army took it all away so it was recycled rather than sent to landfill.’
A lot of the furniture in the ten bedrooms was also rescued from the house and reused. For example, in the Wansfell suite, Sue discovered a dressing table in the attic which she sent to her antiques restorer to make it into a washstand for one of the bathrooms. He told her it was the dressing table of the set she’d already sent him for the room. So instead of a washstand, it became matching bedside tables for the suite.
There were some other fantastic discoveries along the way as well. In the Skelwith suite, Peter found a fireplace complete with Delph tiles which had been plastered over.
The couple also took out a false wall in what is now the Brathay Suite turning it back into one room, as it would have been when Whitwell lived here.
In terms of d�cor, the house is furnished with a mix of styles in tones that are sympathetic to both the visitor and the style of the house.
‘The Whitwell Suite was Whitwell’s bedroom and is the only one we’ve decorated in a more manly style to reflect that,’ says Sue. ‘Again it had been made into two bedrooms when we first came and features an unusual Oriel bay window. I think this room is my favourite but it also gave me the biggest challenge in terms of d�cor because I wanted it to reflect Whitwell but also have feminine touches to make female guests comfortable.
‘Before we came here a lady moved in next door to our holiday cottages in the Cotswolds and it turned out she was the granddaughter of Francis Whitwell.’
She gave Sues access to the family albums so they had some lovely pictures of the property in the 1900s and lots of information about the house and the family. She also gave them permission to name the Whitwell Suite after her grandfather.
‘We had no accounts and no history when we came here. We’ve built up what we’ve got through research and the granddaughter and stories people have told us from staying here in the past.
‘We had one couple who told us they drove up the drive in a battered old Ford Fiesta when the rest of the car park was full of Rolls Royces and Bentleys,’ says Sue.
‘They said they thought they would stick out like a sore thumb but instead the were made to feel so welcome. She said they’ve been driving past seeing it decline for years it was nice it was to see it back to the way it was.
‘That’s what we aim for today. We’re a luxurious bed and breakfast without any pretentions. We strive to make sure we offer our customers everything they need, even if that’s just to be left alone to enjoy the peace and quiet. We get a real mix of people from young professionals to retired guests and everything in between. The one thing they have in common is a love of the great outdoors.
‘People often ask how I feel about owning a place like this. I always say we don’t really. We come into this world with nothing and leave with nothing. We’re just custodians and we’re very privileged to be able to look after this building and restore it so that future generations can enjoy it for years to come.’