Tucked away off the main road down from the church and behind some of the larger houses in Scotby, Willowbeck Lodge is an unexpected find in a village. A small, stylish hotel with a very smart restaurant is usually the preserve of townhouses or city streets.

The family-owned hotel and Fini’s restaurant has a loyal local following, however, among those who come to dine or hold a family celebration. For visitors from further afield it has proven to be the perfect stopping off point for an overnight stay on a long drive between Scotland and the Midlands or southern England.

A clear understanding of his market – and a willingness to invest in the property – has seen owner operator Andrew McGrillis build successfully on the business started by his parents and has given him the confidence to continue developing.

He has been in charge for a decade, his parents Liz and John a decade before that after they decided to start offering bed and breakfast at their new home, a retirement project that they admit got out of hand.

John explains: “We had a beautiful family home in Scotby where we had many happy years but when the kids grew up the plan was to downsize and get rid of the mortgage.”

They bought a plot of land nearby in 1994 and set about building a striking new house with a tall, glazed frontage with a double height atrium, long before such a design became particularly fashionable.

Great British Life: The outside space at Willowbeck Lodge The outside space at Willowbeck Lodge (Image: Wigglesworth/Blackfell Photography)

“Instead of downsizing, this grew and grew and we ended up doubling the mortgage,” John continues. “We spent every penny on it and Liz said, ‘this house is going to going to have to pay for itself’. We started doing B&B and never looked back.”

Willowbeck Lodge opened in 2004. “We found we were natural hosts and people loved coming here. We made so many good friends out of it, but it was a big risk. At the beginning I knocked on doors of other businesses and asked them to send their overflow guests.”

They had just four letting bedrooms then, but Liz adds: “We had no background in hospitality at all, and this was all pre-internet.”

Andrew, one of four siblings living with his parents at the time, says: “We all thought it was complete madness at the time. They were looking for a lifestyle change in their 50s and were supposed to be enjoying retirement.”

The family had moved to Cumbria in 1987 from Oxfordshire with John’s job as an accountant for a Borders food producer. Andrew went to Newman Catholic School in Carlisle then studied hotel and catering management at Carlisle College before a degree in food science and nutrition at Northumbria University.

He embarked on a career working as a chef in events then moved into food product development before working in HR in the food sector, in London and Manchester, where he met his wife, Sarah, a dentist. They moved back to Cumbria in 2013.

By then Liz and John were ready to retire properly and to put Willowbeck Lodge on the market, so Andrew and Sarah decided they would take it on. “It was a great opportunity,” says Andrew. “I’d seen how my parents had operated it and felt it had a great foundation. Mum and dad had reached the point where they didn’t want to do any more with it, but I saw it still had great potential we could build on.”

Great British Life: One of the dishes at Fini's restaurant One of the dishes at Fini's restaurant (Image: Topher McGrillis Photography)

The following year Fini’s Kitchen opened, named after Andrew’s grandmother who passed away in 2012. It was the first of many developments under his leadership.

The former family living accommodation was incorporated into the hotel to increase the number of letting bedrooms, which now totals ten. Six are in the main building, two ground floor rooms (one with an additional bedroom) are accessed from their own external entrances and, in 2018, the Garden Suite was installed in the grounds.

“The business has grown significantly as we have extended it,” explains Andrew. “We have done projects almost every year, from turning part of our home into space dedicated to guest accommodation to landscaping the grounds and extending the pond in 2022.

Great British Life: The pond has been extended as part of a landscaping scheme The pond has been extended as part of a landscaping scheme (Image: Wigglesworth/Blackfell Photography)

“When an opportunity has presented itself, we have taken it. One of my lockdown projects was converting the cottage next to the main building into a ground floor bedroom that has a second interlinking bedroom for two children to create a family room.

“It’s all been quite organic and a result of circumstances. There was never really a masterplan, it’s been an evolution as we have adapted to what guests tell us they want.”

Most guests are travellers en route to somewhere else or people attending venues such as Carlisle Racecourse or Borderway Mart. At just one mile from junction 43 of the M6 the location could not be more convenient.

Great British Life: Oak bedroom Oak bedroom (Image: Topher McGrillis Photography)

“We’re on the periphery of the Lake District and close to Carlisle and Hadrian’s Wall and we appeal to people who are looking for something more secluded, that’s personal, individual in character and independent but hasn’t comprised in terms of standards and luxury. We’re definitely not a guest house; I’m not sure exactly what qualifies as a boutique hotel but I think that describes us best,” adds Andrew.

“Last year was the first time in a while that we saw an increase in foreign visitors returning, especially Australians and Americans. A lot feel they have an ancestral connection, especially to Scotland. They come here on their way, which is lovely because it’s opening them up to a part of the world they wouldn’t necessarily come to.”

All the rooms have been upgraded in the past year or two. This year alone six new bathrooms, designed by Andrew, have been completed along with redecoration throughout.

Great British Life: The bathroom of Willow bedroom The bathroom of Willow bedroom (Image: Topher McGrillis Photography)

All the rooms bar one in the main building look out over the garden and pond. The pick of the ‘premier superking’ rooms are Willow and Oak, spacious rooms with luxury bathrooms, a walk-in shower, freestanding bath, twin basins and, in Willow, a dressing area with mirrored wardrobes.

Each colour scheme is different but all the bedrooms have calming, natural tones of grey, pale greens, blues, turquoise or mustard. Beech is a ‘classic’ room, a smaller double in fresh tones of slate and blue with an en suite shower room.

Two further rooms on the first floor are reached through the lounge and include Maple that is offered as single occupancy.

Great British Life: Eva's bedroomEva's bedroom (Image: Wigglesworth/Blackfell Photography)

On the ground floor, Hazel has accessories that evoke a hunting lodge feel, whereas glamorous Eva’s blends colonial dark wood furniture with copper light fittings, contemporary slatted wood wall cladding and a crittall-style shower. The adjoining bunk bedroom with wall mounted TV can sleep two children up to the age of 15. Eva’s also comes with its own outdoor space.

The Garden Suite is a separate, large timber building that offers an open plan living room and kitchen with dining space, two en suite bedrooms and a private decked terrace.

Great British Life: The new lounge at Willowbeck Lodge The new lounge at Willowbeck Lodge (Image: Topher McGrillis Photography)

The £250,000 upgrade this winter has included a complete new look for Fini’s restaurant, which has been transformed with the help of Interiors by Abode designer John Pilling, from Warwickshire. Pale wood furniture, rattan lighting, natural paint colours and the exposed stone feature wall with wood burning stove create a warm, Scandi-style feel that extends into the new lounge. Andrew says: “I was naturally a bit anxious to leave the look to someone else’s vision but they have made a beautiful job of it and I’m really pleased with it.”

Fini’s is open seven days for dinner and additionally for brunch and lunch on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with à la carte menus created by head chef Robert Don. For dinner, starters (£9-£15) might include Cumbrian game terrine with craft ale chutney; king scallops, squash, sage and brown butter; or chicory salad, walnuts, stilton, pear and mustard dressing. Main course options (£19-£30) can be roasted duck breast, celeriac, potato sarladaise, gingerbread, raspberries and cassis; roast beef medallions, shallot puree, braised shallots, potato fondant and veal jus; and steamed Shetland mussels, white wine, garlic and parsley, dipping bread and thin cut chips.

Lunchtime main courses range from fish finger ciabatta (£12), the Willowbeck burger BLT (£19) and rump steak, grilled tomatoes, watercress and peppercorn sauce (£24), all with thin cut chips.

Great British Life: The new look restaurant The new look restaurant (Image: Topher McGrillis Photography)

Andrew says: “We are quite established locally as a restaurant as we’re open to non-residents as well as residents. We find that guests who are staying here as a stop-off point on their way to somewhere else don’t tend to want to explore the local area. They just want to get here, relax, have a nice meal.”

The hotel also hosts small functions, wine-tastings and themed evenings, parties, weddings and funerals. Most recently it has found success with the corporate market. “It’s not big conferences but companies that want to bring their management or sales teams together somewhere that’s not a generic hotel where they can have privacy and exclusive hire,” explains Andrew, who is supported by four permanent full-time staff, a team which grows to 14 in the summer.

Despite the recent investment, Andrew still has more he wants to do, continuing the ethos of constant evolution and improvement. An extension at the back of the building is already underway which will be a new bar and lounge. “We are limited by size at the moment so this is another opportunity and will allow us to hold bigger functions and larger weddings.

Great British Life: One of the dishes at Fini's restaurant One of the dishes at Fini's restaurant (Image: Topher McGrillis Photography)

“As a second generation coming in, it’s been really important for me to put my own stamp on the business and to evolve it. I was adamant that we built on the great foundation of my parents but, from a legacy point of view, it was also to make it my own.”

And it seems mum and dad are happy with his achievements. John says: “I think what he’s done is inspirational. It had to evolve, and he’s achieved that big time. He’s got a tremendous vision and has done an amazing job.”