Short break - Cottage in the Wood, Keswick

The 17th century hotel is on England's only mountain forest

The 17th century hotel is on England's only mountain forest - Credit: Archant

When it comes to great cooking, the young chefs at Cottage in the Wood pull up trees by their roots. Roger Borrell reports

Delicious Herdwick hogget cooked by Ben's team

Delicious Herdwick hogget cooked by Ben's team - Credit: Archant

If you go down to the woods today – the Whinlatter Forest near Keswick, to be precise – you’re in for a big surprise. Teddy bears may be in short supply but hidden among the trees is one of the north’s best boutique hotels and it is here that you’ll find another variety of small, furry creature.

There aren’t many hotels where breakfast comes with a list of specials or such unusual entertainment. But, as you sit in the conservatory gazing at England’s only mountain forest while waiting for the next dish of deliciousness to arrive, suddenly it’s cabaret time. A troupe of red squirrels appear, dancing along a patio balustrade with all the poise of Strictly finalists.

While the TV dancers don’t perform for peanuts, the squirrels seem happy to do so and with a boldness that belies their endangered status. Each time they appear, the room stops mid-munch as camera phones capture their balancing act.

This is just one of the many charms to be found at The Cottage in the Wood, an award winning restaurant with nine luxurious rooms. It’s a place where a short break seems like a few days spent with old friends.

The rooms combine modern luxury with classic styles

The rooms combine modern luxury with classic styles - Credit: Archant

This is largely down to husband and wife team Kath and Liam Berney who transformed what was a neglected 17th century house into a superbly smart hotel.

They gained many plaudits along the way, including three AA rosettes and a Taste Cumbria award for some sublime food.

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There are new friends, too – head chef Ben Wilkinson and his partner, restaurant manager Monika Zurawska, have become directors of the business as Kath and Liam take a gradual step back.

Lancastrian Liam, a chef at the Midland in Manchester in the heady 1970s before going into hospitality education, has a track record of nurturing chefs with great potential but he hasn’t lost his touch and still makes a mean breakfast on the early shift. With Kath overseeing the front of house, it has been 16 years of slowly but surely raising the bar to create a relaxed, environment that’s never stuffy.

In Ben, they have a chef who doesn’t require much nurturing – he is already on the top of his game. He was classically trained at London’s Park Lane Hotel as the only (and slightly fearful) Englishman in a kitchen full of French chefs. ‘I got smashed about a bit,’ he laughs.

He worked in The Hague, gaining experience from Michelin starred cooks and had positions in some of the Lake District’s top hotels. He was also at Midsummer House in Cambridge under two starred chef Daniel Clifford, a familiar face on television.

He embraced Clifford’s lighter take on classic French cuisine swapping heavy, cream-laden sauces for fresher flavours. Ben is now in charge of a kitchen that is not chasing fashions or fads but happily produces great food, beautifully presented and with outstanding flavours from a largely local list of suppliers.

Like many, he is a forager but not a hedgerow obsessive. He’ll pick wild pea shoots and ceps and add wood sorrel to give crab a lovely lemony kick, but he won’t spend hours in remote forests looking for the latest trendy wort because it probably tastes like it sounds. As he points out, there are often reasons why we don’t eat this stuff.

His team produce an eight course Taste Cumbria menu, reasonably priced at £65, or a three course dinner for £45. You’re likely to find locally caught char, seared venison, hand-dived scallops with sea purslane, hogget loin and kidney. These are modern dishes cooked with skill and confidence, providing taste sensations with every course.

If this seems like the work of a happy kitchen, then that’s because it is. Liam and Ben know young chefs are no longer prepared to be flogged around the clock, seven days a week.

‘We believe in giving them a work-life balance,’ says Liam. ‘We only trade five days a week and we think that’s important. While there’s a staffing crisis in the industry, our kitchen team has never been so strong. Getting the culture right is a big factor in our success.’ They are encouraged to do what their guests come to Whinlatter for – hiking in the fells and biking across the tracks. It’s not rocket science, it’s not even domestic science. Just common sense.

Roger Borrell was a guest of The Cottage in the Wood, Magic Hill, Whinlatter Forest, Braithwaite, near Keswick, CA12 5TW. Double rooms start from £200 per night, inclusive of dinner and breakfast. Tel: 017687 78409