Short break - Askham Hall, Penrith
- Credit: Archant
One of the north’s most aristocratic families have turned their ancient home into a remarkable luxury retreat. Roger Borrell reports
Charles and Juno Lowther currently have two new babies and it’s anyone’s guess which causes the most sleepless nights.
One is newborn Zachary, a first child for this Lakeland couple whose surname gives away an extraordinary lineage. The other is several centuries older but just as demanding in altogether different ways.
It takes the form of Askham Hall, a complex of beautiful old buildings clustered around a striking Grade I listed pele tower. This core dates back to the 13th century and it doesn’t require much imagination to picture Englishmen and women sheltering here from blood-thirsty border reivers.
Today the visitors are generally more friendly and they certainly get a warmer welcome. For Askham Hall is the UK’s latest luxury retreat. No doubt the London food writers and hotel reviewers, always desperate for something new, will be beating a path to Askham as soon as the weather warms. In their wake will come tourists from around the world, many from Japan, the US and China.
For this is something special. Who could resist being able to impress friends by telling them you’d spent the night in my lady’s dressing room? Especially such a luxurious one, now converted into a grand bedroom in the oldest part of the building. It is hidden behind a sparkling gilded and mirrored door that wouldn’t look out of place in a Venetian palace. It’s an extraordinary feature in an extraordinary house.
Askham has been a project of immense proportions and it has taken five gruelling years and the services of a dedicated local builder and a top architectural specialist who also worked on another family project, the nearby Lowther Castle.
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Just getting permission to transform such a historic home would be daunting but then going for a full restoration and modernisation while retaining the integrity of what is basically an ancient monument took nerve. Charles and Juno kept theirs, aided by his mother and sister. The result is their former home is now a stylish and contemporary hotel on a grand scale. There’s nothing else quite like it.
They’ve also taken a unique approach to guests. There is no doubt you will be well looked after but Charles and Juno want the atmosphere to be laid back and informal. Want a gin and tonic before dinner? There’s a cabinet in the library and inside is an honesty bar. Help yourself.
‘We want the place to be informal and relaxed, somewhere people can treat as their own - not be reverential or speak in hushed tones,’ says Charles.
Sorting out the plumbing in a building that was started during the reign of the Plantagenets must have been a challenge. ‘We had to completely reconfigure the space,’ he adds. ‘But we are all so excited that Askham Hall is now open to the public. The team headed by local builder Paul Birkett have done an amazing job and the finished house feels wonderful.
‘I grew up here and it always felt like a working house with cooks and people cleaning fires – a little like Downton Abbey. This change is something we wanted to do for a long time and, from a economic point of view, it was necessary. The staff needed to maintain the gardens cost £50,000 a year and the house costs another £80,000 just to run.’
While Askham Hall might have the feel of Downton – the grand staircases, the high ceilings and stunning fireplaces – the walls tell a different, more modern story. ‘It’s an ancient house but we wanted a bang-up to date contemporary feel,’ says Charles.
Step forward Juno, an accomplished artist. Walls where oils of ancient relatives once looked down are now occupied by dramatic portraits, striking abstracts and modern landscapes.
‘The consensus was that we had to get rid of all the old family portraits. We didn’t want people to feel like they were visiting a stately home,’ he adds.
The modern art and the ancient surroundings could have clashed horribly. But instead they add vibrancy and colour amid the dark wood and stonework.
The mix of old and new extends to the dozen bedrooms which are individually named to reflect the style or position in the house with design concepts that have caught their eye in recent years.
Hotels are only as good as their restaurants and Askham Hall’s Charles wants it to become a destination eating place. The remodelled dining area is made up of three rooms including a smart conservatory.
The head chef is Richard Swale, who is a local lad with an incredible pedigree which has seen him working with a culinary Who’s Who including John Burton-Race and Anthony Demetre in London, Marc Veyrat in Annecy, France, and at Noma in Copenhagen. Executive chef is Steven Doherty, one of the enduring stars of the north west culinary scene.
It’s a back story that shines through in the food being served – dishes which will almost certainly bring accolades in the months to come. The menu when Lancashire Life visited included slow cooked duck breast in vanilla oil, Lowther venison with rosehips and parmesan gnocchi and nasturtiums, poached apple and sorrel sorbet. This was thoughtful, seasonal food that brings a smile to the face.
The vast majority of the food comes from within a couple of miles with rare breed pork, beef, lamb, goat and duck produced on the doorstep plus fruit and veg from an impressive kitchen garden. Wild herbs and mushrooms are foraged from the surrounding terrain.
Tea rooms and an increasingly popular wedding venue created from an ancient barn complete the package that looks destined to make Askham Hall the next big thing.
As we drive away Charles cuts a happy if sleep-deprived figure, striding out, bucket in hand with his faithful Patterdale terrier, to feed the old spots. If P.G. Wodehouse had given Lord Emsworth a business brain Blandings could now be a destinations holiday retreat. Instead, we’ll happily settle for Askham.
Charles and Juno featured in Lancashire Life when they completed the transformation of the George and Dragon in nearby Clifton. It has gone on to become one of the region’s foremost dining pubs.
Meanwhile, Askham Hall is in the pretty village of Askham just over six miles from Penrith. Room rates at start at £150 a night including breakfast and a three course dinner is £45, with the option of a five course tasting menu. For more information go to www.askhamhall.co.uk