Short break - Askham Hall, Penrith, Cumbria

Askham Hall

Askham Hall - Credit: Archant

Askham Hall in Cumbria delivers everything the weary winter traveler could dream of.

Delicious desert at Askham

Delicious desert at Askham - Credit: Archant

The secret passage was the highlight; who hasn’t dreamt of staying in a medieval pele tower and then discovering a secret flight of stairs from just outside your room to an unknown place? In our case it was down to one of the lounges, the one with the honesty bar. Bingo! Several other guests at Askham Hall thought we should be charged extra.

Kick off your shoes and treat our home as yours; that’s pretty much the message from Charles and Juno Lowther, who have ‘up-cycled’ their Cumbrian country house to create 13 comfortable bedrooms, three lounges and a new restaurant.

The impressive Askham Hall, near Penrith, has been the home of the Lowthers since 1830, when they vacated the nearby Lowther Castle, but the aristocratic family has owned and been associated with the northern Lake District for more than 800 years. This is definitely Lowther country and everywhere you look there are roads, pubs and businesses all bearing the name.

Bed and bath

Bed and bath - Credit: Archant

The hall itself is a sumptuous but relaxed place from which to discover the area; it’s in a fantastic position for walking, cycling and enjoying the quiet Eden Valley and Ullswater area. Alternatively you can just while away a day or two at the Hall, sitting in the lounges in front of a fire, playing snooker, helping yourself to a drink from the honesty bar or wandering around the beautiful gardens.

If you have the slightest interest in history it’s a wonderful place to stay as the Lowthers have used lots of original items in the interior design; in one of the halls is a large wooden box with the words ‘Earl of Lonsdale’s Church Books’ written on it. Lift the lid and that’s exactly what it contains. A photo album of rarely seen pictures of Lowther Castle commissioned by the Yellow Earl (he was the one who frittered much of the family’s money away) is in one of the lounges for anyone to flick through. These small treasures are dotted everywhere.

Until relatively recently the hall was the home of the Countess Caroline of Lonsdale; she now lives nearby. Her son Charles and his artist wife Juno spent six years discussing, then transforming, the Hall, much as they did at the nearby George and Dragon pub in Clifton a few years ago. Askham Hall opened to the public last spring; it’s traditional and relaxed with lots of modern touches and attention to detail. Among the many pictures on the walls are contemporary ones by Juno, a statement that this is no traditional stay in a fusty country house. This is the modern way to do it.

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Our room, the Old Dressing Room, was in the Grade I listed pele tower. With a modern walk in shower, bright tiles and fabulous firm bed it managed to retain a traditional feel with views from the lead mullion windows over to the topiary garden. Other rooms feature roll top baths and overlook the River Lowther.

Many visit the hall just to sample Richard Swale’s cooking. Having worked at the world’s best restaurant, NOMA in Copenhagen, he’s returned to his native Cumbria and is keen on using the best local, seasonal ingredients- sourcing much of it from the garden. Charles Lowther himself keeps a herd of pedigree beef shorthorn cattle, rare breed pigs, goats, sheep, ducks and chickens.

The three-course menu has a choice of two starters, mains and puddings with amuse bouche (the delightful waiting staff call them nibbles) and petit fours and coffee to finish. We opted for scallops, mushroom and miso puree, artichoke, chestnuts, celeriac and truffle jus. The sheer intensity of the flavour packed into the tiny dots of puree was unbelievable. Main courses were a choice of corn fed duck with Parmesan gnocchi and vegetables or John Dory with a chive and smoked cod roe sauce. For pudding we both had the pumpkin crème caramel, chocolate sorbet and crystallized violets.

The Lowthers promote Askham Hall as a bohemian-style ‘home from home’ – although, and this is a minor niggle, who of us have UHT cartons on a tea tray in our bedroom?

It’s certainly quirky but most people don’t have such a historic or romantic home to return to, which is why the hall is so perfect for a weekend escape, wedding or Valentine’s Day treat.

Rooms start at £150 low season and £170 high season on a B & B basis. The three-course meal was £45 plus wine.