Short break - Forest Side, Grasmere
- Credit: Archant
The man who brought you Hipping Hall has created a luxurious fairytale hotel in glorious Grasmere. Roger Borrell reports
I was driving to Grasmere with a tank full of righteous indignation after reading a London food critic’s harrowing experience of having to suffer a meal outside (yes, you guessed it) London. The poor lamb had to eat in Lancashire’s vast culinary desert, prompting him to warn readers they should subtract one year for every ten miles they travelled away from the capital.
He used his fingers and all 12 of his toes to work out that the style of food you should expect to be served in a Manchester restaurant today is the equivalent of what was on offer in London in 1995.
I chuntered all the way up the M6 until, reaching my destination, I was presented with a tasting menu. Oh, that’s so 1995, I thought.
I just can’t make up my mind about them. Are they an outdated means for self-regarding chefs to show off an exhausting display of culinary tricks or a serious attempt to demonstrate the depth and range of the kitchen team? A little more of that later.
Let’s be clear. Forest Side, just outside Grasmere, is an extraordinary place. The last time I was there it was in a sorry state. From the outside, it looked a little like the house in Psycho and inside it was a bombsite.
As new owner Andrew Wildsmith gave me the grand tour I wouldn’t have been surprised to find a cobwebby Miss Haversham (Marita Hunt in 1946 rather than Tuppence Middleton on the telly) sitting in a corner with mice nibbling her dusty wedding cake.
However, Andrew – also owner of the award-winning Hipping Hall at Leck in Lancashire – had a vision and, I presume, a lot of money to create something quite special. He’s certainly done that.
Parts of the grounds were still a work in progress when we returned to stay the night but as soon as you crossed the threshold you knew Forest Side was going to be extraordinary and not just because the staff are so beautifully polished, proud and enthusiastic as kids with a new toy.
Andrew said he wanted guests to experience the grandeur of staying in a Victorian mansion while enjoying all the mod cons you would expect from a luxury hotel. But, more than that, he wanted to create a hotel full of romance and he enlisted the help of Lancaster interior designer James Mackie to help create 20 gorgeous bedrooms.
My second tour of Forest Side was altogether different. It started, like all good tours, in the bar which has a mixologist of some genius. But what really stands out is the Cole & Son wallpaper – a truly jaw-dropping display of exotic birdlife.
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There are more dramatic decorations in the lounge, where the sofas are adorned in Zoffany fabrics. From there, the dining room combines old and new – they replaced the floorboards with wide oak boards and recycled the old stuff, some of it to make the dining tables. The centre-piece of the room is a marvellous glass-topped table made from a huge old tree stump. It’s a room that makes a statement.
The bedrooms are equally fabulous with Farrrow & Ball paint, more sumptuous fabrics and the beds have been specially made for the hotel with each mattress containing 10,000 springs. I didn’t count them, so I only have their word for it.
The carpets in all the rooms have been made specially for Wildsmith Hotels from local Herdwick wool dyed an exclusive colour. And it’s worth getting muddy on the fells just to use the lovely bathrooms. The views from our windows could have been Heaton Cooper paintings.
Back down in the dining room the choice was between the more conventional “The l’al yan” at £55 a time and the ten-course tasting menu, “The grand ‘un’” at £75.
For old times sake, we went for the grand ‘un. This wasn’t a difficult decision because whatever you think about tasting menus, the head chef here is Kevin Tickle and you know you are going to like it. After learning his trade with Simon Rogan, he is now regarded as one of the country’s best young chefs.
He has his own substantial kitchen garden in the grounds of Forest Side but it’s his skill as a forager, pickler, curer and creator of syrups and assorted gloops – used in the cocktails as well as the lunches and dinners – that is so impressive.
It’s impossible to list everything that appeared on our ten plates but here are a few – duck giblets, hazelnut whey, sea lettuce, marsh herbs, pickled allium flowers, ragstone, scurvy grass, sweet cicley, home made ginger beer. I could go on but suffice to say it was invariably delicious and some dishes – guinea hen, brill, venison pastrami and scallop in particular – were really exceptional.
Perhaps there were a couple of dishes too many but that’s really like a donkey complaining of being fed too many strawberries.
Being in Grasmere is always a pleasure. In fact, it’s your duty to show solidarity with the locals after the turmoil caused by the floods. But now there is another reason for going – one of the top five hotels in the north that might just elicit some grudging respect from London’s gruberati. w
Forest Side, Keswick Road, Grasmere, LA22 9RN. 015394 3525. www.theforestside.com