Neil Sowerby considers the hikes of winter past and present on a trip to the lakes
Unforgettable and scary, our first visit to Grasmere. Two green kids, unrehearsed in the challenges of mountains, learning the hard way. No illustrated Wainwright map for us as we tackled a route the signpost warned us was ‘unofficial’. Stray off it we inevitably did as the mists swirled in, the sodden sheep eyeing us as if we were doomed and then scattering as early dusk descended.
We were well and truly lost, so decided the only escape was to clamber down a stream bed that we reasoned must take us back to the valley and familiar tarmac. It was a struggle repaid. Damp and dispirited, we hove up at the Traveller’s Rest.
Nowadays it’s rather smart, the last hostelry before the ascent to Thirlmere on the A591 to Keswick. Back then, before the last Winter of Discontent, it was more basic. The old couple running the inn weren’t serving food that night but out of pity rustled up some Cumberland sausage and chips for us as we thawed out.
Flash forward to 2022 and, less than a mile away, our dinner features chalk stream trout smoked over forest pine, artichoke, sweetbread and chestnut, hand-dived scallop with Solway brown shrimp sauce, steamed North Atlantic Cod with smoked pike roe and aged saddle of Cartmel Valley deer, celeriac and last year’s walnuts – part of the eight-course tasting menu at the Forest Side. The kind of spread you’d expect from a Michelin-starred establishment just named Country Hotel of the Year 2023 by the Good Hotel Guide.
The only constant 40-plus years apart is the insistent Lakes precipitation and a fire to dry out in front of. The Forest Side bar, its wallpaper a riot of birdlife, offers a choice of fancy craft beer brewed in Kendal – a Lakes Brew Co NEIPA and a hotel collab with Gan Yam – in contrast to the Jennings bitter of yore in these parts. Farewell to that old school Cockermouth brewery that finally shut for good two months ago.
To an outsider the protected landscape of the Lakes seems set in stone. Or should that be slate? Yet the pecking order of its luxury hotels and dining rooms constantly evolves. Once upon a time the Sharrow Bay on Ullswater (arguably the UK’s first country house hotel) and Miller Howe on Windermere ruled the roost. No more. Not for a long time. At the forefront now are the likes of Forest Side. Under a decade ago this Victorian pile, built for a wealthy Manchester solicitor, was eking out an existence as a budget hostel.
In stepped Andrew Wildsmith, already the proprietor of Hipping Hall, near Kirkby Lonsdale. If that was a notable updating of the country house hotel for the Noughties, then Forest Side is a further step-up. I first visited in 2017 to review chef Kevin Tickle’s food. He has moved on to open his own place, Heft at High Newton, but the star remains under the careful stewardship of Paul Leonard, formerly at The Devonshire Arms, Bolton Abbey.
If the food is a major draw, much of it foraged or sourced from the substantial walled kitchen garden with 160 raised beds, the place has much else to offer, even if it avoids the spa/swimming pool add-ons of more corporate establishments. A big plus for us: it is dog-friendly. Captain Smidge the chihuahua revelled in the expanse of our Master Room (and his treats); we were blown away by the epic view of those crags we once near perished among.
Impressive too is the way inside the Victorian grandeur – high ceilings, fireplaces – are subtly incorporated into a bold, light-filled contemporary design, most strikingly in the dining room where the tables are made from reclaimed timber flooring and floor-to-ceiling French windows almost let the garden in. Arty twig arrangements are a further link to the woods above, realm of the rare red squirrel.
‘Oak’, our bedroom, felt terrifically romantic. A billowing canopy over the bed, shimmering fabrics, Herdwick wool carpets, dove grey walls, all elegant simplicity. A bathroom to match with a standalone bath and rows of those posh toiletries they ‘encourage’ you to purchase at the front desk. Instead we asked for the hotel’s Walks Around Grasmere leaflet.
Wiser nowadays, I’d recommend Helm Crag. A moderate circular 7.5 mile walk will get you there and back in a little over four hours. Easedale Tarn is only two miles away from Grasmere. It’s 480mx300m in size and its icy waters replenish the white spume waterfalls of Sourmilk Gill, which accompany the easy bridleway up. Or you could always do a proper calf-stretcher like the Alfred Wainwright favourite up to Stone Arthur.
Instead, as we did this time, walk the flat 15 minutes into Grasmere village. There’s a footpath just across the A591 from the hotel. Our destinations were two perennial favourites – Sam Read’s Bookshop and Tweedie’s Bar.
The former has been around since 1887, when one Sam Read set it up opposite Grasmere village green, and has had only six owners since. Its immaculately chosen stock is a civilised magnet. The latter is a dog-friendly craft beer mecca inside the Lodge of that name (separate entrance). Real cider, too, pub games and a woodburning stove for winter in a nigh-perfect package. Each September they host a beer festival and hog roast appropriately called Guzzler.
From here it’s a short hop to St Oswald’s Church. Recently restored to its original limestone render, the tower dominates the village. It was founded by Oswald, King of Northumbia in 624, but the current Grade 1 listed building dates back to the 14th century. Inside the church is gleamingly maintained, and the font and some stained glass are medieval, but the real reason to visit is the austere grave of poet William Wordsworth outside.
Next door you can pick up some Grasmere gingerbread at Sarah Nelson’s little shop (established 1854) to munch in the adjacent ‘Daffodil Garden’. Personally I’d prefer to take out the sourdough and cakes at Lucia’s on College Street.
Regard either as an appetiser before the main Wordsworth event. Dove Cottage and the Wordsworth Museum are just along the A591 from Forest Side. Between 1799 and 1808,
Wordsworth and his family, lived in the cottage, previously a pub called ‘The Dove and Olive Bough’ You’ll be amazed how tiny it is. Entry to the Cottage, Museum, Garden-Orchard and The Woodland costs £14 per adult (with concessions). Without Dove Cottage it’s £11.
My favourite ghost of the place is Sir Walter Scott, a famous and ample guest, miffed by the poet’s parsimony, who squeezed through the back window to find a proper breakfast in the nearest inn. I suspect, alive today, he would have made a beeline for Forest Side’s Full Cumbrian with foraged wild mushrooms and whisky porridge.
Follow Neil on Twitter: @antonegomanc
Forest Side, Keswick Road, Grasmere, Cumbria LA22 9RN. 01539 435250
20 bedrooms. Six of these are dog-friendly, but note canines are not allowed in the restaurant.
Lead-in rate for Bed & Breakfast in an entry-level cosy room is £199 (Mondays/Tuesdays); £239 (Wednesdays/Thursdays/Sundays); Saturday – no B&B rate.
Bed, Breakfast & Dinner packages: midweek 4-course dinner included is £399; midweek rate with 8-course dinner £489; Saturday rate with 8-course dinner £549.
Grasmere is a 90-mile drive via the M6 from Manchester, 95 from Liverpool. Or you could get the train to Windermere and hire a car. Useful websites for planning a Lakes holiday can be found here and here.
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