Relaxing in gorgeous Grasmere

Time was when a trip to the Lake District was a major expedition involving trains, buses and scratching around to afford a hostel bunk or, on occasion, bedding down in a rather substantial stone bus shelter in Ambleside.

I also well remember a tent in a field by the side of Grasmere after an interminable drive North, with four of us jammed into an Austin A35 and with chills all round as a memento after using thin sleeping bags and no groundsheets.

Mercifully, maybe, those days are long gone – great to look back on through rose-tinted nostalgia specs, but not to be repeated in a hurry, thanks very much.

Rothay Garden So instead, it’s pampering time for my aching bones if there’s even a whiff of hiking involved, and the chic 4* Rothay Garden on the edge of Grasmere village certainly provides that in a deluxe-sized helping.

The hotel’s helpings in every department are pretty impressive, underlining its enviable and well-earned reputation as a haven of luxury and indulgence in the heart of the Lakes.

It’s a reputation based on hard work and a deal of dedication from owner Chris Carrs – who has owned the hotel for 24 years – and an enthusiastic team, many of whom have been working with him for years and share his vision of excellence and spot-on service.

We arrived in glorious afternoon weather, with snow still icing the tops of the fells and with the sunshine giving the heather and bracken at least a look of warmth to mark the decline of winter and with genuine warmth in the greeting as we checked in with manager Elliott Waugh and duty manager Victoria Bailey.

If the staff look and sound happy, it’s a fair bet that you might be happy as a guest, so the fact that Elliott has been there nine years, Victoria 18 years, deputy manager Hannah Fearnhead nine years, assistant manager Patrick Turner four years and front of house manager Jill Wilson for 17 years speaks volumes.

It became even more pertinent later to find out that joint head chefs Andrew Burton and Adrian Kneeshaw have racked up 41 years between them but before those two chaps came into play we worked up an appetite by seeing what the village has to offer, bearing in mind it’s a place of pilgrimage for fans of Lakeland poet William Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy.

Their home, Dove Cottage is just across the main road from the village itself and  has to be on everyone’s list for at least one visit, despite all the ‘touristy’ hype, if only to say you’ve shared a connection with one of the best-loved figures of English literature.

Rothay Garden Naturally enough, you can’t escape the dozens of daffodil references, but on a day when the first flush of the beautiful flowers themselves is just opening, who would want to? A stroll through the village brings you to the Wordsworth daffodil garden alongside the church, with its path of hundreds of slate tiles inscribed with the names of people from all over the world winding between clumps of snowdrops, which were slowly surrendering and giving way way to the drifts of Lakeland daffodils, smaller than the ones in petrol station bunches and more robust to cope with Cumbrian weather.

Daffs dalliance over and with the light fading, it was back to the hotel for a pre-dinner wind-down and a wander along the covered walkway to the Riverside Spa, with floor to ceiling windows appropriately looking out over the River Rothay and offering superb views of the fells while you soak away any stresses or just wallow in the warmth of the HydroSpa with its water jets and bubbles. The spa – as good as any I have seen in a fair number of exclusive Alpine retreats – also has a herbal pine sauna with views of the well-kept, discreet gardens, an aroma room, two monsoon showers and heated infra-red loungers . . . plus a bracing reflexology walk which can make you jump (literally!) as you walk over the specially-graded pebble floor inserts in tender bare feet.

Rothay Garden In summer, glass doors open out into the two-acre garden and you can have an after-spa spot of wine or a cold beer on the decking before heading back indoors, but a nippy March evening is not so conducive – so it was back to our spacious Grasmere Room (one of a range of luxury rooms and suites) with a balcony also looking out over the river, before one of the hotel’s two lounges beckoned. A lengthy sit down was needed for time to study the tempting menu and marvel at page after page of the wine list, while enjoying a pre-dinner sample of fine wine by the glass from the bar’s Cruvinet system, with 14 ‘on tap’ in ideal conditions.

Dinner? That’s where the chefs’ years of experience and dedication really showed with fine dining and alternative dietary menus in the Garden Restaurant backed up by a confident invitation for guests to visit the kitchen, proving it wasn’t a peak service time with staff rushed off their feet.

A delightful pre-starter of parsnip soup with a light curry foam was just a hint of things to come, with an intriguing appetiser of seared scallops and squares of barbecued pork belly and two piquant sauces for me; and Mrs G going for a twice-baked goat’s cheese soufflé with red onion marmalade and basil dressing.

Main course was just that – and an absolute delight for both of us.

My choice was pan-fried cod with a Morecambe Bay shrimp beurre blanc, glazed veg and new potatoes; while Mrs G had sautéed supreme of local chicken with spinach and ricotta ravioli, foie gras, truffle, baby leeks, girolles, tomato, and sherry cream jus which seemed to make her happier than I manage to.

She reported to Chris, Elliott, fellow guests and the kitchen that she could not remember having had such an enjoyable and complementary range of flavours on one plate. I liked mine, too.

Meantime, the wine was rather nice as well. The list is huge and I could have pushed the boat out with a 2006 Louis Roederer Cristal fizz for £195 (oh yeah?), but wine buff Chris has a special liking for the Lapostolle estate in Chile and seeing as he has visited the vineyards and met the people, I put my trust in his palate and opted for a pleasant, fruity Rapel Valley rosé for a very reasonable £23.

Rothay Garden Desserts are always hard to resist, but lightness was the order of the day for both of us by now, so we somewhat reluctantly ruled out the tempting array of local cheeses and chose a vanilla panna cotta with just the right amount of bounce, served with some rather boozy cherries with cherry ice cream and a shortbread biscuit.

Naturally enough, puddings deserve a pudding wine, so as our trust had not been misplaced earlier, we chose a glass of the recommended Anakena Late Harvest 2009 from the Limari Valley in Chile. Good choice. And after coffee and in-house petit fours in the lounge, it was an equally good choice to take up to the room and enjoy on the balcony to the lilting sound of the river before it got too chilly.

A hearty Cumberland breakfast the next morning fortified us for the run back home and the conservatory-style restaurant gave us a near 360 degree look at the surrounding fells before the almost inevitable happened: It’s spring in the Lake District, so it rained but it was still glorious.

PS. And the bus stop’s still there in Ambleside.

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David Graham

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