By George, this 18th century coaching inn is a foodie heaven!
Marion Ainge stays at the George and Dragon, Penrith and discovers the Lowther family’s rich heritage.
It’s a bit surprising to see a manager and his staff clad in jeans, albeit smart ones, for restaurant service. But smiling, attentive staff in stylish, casual attire add to the relaxed, friendly ambience of the George and Dragon inn, situated in Clifton, close to the small, market town of Penrith.
Rightly proud are the Lowther family of the accolade, Cumbria’s ‘Dining Pub of the Year’ in the Good Pub Guide, 2017.
Foodies flock here, particularly the over-50s, who are also fans of the area’s many attractions. Fresh, local meat, veg, herbs and fruit, readily available from the extensive Lowther Estate, features in all the menus. Game, including roe deer and red deer, is sourced on the estate woods and moors as is partridge, pheasant, woodcock and duck, from local game-keepers. Their fish comes mainly from the north west Cumbrian coast. Private fishing, shooting and stalking on the family estate, can be arranged. Local suppliers provide cheeses, smoked meats and some fish, nearby micro-breweries, the local ales. For me, the highlight of dinner in the rustic restaurant was the starter, a fluffy, perfectly-prepared, twice-baked, herb-infused cheese and spinach souffle nestling in a rich chive cream. Outstanding, as was the tender, flavoursome Rough Fell lamb, presented with wild garlic gnocchi, sheep’s curd and alliums, accompanied by broad beans and leeks.
Low ceilings, soft lighting, log burners, old church benches, flagged floors and intimate little alcoves add to the charm of this family, dog-friendly, 11-bedroom hostelry. Photographs, prints and archive images on the walls tell the story of the family estate’s unique heritage.
Accessed via a stone staircase, our comfortable bedroom was well-equipped with twin-bowl bathroom and roll-top bath.
Locals pop into the pub regularly for drinks as well as meals, so there’s always a friendly buzz about the place.
Renovated in 2008, it’s also a popular watering hole and/or overnight stop for cyclists and for travellers to Scotland.
Just 10 minutes’ drive away is Askham Hall and gardens, also part of the Lowther Estate. The majestic, residential hall isn’t open to day visitors, but the surrounding, Grade 11 listed gardens are well worth seeing. Maintained by five gardeners they comprise vibrant, colourful floral terraces, a 230ft long herbaceous border, unusual plant species, formal lawns, kitchen gardens, woodland, meadows and ponds, with views down to the River Lowther. These grounds stretch to fields of grazing shorthorn cattle, rare breed pigs and goats, plus free range chicken and ducks.
The beguiling Kitchen Garden Cafe was a former cattle shed. Tables are set where cows were tied in stalls. It has limestone walls, original beams and cobbled stone floors. There’s a galleried wedding barn with whitewashed walls and vaulted ceiling on the first floor.
The fragrance of the wood-fired pizza oven filled the air on a balmy day. We shared a delicious smoked salmon pizza with rocket and lemon creme fraiche. We also divided a tasty, home-made roasted vegetable tart, accompanied by a Caesar salad with home-grown black potatoes plus an Askham heritage multi-hued tomato and basil salad and a mix of sugar snap peas, green beans, mange tout with a Gorgonzola and walnut dressing. I had to drag myself away from this heavenly little artisan haven.
At Lowther Castle, a colourful, visual exhibition guides visitors through Lowther’s past, which over 850 years has included warriors, showmen, sportsmen, soldiers,adventurers, knights and earls. It has belonged to the Lowther family, latterly the Earls of Lonsdale, since the Middle Ages. Built at the turn of the 19th century, Lowther Castle boasted a room for every day of the year. It was visited by kings, queens and emperors and for 150 years was host to many regal occasions. But by 1957, reduced family finances left the castle abandoned to ruin.
It was offered to the National Trust and other institutions, but in the still somewhat depressed post-war years there were no takers. In order to avoid taxes, the castle was stripped bare and the roof removed. Just the facade and outer walls remained standing and for over half a century, the place was empty – home only to chickens, pigs and the odd bat. The renowned gardens became a wilderness. In 1999, salvation came via English Heritage. Sixty years later, one can walk through the imposing ruins and imagine the castle as it was in all its grandeur, with sumptuous decor full of treasures. With new gardens, an adventure playground, contemporary cafe – the huge salads are very good – and shop, reborn Lowther Castle is a popular tourist attraction.
Penrith Museum features collections relating to the Neolithic age in the Eden Valley and Long Meg Stone Circle. Work by Penrith artist Jacob Thompson is displayed. Quaker parents showed little interest in their son’s talent, considering art a vanity but Jacob’s career flourished after William, Earl of Lonsdale became his patron. Trophies and belts belonging to former Champion Wrestler of England, Penrith’s William Jameson, are showcased along with the medals of Crimean War hero, Trooper William Pearson. The monocle of Percy Toplis, the notorious monocled mutineer, buried in an unmarked grave in Penrith’s Beacon Edge Cemetery, also forms part of the collection. BAFTA award-winning 1986 BBC drama, The Monocled Mutineer, starring Paul McGann, was based on the book of the same name. Youngsters thrill to see the elephant’s tooth, the collection of Roman coins and a fossil of a dinosaur footprint.
Visitors to the George and Dragon find that Penrith, known as the gateway to the Lake District, is only 20 minutes by car to lovely Ullswater, the second largest lake in the region. This area is more tranquil and less crowded than other tourist-heavy lakes. Ullswater steamers provide a serpentine course of eight miles with spectacular views of the Lake District’s highest mountains. Surrounded by Lakeland Fells, this area is a walker’s paradise.
George and Dragon, Clifton, Cumbria
B&B standard room from £100 (two sharing)
The Lake District, Cumbria