Book a hotel room in the Lake District which is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and your dream destination would almost certainly offer a view of lakes and mountains. Add in sweeping lawns, banks of rhododendrons and a formal flower garden, and you’d really think you’d struck lucky.
So I’m quietly delighted to find all that and more at Derwent Bank, one of 18 Country Houses around Britain owned by Silver Travel partner, HF Holidays. This spectacular country mansion lies on the outskirts of Portinscale at the northern end of Derwentwater, just a short drive from Keswick. Or you can do as I did and take the train to Penrith where a late afternoon transfer can be booked through HF for just £10 return.
First impressions are always important so when I walk in the front door of Derwent Bank on Friday afternoon and immediately look out through the back window to broad lawns sweeping down to the lake shore, I’m instantly in holiday mood. The sun’s sparkling on the water, white clouds wisp across the hills and a pheasant is foraging happily amongst the daisies. Best of all, it’s quiet. Very quiet. My brain instantly steps down a gear.
And the chill-out continues as I make my way to my room on the top floor. That same lake view again, but a far greater degree of comfort than I expected. Derwent Bank has been recently refurbished and my room has a subtle nautical feel with one wall papered with a pattern of blue boats; framed pictures of sailing ships; and cabin-style bedside lamps. There’s a spacious bathroom with efficient shower; two USB sockets for charging my essential gadgets; and plenty of storage and hanging space.
This isn’t my first walking holiday but it is my first experience of HF Holidays. The geographical areas they cover in the UK are duplicated by other companies of course, but their USP is the choice of walks on offer. Book onto any guided programme and you don’t have to choose a particular programme that’s geared to your ability. With HF, there’s a choice of three walks each day, so you can mix and match the Easier, Medium and Harder walks over the course of your stay. Ideal if you want to work your way up gently or maybe take a less demanding option later on.
I’ve joined one of their new 3-night guided walking breaks that are ideal for walkers like me who want to explore some different terrain, as well as for those taking their first guided walking trip. The itineraries for our two full-day walks are gone through in detail over a drink in the bar before dinner each evening. The walk leaders – all volunteers who are highly qualified in outdoor pursuits – outline the route with a ‘moving red pencil’ on a map projected on a screen. So we all get the chance to see not just the area but also the terrain.
If like me you have lowland legs, it’s worth mentioning that even modest hill work can be quite taxing on muscles not used to gradients. The three grades of HF walk will be roughly the same length at each of their Country Houses, but the degrees of ascent can vary considerably, so bear this in mind when choosing a destination.
I’m used to long rambles round the Home Counties where the countryside ripples rather than soars, so I was keen to know how I’d get on with two Lakeland trails. I’m reasonably fit on the flat, but carry with me the legacy of old car accidents and horse riding falls. But I liked the idea of a challenge, plus a view of the hills that didn’t involve driving to get there. HF’s Harder routes were never going to be an option in this part of the world, but I was pretty confident of tackling Medium on the first day.
Eleven of us set out from the north end of Thirlmere for a steady climb over the low-lying fell of High Rigg and down to Castlerigg Stone Circle on the outskirts of Keswick – a trail of around 9 miles with 1450 feet of ascent. We were blessed with clear, sunny weather, and as we stepped aboard Keswick Launch to cross the lake back to Derwent Bank, I was quietly chuffed that nothing appeared to hurt.
I still didn’t hurt next morning. But as the intrepid Harder walkers set off for Scafell Park, I decided on the Easier option and joined three other ladies on a trail from Rosthwaite in the Borrowdale Valley over the fells to Watendlath Tarn. Here the Medium group headed along the hillside to Ashness Bridge and Keswick, whilst our little band meandered beside the beck, past tumbling waterfalls to follow the western bank of Derwentwater – like the Mediums, a walk of 8 miles with similar ascent to the day before.
Walkers are a sociable bunch so these guided walking weekends are great for singles as well as couples or groups of friends. And with free seating at dinner, you get the chance to compare other walkers’ experiences. I was hugely impressed by the standard of catering – a choice of four dishes for each of three courses at dinner. Derwent Bank is accredited by Coeliac UK and menus are clearly marked up for gluten free, dairy free and vegetarian choices.
Breakfast is buffet style with cooked options too (loved the warm muffins made with local cheese and fresh rosemary!). Picnic lunches are spectacular – choose your sandwich or salad bowl the night before, then help yourself from a table laden with savoury and sweet snacks, chocolate and cereal bars, fruit and assorted trail mixes.
HF’s Country Houses are open all year and also offer the chance to do independent walks using borrowed laminated route cards. Derwent Bank also run Walking with Sightseeing breaks; gentle Discovery Tours that involve mini-bus visits and minimal walking; and a few specialist stays such as Wainwright favourites. Full details on www.hfholidays.co.uk.
I like to think they also organised the fine weekend weather. Rain lashed the windows as I set off for the station on Monday morning. But then I saw other guests gamely donning waterproofs. Sometimes it’s good to quit when you’re on top!
Silver Travel Advisor recommends HF Holidays.