You can't swing a Wellington boot in the Lake District without hitting a country house hotel. With a rival at the turn of every country lane, hotels always have to raise their game – a wing refurbished here, a new spa there – if they're going to keep up with the competition. A shining example of this is Gilpin Lodge, which steps up to the challenge with aplomb.
My weekend started badly when, 20 minutes outside London, we got stuck behind an overturned lorry and sat still for two and a half hours. I rang the hotel to say we wouldn't arrive until after midnight and would certainly miss dinner. No trouble: they'd leave sandwiches and wine in our room. The road then cleared and we arrived in time for a late dinner. The staff took all this in their stride and could not have been more accommodating – a common theme at this charming, cosy hotel. Family-owned and run, the lodge originally belonged to Great Grandma Cunliffe, who bought it in 1917 and lived in it as a private home.
It was turned into a hotel by John and Christine Cunliffe 70 years later and is now run by their son Barney, leaving his mother free to indulge in her passion for the interior décor. The latest string in their bow is the Lake House, which opened in September last year. It was lit by gas lanterns until the Eighties but has now been turned into a luxurious little bolthole with six suites (to add to the Lodge's 20) overlooking a private lake set within the sprawling grounds.
This new addition is designed to feel a little more private and exclusive than the main hotel, with a maximum of 10 other guests for company. Inside, the design echoes the Lodge. It is contemporary without being modern; an English country feel is retained through natural, earthy colours. As always, the driving principle is comfort, so lighting is soft, shelves are full of good books and sofas are deep and plentiful. The idea is that this is a home away from home. As you enter the hallway, there is a wicker basket full of umbrellas, a lovely old-fashioned sideboard, a gentleman's desk and chair and heaving log baskets.
Carry on into the drawing room and you'll find other guests sitting on the sofa, reading the paper and looking quite at home. Both breakfast and afternoon tea are served in the conservatory overlooking the woods and you can see the chef pottering away in the open kitchen next door.
At this time of year, there's also the chance to swim in the Lake House's indoor pool, soak in the outdoor hot tub overlooking the lake, have a spa treatment in your room, or go rowing on the lake. In the evening, a chauffeur will take you three minutes up the road to the Lodge for a five-course dinner.
I was a little apprehensive, fearing it would be too fussy and full of amuse-bouches. In fact the food is first class. Chef Russell Plowman cut his teeth under Alain Roux (at The Waterside Inn in Bray) and Alan Murchison. This is his first gig as head chef but his mix of simple (roast chicken and bread sauce) and sophisticated (three cuts of local lamb – roasted, braised and as sweetbreads) dishes works beautifully. Added flair comes from the odd unusual addition such as plum crumble soufflé: you cut the slightly crunchy, crumbly soufflé open and pour the hot plum sauce inside – delicious.
Situated in the southern Lake District, the hotel is two miles from Lake Windermere, but the immediate countryside is no less spectacular. Rooms have views over hills and woodland up to the often snow-capped Hargill Mountains to the east and, on clear days, all the way to Morecambe Bay to the south.
Nearby, Wray Castle was built as a private house in 1840 (and rented by Beatrix Potter and her family as a holiday home in 1882), it is now owned by the National Trust; the grounds are magnificent and run right down to the shores of Lake Windermere. Closer to home you can wander down the lane to the Brown Horse for good food and local ales. Or do nothing: until summer, most guests do exactly that.
Much like the main hotel, each of the Lake House's six suites is decorated quite differently. Ours, Gertie (all six are named after the owners' Victorian great aunts), had an elegant country house feel, with gold wallpaper covered in white blossom, white armchairs with footstools and antique-style furniture. The bed was superbly comfortable and, combined with lots of lamps and sloping ceilings, this was a cosy haven.
Personal touches such as framed photos of the ancestors and family china on the dressing table reaffirmed the familial feeling. Of the other suites, Adgie is the lightest with pale grey walls and a grey button back headboard, plus its own patio on to the garden. Beatrice and Maud are more colourful with pinks and reds introduced to the otherwise muted palette; and while Ethel is the smallest, it has a wonderful lake view.
Gilpin Lodge Lake House, Crook Road, Windermere, Cumbria, LA23 3NE (015394 88818; gilpinlodge.co.uk)
Double rooms start at £490, half board.Reuse content