The village of Grasmere, in the middle of the Lake District National Park, is known for many things. There is its lithe, pretty lake, its long and well-documented association with William Wordsworth, its moreish ginger bread made to the recipe of a Victorian housekeeper called Sarah Nelson – and many other edible and non-edible delights. What it didn’t have was a decent hotel.
It does now, however. In fact, it has more than a decent hotel, it has a very good hotel in The Forest Side. Hotelier Andrew Wildsmith - a former Cambridge biochemist - has sunk £4.5m into the renovation of this sturdy, slate-built Victorian manor.
Wildsmith owns two other boutique hotels in the area, the Ryebeck at Bowness-on-Windermere and Hipping Hall in Kirby Lonsdale, over the border in Yorkshire. Neither are quite on this scale. The head gardener, Catherine Walsh, formerly of Simon Rogan’s L’Enclume, was here a year prior to opening, planting the 100-odd raised beds and greenhouses, which will, it is hoped, supply most of the vegetables for the restaurant, as well as the herbal infusions for the bathrooms and the garnishes for the cocktails in the bar.
In the restaurant, which is run by another L’Enclume alumnus, Kevin Tickle, as well as garden herbs and vegetables, you’ll find superb dishes that make the most of the foraging opportunities in the grounds. So each of the four tasting menus – which range from moderately big to 11 courses – is rooted in the surroundings: the venison pastrami comes with juniper yoghurt and pickled allium flowers; surf clams are accompanied by seaweed broth, kohlrabi and marsh herbs. It is also exceptionally good value – the largest menu, which takes about three hours to consume, costs £75.
The head barman, Bruno, formerly of the Mandarin Oriental in Knightsbridge, has been given a free hand with the cocktail list. His New English Martini – gin, camomile-infused English vermouth and Chartreuse – is superb, and quite lethal. The wine is all organic and biodynamic, but don’t let that put you off, it is very well-chosen.
The location is what estate agents call “enviable”. The hotel is set back from the road, meaning you never hear cars passing, though a footpath at the end of the drive quickly takes you to the centre of Grasmere.
The village is small and full of tourists even at low season. Alas, there is no proper pub. But it does have as a backdrop Helm Crag, the dramatic escarpment which is also visible from my bathroom, and Wordsworth’s house, Dove Cottage.
Its location at the heart of the national park means the rest of the Lake District is easily accessible – the main tourist spots, like Windermere and Bowness, being little more than a half hour off. Oxenholme station, the main terminus for trains from the south, is also half an hour’s drive away. This station has frequent direct trains from Euston, a journey which takes around two and half hours..
The bedrooms have a sort of country casual feel to them, with an off-white palette and an off-smart feel. It works, however; even if there is too much white furniture for my taste. There are no minibars in the rooms, which are named after the tree varieties in the garden, but each is temperature controlled and comes with a large, well-appointed bathroom, where you’ll find a roll-top bath and monsoon shower.
The Herdwick sheep make their presence felt inside as well as out, providing the wool for the carpets and indeed the large Harrison Spinks beds. Although rooms are graded “Cosy”, “Jolly Good”, “Superb”, “Grand” and “Master” depending on their size, each has the same facilities. Room service is available.
Forest Side is that rare thing: a boutique hotel with both a sense of place and a sense of humility. It is friendly, with wonderful staff and a lack of pretention. Go now, before the hordes descend.
The Forest Side Hotel & Restaurant, Keswick Road, Grasmere, Cumbria LA22 9RN (01539 435250; theforestside.com). Doubles start at £209 including breakfast, and £299 with dinner.
Pets: five pet-friendly rooms are available in the North Wing, which has its own separate entrance. Dog charge is £20 a night, including dog bed and bowls
Access: one wheelchair accessible room with private bathroom. An interconnecting room available for guests or a carer
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