Pulling into Windermere on a sunny Friday evening, our train is met with the happy bustle that accompanies infrequent arrivals at end-of-the-line stations. Passengers are hugged by family and friends, and then pour into waiting taxis, buses and cars.
Our own transport is waiting just around the corner: an army Land Rover in full camouflage – the first sign that this is not going to be a conventional Lake District weekend.
We are staying at Brimstone, which opened last month and bills itself as a “beyond boutique” hotel, with no lesser aim than “ripping up the rule book and reinventing the luxury stay”. Early signs are good – the region is known for stone cottages, rather than bold architecture, but already Brimstone has been shortlisted as “best new-build” at the European Hotel Design Awards (the winner will be announced in November).
But back to the Land Rover. My girlfriend and I are met by Richard Steen, who explains that he can drive us to the hotel but the idea is really that he hands over the keys and we drive ourselves, using both roads and off-road 4x4 tracks. “It’ll really help you forget about your stressful weeks in the city,” he says, beaming. He points out the rally-style direction sheets and the radio with which we can summon help. Then, with a crunch of heavy gears and a deep diesel-engined rumble, we are off, through the town, across the lake on a tiny ferry, and out into the wilds.
The first off-road section is a shock, a country lane so overgrown that the bushes on either side almost meet in the middle. We drive through, pushing the leaves and branches aside with a monstrous scraping noise. Soon the bushes recede, but the track turns into a rocky obstacle course, the steering wheel lurching from side to side as though it has come alive. Like many of the best travel experiences, there’s a slight sense of disbelief – are we really being allowed to do this (and with absolutely no training)? By the time we roll up at the hotel, an hour and a half later, Richard has been proved right: London seems a long way away.
Brimstone is immediately impressive, obviously newly built but constructed in the beautiful slate that is so much a part of the local vernacular. But after the unforgettable transfer, the hotel’s welcome is an anti-climax. Its website makes much of the “Hosts”, who “can park your Lamborghini, carry your Louis Vuitton, light your fire ... you get the idea”. The reality is that there is an entryphone system beside the locked front door. We ring. No one answers.
After several minutes we do get a response, and after a couple more someone comes to let us in. She’s pleasant but clearly in a bit of a hurry as she shows us upstairs, pointing out the Reading Room, a guest lounge with complimentary drinks and snacks.
The hotel is very proud of this, calling it “a first for any Lake District hotel ... relax, read, nosh or quaff at your leisure”. It almost certainly is a first – the first hotel lounge in this, England’s most scenic region, to have absolutely no windows. Instead there is a large flatscreen tuned to Sky News. When I return later, I notice that the Reading Room boasts a total of seven books.
The bedroom, though, is stunning. There are 16 in all, of varying sizes and shapes, but all with the same plush furnishings, high-gloss finishes and high-tech equipment. Ours is double height, with a huge bed on a mezzanine, and wide folding glass doors that open on to a balcony with trees beyond. There’s a big slate fireplace, with kindling and wood waiting ready. The curtains open at the touch of a button. Light switches offer a range of pre-programmed ambiences, from “lazy” to “sexy” – there’s even one called “tinkle”, presumably for the middle of the night.
Some might find it a bit bling for the Lake District – the snakeskin pouf, for example, or the chairs covered in black velour – but it’s certainly unlike any other hotel I’ve stayed at in the region, and the effect is softened by local touches such as the Cumbrian ale in the minibar and the Wainwright walking guide on the coffee table.
The next morning we sample another innovation. Transport has always been a dilemma in the Lakes – from most UK cities, getting there is far faster by train but, once you’ve arrived, a car is indispensable. The Land Rover transfer is one way around this; another is the Renault Twizy, a type of tiny electric car that the hotel rents out to guests during their stay.
The Twizy is small enough to whizz around the narrow lanes, and the lack of noise and emissions is a boon in a national park that gets 15.8m visitors per year, 89 per cent of them travelling by private car. Best of all though, it looks so ridiculous that everyone who sees it smiles, laughs and waves. Whenever we stop a crowd gathers to ask what it is. I begin to feel like Jeremy Clarkson filming an episode of Top Gear.
There’s space just for two, the passenger sitting behind the driver, and though the battery drains scarily fast as we tackle the Hardknott Pass, the car comes with an extension lead so that we can plug it in to recharge at a friendly pub or café.
Back at the hotel, however, the niggles mount up. The website doesn’t make clear that Brimstone is part of a larger existing hotel and timeshare operation, with 84 cottages and Scandinavian-style lodges. It’s all low-rise and landscaped, and there’s the advantage of a big indoor pool and choice of restaurants, but it does mean, at times, that the atmosphere is a bit more holiday camp than exclusive retreat.
Brimstone itself has no restaurant – breakfast is served in the bedrooms. Nice idea, but on both mornings of our stay, it comes late (delivered by the same increasingly harassed-looking girl who showed us in) and missing some constituent parts. My bacon and egg muffin comes with no bacon; the coffee with no cups (not an oversight, I’m told, they’ve simply run out). On the last morning, I come back to find the maid in the room, pulling off the bedsheets – no one has told us the checkout time. Actually it’s not a chambermaid, but the same girl again. Having one member of staff act as concierge, check-in, waiter and chambermaid really is ripping up the rule book.
In fairness, I’m here within weeks of the opening; it may well improve. For now, though, it feels as though so much care, and cash, has been lavished on the wonderful rooms and innovative transport that no one had time to think about the basics of good service.
Tom Robbins was a guest of Brimstone (www.brimstonehotel.co.uk; doubles from £250, mezzanine suites from £325, spa suites from £375). The Land Rover transfers are operated by Kankku (www.kankku.co.uk), which also offers self-drive and guided off-road trips throughout the Lakes (full-day self-drive “safari” from £180 per vehicle). For more on the area see www.cumbriatourism.org