The problem faced by many new country-house hotels is how best to deck out all the public rooms and bedrooms with suitably authentic-seeming furnishings to add character and atmosphere. Askham Hall, on the edge of the Lake District, a short drive from Penrith, has no such problems.
The Grade I-listed house dates from the 13th century and was the home of the Lowther family after they moved from nearby Lowther Castle in the 1930s. The house is stuffed with heirlooms: you eat your breakfast off monogrammed plates, the living room with ever-roaring fire is filled with antique furniture and the sweeping staircase is hung with family crests that Charles Lowther, the current owner, found in a box room. He tells me the house has undergone work costing “the best part of £2m”, but it retains a homely, eclectic feel, enhanced by striking modern artworks by Lowther’s wife Juno in place of the old oils and portraits that could have made it feel a little fusty.
As a gale raged beyond the mullioned windows, I talked to Lowther by the fire. His passion, he explained, is food. He took over his family’s farms in 2001 and turned them organic. Then he relaunched the nearby George and Dragon pub with locally sourced ingredients, and now, Askham Hall, which is really a vehicle for the restaurant. It uses meat and game from the estate, homegrown fruit and veg and more unusual ingredients sourced from the fields, woods and riverbanks.
It comes as no surprise that the chef, Richard Swale, has worked at Noma in Copenhagen and La Maison de Marc Veyrat in Annecy. On the first evening, we marvelled at dishes of roasted langoustine with field mushroom, caramelised onion, leeks and ash to start, followed by Lowther venison with rosehip, parmesan gnocchi and nasturtium. Then one of the most delicious desserts I’ve tasted: poached apple, apple and sorrel sorbet, buttermilk panna cotta, blackberries and crumble.
Each weekend, there is a choice of just two dishes for each course, but any worries that we’d had about eating there on both nights of our stay evaporated instantly. I would have happily eaten the same thing for a week – or more.
After a comfortable night in our giant bed, in what was formerly the master bedroom’s dressing room, we set out to walk over Askham Fell to get the view over Ullswater. Sadly, we were beaten back by driving rain and retreated to the living room to while away the afternoon flicking through old Lowther family albums by the fire.
Saturday night offered a consolation for the bad weather: another stupendous three-course dinner of partridge and broth, followed by wild sea bass with maple-glazed salsify, goat’s milk mash and brown shrimp sauce, and a pudding of chocolate brûlée and popcorn ice cream.
On Sunday, having learnt our lesson from the fell, we took in the woods along the River Lowther, dropping down into the grounds of Lowther Castle. It rises in the distance as if in a particularly outlandish Tim Burton movie – a mass of crenellated towers and parapets. But as with everything during our weekend at Askham Hall, it was thoroughly authentic.
Askham, near Penrith, Cumbria, CA10 2PF, 01931 712350; askhamhall.co.uk
Doubles from £150
Askham is four miles south of Penrith. Trains from London Euston to Penrith take three hours
Hot holidays: Rain-free retreats
If the UK’s record wet winter has you dreaming of clear skies, consider escaping to the Atacama. As well as offering stunning landscapes, slick hotels and activities from riding to stargazing, it is one of the world’s driest places. Journey Latin America has a five-night stay at the chic Explora hotel, from £2,914 including flights from London and activities. Journeylatinamerica.co.uk
Muscat’s seafront hotels are popular for a winter trip, but next month attention will move inland for the launch of a chic retreat in the Al Hajar mountain range. The 86-room Alila Jabal Akhdar, perched above a dramatic gorge, is the first property in the Middle East from Alila, the Singapore-based group that has won awards for its striking modern architecture. Doubles from £185; alilahotels.com
Few countries rival Namibia’s desert landscapes, from the Naukluft mountains to the vast red dunes at Sossusvlei, the Skeleton Coast and the Etosha salt pan where elephants roam. Expert Africa arranges self-drive trips, with empty desert punctuated by stops at boutique hotels or luxurious wilderness camps. An eight-night trip costs from £652 per person, excluding flights. Expertafrica.com