Friday 1 November 2013.
Which provides the perfect excuse to stay put at Askham Hall and forget about the fell walks. You want views? I’ve got them through the mullioned windows of my room. Activity? A well-stocked honesty bar in the lounge demands exploration.
Former home of landed gentry the Lowthers, this 13th-century pile has just reopened as a restaurant with rooms. Charlie Lowther, a hands-on farmer, publican and now restaurateur, is turning this once-austere family seat into a swish but informal bolthole, staffed by smiling, chatty human beings.
Naturally the house, set in 40 beautiful acres, oozes character. Even the loo off the lounge is a memorable antique. But Askham Hall doesn’t hammer its history. The walls feature not Lowther family portraits, but modish art by Charlie’s wife, Juno, and the centrepiece of the whole place is chef Richard Swale’s restaurant.
The dining room is a cosy space with a clever open kitchen. Bright tiles and trailing hops give a rustic “Britalian” feel. Ingredients come mainly from the estate (there are polytunnels and rare breed pigs on site), and so seriously is the local, seasonal ethos being taken that, until spring 2014, Askham will open only at weekends – in part to give Swale time for all the foraging and preserving needed to make the place almost self-sustaining.
A local lad, Swale has returned to Cumbria via some of Europe’s best kitchens, and his technical ability is clear. Some dishes require further refinement, but a scallop starter with many intelligent dimensions of flavour – intense chicken jus, tiny pork scratchings, pickled Jerusalem artichoke – confirms Swale as a serious, potentially impressive chef.
Upstairs, 13 bedrooms marry antique furniture (and fantastic wide firm beds) with bursts of contemporary design. My walk-in shower is separated from the bedroom only by jazzy Spanish floor tiles. Minor irritations, such as a lack of towel rails and no shelf in the shower, need addressing. Imported Indian toiletries and a tea tray of generic hotel biscuits and UHT milk also jar, despite a subsequent delivery of homemade cookies.
Broadly, though, with its open fires and sharp food, architectural drama and easygoing feel, Askham Hall offers the best of old and new. Leave your cagoule in the car.