What a great place. How lucky we are to have young, go-ahead people like Charles and Juno Lowther to take a rather dog-eared old village watering hole, long past its sell by date, and turn it into something characterful and brimming with life.
I wish I could tell you that the George and Dragon is situated in some glorious Cumbrian beauty spot, but I can’t. It’s just south of Penrith in the village of Clifton on the A6, once the main highway north, and while close to both Ullswater and the Eden Valley, its 12 attractive rooms are not entirely devoid of road noise (but do have lovely Karma bath products from India and great beds, if not quite the various luxurious touches of some similar newly converted inns). Should you stay here? Yes, absolutely. For an affordable Cumbrian base, or a break in the journey to or from Scotland, make a beeline.
Charles Lowther is the younger son of the 7th Earl of Lonsdale, but it’s the 5th Earl who still looms large hereabouts (and also gave boxing its Lonsdale Belt). By the time of his death in 1944, the hugely extravagant sportsman and bon vivant (“almost an emperor, not quite a gentleman,” remarked Edward VII) had galloped through much of the family fortune, becoming known as the Yellow Earl for his fabulous yellow Rolls-Royces, yellow Labradors, yellow-liveried servants and yellow gardenias for his button holes.
The agricultural arm of the vast, historic Lowther Estate needed to get back on track, especially after the disaster of foot and mouth in 2001. If farming and food was the estate’s raison d’être, diversification was the key, and so Charles and Juno have turned their attention to hospitality, putting the estate’s George and Dragon firmly on the local map and making it a showcase for Lowther’s produce. The revamped ground floor is a triumph of conviviality and authenticity. So many converted inns are given over solely to dining, with no focal point and so no heart. Here, though, the wood-topped bar, the wood-burning stoves, the banquette seats strewn with covered cushions and the sightline that allows you to see all the way to the far side of the slate-floored, duck-egg blue panelled restaurant, create a delightful place in which to while away time.
And we mustn’t forget the collage of photographs of prize Beef Shorthorn cattle, the breeding and promotion of which is Charles’s real passion.
The food was the sort of tasty, unfussy, locally sourced cooking I like best, and included a real treat: pan-fried venison liver provided by the splendid Gregor Cattenach, who joined Charles, Juno and I for a drink before dinner. He’s the estate’s head stalker and will take guests stalking (or just looking), which, along with the fishing it offers, makes the George and Dragon a true sporting hotel. So engaging was Gregor about his job, and his life, that a couple at the next table, already agog at our conversation about yellow earls, crumbling castles, future plans, Beef Shorthorns and bagpipe playing, signed up for a day out with him then and there. You see: it’s that sort of great place.
Cumbrians, from far and wide, for lunch and dinner. And regulars, to drink at the bar. A group of old boys have a weight loss competition; the scales are kept behind the bar, and the winner each week donates his prize money to charity. The bedrooms make it a great place to break journeys between north and south, and an affordable base for the Lake District.
On the A6, the old highway north before the advent of the M6, whose traffic is audible, if muffled, from the bedrooms. But the Lake District is close by, with Ullswater just a few miles away.
The pub has a great atmosphere, and you can see all the way from the warm and cosy bar, with its Indian crewel work blinds and kilim covered cushions on banquette seats, through to the far end of the restaurant, an attractive room with slate floor and duck egg blue tongue and groove panelling.
The delightful Chris Curry, who spent many years at Leeming House on Ullswater, is now the committed general manager. Most staff are Cumbrian; they are friendly but perhaps should know more about the local area and the history of Clifton, the sight of the last battle, in 1745, on English soil.
The 12 bedrooms, with good new bathrooms, are attractive, with crewel work fabrics, though not the highlight of the George and Dragon, some being awkwardly shaped, and prone to road and kitchen noise.
The George and Dragon is owned by Charles Lowther, brother of the Earl of Lonsdale, and the pub is a showcase for produce from the Lowther estate, including venison and beef (Charles breeds Beef Shorthorns on his farm). The food, overseen by chef Paul MacKinnon, is just the sort of no-nonsense fare one feels like eating here.
The two bedrooms at £150 are expensive for what they are, but otherwise prices are fair enough. Doubles from £95, singles £75 per night, including breakfast.