Helen Lindsay heads to Cumbria for a taste of the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness
French author and philosopher Albert Camus once wrote ‘Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower’. And where better than the Lake District to see it in full bloom?
From snowy mountain top to sun-kissed valley floor the region is a canvas for the changing seasons. But as picturesque as the popular tourist towns and villages are, they get pretty busy. So avoiding the crowds over bonfire weekend we went in search of some blazing colour further north where our base was The Queen’s Head in the village of Askham, not far from the market town of Penrith.
Recently acquired as part of the surrounding Askham Hall estate, The Queen’s Head is a 17th century pub which serves produce from the estate’s farms and the kitchen garden of the hall itself - an award winning restaurant with rooms. The estate also includes the Health Barn and the George and Dragon at Clifton, just off the M6.
Cosy and comfortable, The Queen’s Head has an atmosphere of luxury but without the show and pomposity of many ‘gastro pubs’. It retains many original features and has a lovely pared-back feel to it which continued to our room - spacious and spotlessly clean with a huge four-poster, plus a sofa-bed for The Younger. The en-suite was also roomy with fixtures and fittings that simply sparkled and a couple of fluffy white bathrobes.
Arriving on a dark and rainy evening there was a chatty bar and two glorious fires to welcome us. It was their monthly ‘wild game pop-up restaurant’ evening, which tempting as it sounded, The Younger is an aspiring vegan, so we headed out for our evening meal. But after a lovely night in that comfy four-poster we finally got to sample their local produce at a hearty breakfast of juices, fresh croissants, fruits, cereals, porridge - and the full English for Significant Other of course.
Outside the rain had stopped and we got a glimpse of Askham - a picturesque collection of cottages and barns, a thriving village shop and, a bit of a surprise, an outdoor heated pool - one for the summer months perhaps!
We were in search of autumn’s colours though and our destination for the day was just around the corner to the stunning ruins of Lowther Castle. With origins dating back to the Vikings and having played host to royalty and prime ministers, and with connections to boxing, the AA and early vegetarianism, it’s history can be described as fascinating at the very least. Three different buildings have stood on the site but the present remains are now sound and open for families to explore. A sleek café occupies former stables plus there’s an exhibition and shop.
The extensive grounds and gardens are also being reinvented incorporating the many traces of those that came before - but explore further and you will find one of the greatest adventure playgrounds imaginable.
Lowther’s marketing describes it as ‘a wooden echo of Lowther Castle built high in the canopy of the woods...a maze of zipwires, turrets, walkways and jetties’. Named The Lost Castle, I defy anyone, young or old, not to run wild in this tree house on steroids. Even The Younger, at that achingly cool pre-teen age, regressed to an excitable child!
And surrounding it all, there they were, those stunning symbols of the season. Burnt embers against a cast iron sky. There wasn’t a breath of wind. Perfect.
After a good play and back to base a walk westward took us up to Heughscar Hill with roaming fell ponies and panoramic views over Pooley Bridge and Ullswater. Askham, I am reliably informed by Significant Other, a keen fell-walker, is an excellent starting point for accessing High Street and Wainwright’s Far Eastern Fells.
All that fresh air had given us an appetite and our evening meal was in The Queen’s Head’s cosy bar with the sounds of Lowther Castle’s fireworks display whizzing in the distance.
The menu is small and simple, reflecting the seasonal produce grown on the estate. Our starter was a delicious shared Charcuterie Platter with artisan bread, pickles and cheese stuffed peppers, and I followed this with a vegetable curry, bursting with fresh flavoursome veggies that had travelled to me via a mere wheelbarrow ride through the village paths.
Morning, and the rain had set in again. But after another scrumptious breakfast we took a wander to the stunning Askham Hall to see where our grub had been grown. As well as the neatly laid out ‘hotbeds’ the Grade II listed gardens are full of terraces, formal lawns and views down to the River Lowther - and their new animal trails offer family friendly paths with livestock to meet.
Wanting to dry out a bit by this point we headed for Pooley Bridge and the cover of the Ullswater Steamers. The best of both worlds - a floating room with a view - it seemed, however, that the elements were too much for them, if not us, as the lake was high and the office closed.
One for a slightly drier day next season perhaps....
Queen’s Head, Askham, Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2PF. Rooms from £130. Tel: 01931 712225. www.askhamhall.co.uk
Lowther Castle & Gardens, www.lowthercastle.org. Chris-tmas market, Fri 22-Sun 24 Nov
Ullswater Steamers, www.ullswater-steamers.co.uk