Grand designs for a great stay
Gillian Parkinson spends the weekend living like the aristocracy in stunning Askham Hall, near Penrith
The owners of Askham Hall encourage their guests to treat this magnificent old building as home.
Now, unless you are a member of the aristocracy, chances are your home is not like Askham Hall.
However, the genuinely welcoming atmosphere, the huge comfortable sofas and chairs and the log fires in every lounge certainly give the atmosphere of a family home rather than a top class hotel.
These are grand surroundings, certainly, but there is no standing on ceremony here.
No-one batted an eyelid when I slipped off my shoes after dinner – nor when the gentleman in the corner began to nod off with a glass of whisky from the very well-stocked honesty bar in hand.
Even our Labrador added to the illusion – falling fast asleep in front of the fire within minutes – not unlike his behaviour at home.
The exterior of Askham Hall is quietly grand too. Sitting within the picturesque village of Askham close by Lowther Castle, near to Penrith, parts of the structure go back to the 13th century.
The building itself is surrounded by fields, many of which house the pigs, chickens and vegetables which provide some of the food for the wonderful restaurant, of which more later.
The village is small but perfectly formed, with a lovely (dog-friendly) pub and some chocolate box cottages.
Within the grounds of the hall is a cafe with an outdoor pizza oven, which is open to the public year round, plus a small spa and an outdoor swimming pool which opens in the summer months.
Back in the hall we were escorted to our room in the Grade 1 listed Pele Tower, When we saw The Old Dressing Room, with its magnificent mirrored door, we knew we were in for a treat.
The Hall has been brought back to life by Charles Lowther, his sister Marie-Louisa and mother Caroline, having been in the family since the 1830s. The update has been done exquisitely, ensuring all the character has been kept, including the ancient door to the loo in our room, while creating some bang up to date features like the huge, open-plan power shower and wonderfully colourful contemporary tiles.
And so to the highlight of our trip....the food. We sat drinking a glass of some very good house red whilst perusing the menu before realising there was a tasting menu on offer.
The husband and I find it difficult to resist these, not least because having a smaller taste of more dishes really gives you a sense of the chef’s ability.
Of course, that can be a good or a bad thing. But there were no worries here, the food was sensational.
Chef Richard Swale is clearly a man who understands food. While the flavours of his dishes were intense, they did not detract from the quality of the raw ingredients.
We began with perfectly cooked scallops, before a delicious plate of venison served both raw and cooked arrived in front of us. This is not a dish I would have normally ordered, but that is the delight of a tasting menu – you discover amazing flavours you would have discounted.
Mouths tingling from the venison, it was then on to the fish dish. An exquisite slice of John Dory with baby vegetables went down wonderfully well, accompanied by the rest of a glass of Sauvignon Blanc which had been started with the scallops.
Then we indulged in some incredibly juicy, medium rare duck with fondant potato and brassicas from the garden.
Any room left? A small pumpkin panacotta with a velvety chocolate mousse for me and a blackberry and granola dish for my husband were the perfect finish to the meal.
Two hours after we started, we opted to retire to the lounge to share a plate of well chosen cheeses, including one of my favourites, Appleby brie, followed by coffee and petit fours. We chatted with some of the other guests while our Labrador made the acquaintance of their well-behaved border collie.
The next morning – and you may find this difficult to believe – we found we had room for breakfast.
And it’s a good job we did as my husband described it as the best he has ever eaten away from home.
I think that last bit was probably to ensure he gets the odd fry-up at home in future, but he was right. Two slices of bacon, two poached eggs, mushrooms, tomato, black pudding and the biggest sausage you’ve ever seen provided a breakfast which only just fitted on the plate. The yoke-filled yellow eggs were fresh and tasty and the sausage produced from the pigs which spend their time in the fields outside.
Suffice it to say that the dog was very happy when we returned to the room with a little something for him wrapped in a napkin!
One last look around the lovely public rooms left us wishing we were staying for longer...or that Askham Hall was our home for real. We can dream....
Nr Penrith, Cumbria CA10 2PF
Rooms from £150