There are many good reasons for visiting Sharrow Bay and when a special date arose in the calendar it seemed an obvious choice. The occasion, a leap year birthday, and the protagonist of said anniversary someone who milks the four year gap for all it’s worth – so necessitating somewhere rather special. There are few places as unique as Sharrow Bay and the story behind the hotel is as romantic as its location. The first ever country house hotel, its vantage point on the shores of Lake Ullswater, uninterrupted views of the surrounding fells and the mighty Helvellyn in the distance is breathtaking.
We arrive on a sunny February afternoon and the hotel is remarkably busy for a Saturday. Apparently it is not unusual as alongside the hotel’s guests, Sharrow Bay is the place of choice for many celebrations for the lucky locals.
Sharrow Bay’s story began when the original building, a fisherman’s lodge dating from 1840, was advertised for sale in the Manchester Guardian in 1948 as ‘a mansion on the edge of Ullswater with 12 acres of grounds and formal gardens’ – and Francis Coulson bought it. Arriving by train with just a suitcase and a saucepan tied to the handle, he had very little cash, no experience but a great deal of faith.
With the help of some friends, who were mainly unpaid, he created four bedrooms and opened Sharrow Bay in the spring of that year, coining the phrase ‘country house hotel’ in his attempt to describe it to potential guests. In 1952, he was joined by Brian Sack, whose original intention was to stay for the summer. His arrival began a 46-year friendship and remarkable innovation in terms of hospitality. The pair were well ahead of their time in terms of the industry and have inspired many who tried to emulate their success. In 1994, both Francis and Brian were awarded MBEs for their services to the industry. One moving tribute is the memorial in the hotel’s garden to these two talented and hugely popular men.
The special atmosphere generated at Sharrow Bay is immediately apparent to all who visit. There’s a classic homeliness to the hotel combined with a touch of the theatrical, crammed as it is with beautiful antiques and artefacts. The lounges and spacious garden room offer quiet corners for contemplation. Here, huge sofas and deep armchairs encourage you to hunker down and take some time to simply enjoy the carefully curated surroundings.
Our two rooms are very different. One, quaintly called ‘Pinkie’ – and yes the decor was pretty much all pink – is in the main house. It has its own balcony which appears to float over the lake and the view, from the bed, through the French doors, was perhaps one of the most breathtaking in Britain. The rest of the family (plus Winston the daxidoodle) had their own very spacious Garden Room suite in a cottage in the grounds.
With the weather still very much in winter’s grip we headed out to explore, making the most of the afternoon sunshine. As you will imagine there are many beautiful walks surrounding Sharrow Bay, some challenging, some not. We headed along the lake through woodland before turning back to explore the hotel’s own lakeside gardens. Nestling beneath Barton Fell they are a delightful mix of manicured lawn, unexpected water features, high hedges and hidden benches all interspersed with well stocked beds. You can picture the many guests who have strolled the pathways and sat awhile on those secret benches enjoying the dramatic lakeside vista.
Sharrow Bay has long held the culinary crown in the Lake District and quite rightly we were looking forward to dinner. We were tempted by the Tasting Menu, accompanied by wines from the hotel’s renowned wine list but were delighted with our eventual choices. Too many to list here (as a party of five) it would be rude not to bring the Breast of Quail, Truffle Fettucini, Crispy Pancetta and Wild Mushroom Sauce to everyone’s attention. The Shoulder of local Herdwick Lamb wasn’t half bad either. No review of this historic hotel would be complete without mention of Francis Coulson’s Sticky Toffee Pudding. His was the original, and the recipe remains a closely guarded secret. Needless to say, it was utterly delicious.
As we climbed the stairs to bed we knew we had experienced something rather lovely. We had also, despite the briefness of our visit, managed to relax a little – full credit to the hotel and their staff.
We woke to the most stunning day. Bright blue sky, mirror glass lake and the snow topped Helvellyn brooding in the distance. A picture-perfect morning, there was the inevitable photoshoot on the hotel’s private jetty (before breakfast) but the magic of Sharrow Bay is not just in the setting. The history and romance of the place is something to rather savour.
Ullswater Penrith CA10 2LZ