We were lost, to begin with. ‘I think it’s up here,’ I said to my mate Sam, who was trying to work out how to make his phone’s flashlight stop strobing and light our way up the single-track road from Appleby station. It was bucketing down. I couldn’t feel my legs from the knee downward. The flashing torchlight threw horrible spasming shadows into the lane ahead.
‘Come for a weekend in the Lakes,’ I’d said. ‘The city’s making us grouchy and wheezy. We’ll go to the country and have a walk and laugh at sheep and skip through meadows and do other healthy, wholesome, yeomanly things.’
Sam paused, considering the offer. ‘Alright. What DVDs should I bring?’ he asked.
While he’d missed my point somewhat, by now I was wondering whether the country was actually that good after all. We came to a small housing estate and stopped. We didn’t say anything to each other. Out of nowhere, the biggest ice cream van either of us had ever seen – it was more like an ice cream lorry – pulled out from behind a bungalow and set its jangling, tuneless chimes going. It was 8pm and about five degrees celsius. There was no-one else around. We got a bit freaked out.
Just as it was all getting a bit An American Werewolf in London for us, we arrived at Appleby Manor. In the gloom, its slightly hunched frontage looked faintly Nosferatu-ish too, but a quick pint in front of the re in squishy, coddling sofas and a sh, prawn and leek hotpot in the bistro later, we were fully restored. Despite the name, this manor house isn’t imposingly grand and puffed up; it’s got a kind of crumpled elegance, a manageably huge country pile you could imagine loafing about with three or four beagles and an impractically massive port collection. That’s not to say it’s backward, though: it’s a carbon- neutral hotel, and one of the greenest – in all senses – in the Lakes.
Having arrived in the dark, a peek through our room’s French windows the next morning was revelatory. Over breakfast – smoked haddock, toast and coffee for me, dense American pancakes with fruit for Sam – and after a turn around the frosty grounds in the watery morning sun, we took in the snowy domes of the Lakes foothills on the horizon and the Eden Valley before it. We were positively vibrating with bucolic glee, and that was before we’d hit the spa.
The back and neck massage was extraordinary – quite apart from working out pretty much every knot in every muscle I own, plus several I’d long since lost the receipt for, the melange of Eno-ish ambient wibbling and unexpected bossa nova which soundtracked it was an incredibly effective stress-reliever. It was all very relaxing, up to the point where I had a blazing row with Sam about whether or not accepting the proffered disposable pants made me a pervert. (No it does not, actually.)
We thought we’d spend our afternoon wandering up toward High Cup Nick, a great glacial gorge about seven miles away at the very edge of the North Pennines. After a couple of hours rambling along country lanes and over ghylls toward the rounded, undulating, snow- covered hills, we came to the tiny village of Dufton, where we took stock.
‘We’re not going up there are we?’ Sam asked, sizing up the hill in front of us warily.
‘No. We’re going up there,’ I said, pointing to a much larger one next to it, which was shrouded in low cloud and looked faintly like the Matterhorn in particularly brooding mood. Realising that we didn’t want our very probable deaths to become the fourth item on North West Tonight, we went to the pub. It’s an approach which more explorers should take, frankly. Captain Oates’ fateful, ‘I’m going outside and I may be some time,’ ought to have been, ‘I’m going outside for a tab, and I may be picking up some wasabi peas en route.’
The Stag in Dufton looks like it might have tumbled, brick by brick, from one of Alfred Wainwright’s guides, then snuggled down into the earth like it meant to stay for eternity: cast iron range, copper-coloured spaniel dozing in front of it, local beers, and just-so village green primly shuddering against the frost. A wedge of dense, tangily salty corned beef pie and a couple of blonde Saltaire Brewery pints set us up for the wander home, as the bright blue sky turned slowly to a diluted, streaky orange.
Back at the Manor, we reckoned we’d earned some time to chill, so we headed back to the spa to try the outdoor jacuzzis and the jet-massagers in the indoor pool, plus their sauna, steam room and salt-spray room (good for the lungs and skin, you know). A small sartorial snaffoo aside (you’ve not known true embarrassment until you’ve apologetically handed a wet set of borrowed swimming shorts back to the world’s nicest spa receptionist), it was pretty much the most relaxed I’ve been since I watched that four-hour video of a log fire on Netflix after taking three Night Nurses.
Then, dinner. Appleby Manor’s known for its food, and the classical French bearing of the kitchen does justice to the exceptionally good local game and meats they source. The duo of Cumbrian wild mallard – breast and con t leg – with lavender potato, squash, buttered cabbage and burnt orange was the kind of elegantly poised but unfussy dish which is as much a part of British country house chic as any amount of vaulting gables, limestone gargoyles and portraits of suspiciously big- chinned ancestors. Judging by the way Sam’s eyes rolled back into his head and the soft honking noises which he made, his steak tasted as excellent as it looked. Add to that the expert wine pairing and a very agreeable cheese trolley, and we were completely done in.
After breakfast, we headed back to Carlisle via Penrith, nosing around Penrith Castle, Richard of Gloucester’s pad in the 15th century, in the latter and playing poker at the artsy and hip bar Open Mind in the former. On the way back down the Tyne Valley toward Newcastle, I started feeling weirdly gloomy. Then I realised: I wanted to ditch the city with its concrete flyovers, its neon sharpness and its one percent fat milk. One day, maybe I will. Until then, there’s always Appleby.
Appleby Manor Country House Hotel
Roman Road, Appleby-in-Westmorland, Cumbria CA16 6JB
01768 351571 www.applebymanor.co.uk