Review by Fiona Duncan, published 20th September 2009.
In a rapidly altering world, some things never change. Take the Lake District and its redoubtable hotels: up here among the high passes and deep lakes of Cumbria they soldier on, largely – though not universally – immune to the vagaries of fashion. It's a conundrum: those that change to become contemporary in feel seem oddly out of kilter with their surroundings; those (the majority) that don't seem too old fashioned. Either way, pretty much all of them are expensive for what they offer. You're paying for the popularity of the region.
Set in heart-stopping landscape worthy of an ode at every turn, these country house bastions are a law unto themselves. The view, preferably of a lake, is invariably spectacular, and a town whose streets are lined with tea shops and walking equipment stores is invariably within easy reach. The hotel is a solid, stone-walled Victorian or Edwardian pile. The carpets are probably patterned, the pelmets swagged and the blinds ruched, the conservatories full of wicker and the bedrooms full of trouser presses, decanters of sherry and tissues sprouting from padded fabric boxes. There will be a smattering of Japanese guests on the trail of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle and plenty of bluff northerners with shiny cars, though few are man enough to speak above a whisper in the public rooms.
As you can detect, I'm not fond of Lake District hotels as a breed: they tend to smugness. If you are going to be solidly traditional, fine, but you have to have heart as well, and few of them do. Holbeck Ghyll is an exception.
How so? It's the lack of pretension with which, over 21 years, David and Patricia Nicholson have built up their enterprise into one of the two or three top addresses in the region. It's their consistent, hands-on endeavour as much as the secluded location and the views over Windermere. It's also the arts-and-crafts flourishes inside the former hunting lodge; the warmth of the staff; the excellence of the two therapists in the small Espa spa (don't miss an aromatherapy facial); the contentment of the guests, many of them regulars; the "simple" or "gourmet" packed lunches; and, of course, the walks from the door to Troutbeck or Ambleside.
Inside the hotel there are two respectable dining rooms, two formal sitting rooms and 14 bedrooms of varying appeal. Behind the house a colony of unprepossessing former private houses and bungalows has been transformed to provide additional, flexible accommodation. In these the feel is more contemporary, with touches of glamour, especially in the snazzy bathrooms.
Yes, Holbeck Ghyll has modern flourishes – and chef David McLaughlin has a long-held Michelin star for his food – but it's essentially a traditional Lakeland hotel. What marks it out and makes it a favourite is that it does have heart. But goodness, you pay for that view.
Holbeck Lane, Windermere (01539 432375; www.holbeckghyll.com) Doubles from £210 per night, including breakfast. Access for guests with disabilities. Information on the Lake District at www.golakes.co.uk; and on trains at www.virgintrains.co.uk
Telegraph rating (out of five)