Review by Fiona Duncan, published 13th September 2009.
I was recently in Lancashire for two reasons: to investigate its hotels and to road test a guide book which claims that its merits compared more than favourably with the delights of rural France. Which is lucky, because when it comes to the Inn at Whitewell, I can think of no authentic French auberge with which it cannot bear favourable comparison. It even has a wine shop in reception: you can hardly spot the receptionist for the racks of well-priced, interesting bottles from France and elsewhere that crowd the room where you sign in. Outside in the corridor, glass bookcases groan with guide books and cookery books on sale, giving the place the feel of an old-fashioned bookshop, a wine emporium and an inn rolled into one – which, indeed, it is.
As for the location in the Forest of Bowland, the loveliest French countryside would have a hard time competing. Sit by the window in the elevated dining room and it's almost impossible to maintain a conversation, so compelling is the view. The road leading to tiny Whitewell descends through the Trough of Bowland, the steep-sided gully that cuts through the fells where, for centuries, innocent travellers were attacked by robbers and left for dead. But once at the Inn, a riverside haven with roots dating back to the 14th century, set in a natural amphitheatre of meadows and hills, the outlook is one of utter peace.
And then there's the food. Is it locally sourced? "Too locally sourced for my liking," says Charles Bowman, as colourful a character as the best French patron if (being something of a Hugh Grant lookalike) far more debonair. "See those cows and sheep down there? You're eating their friends."
Run down for many years, the Inn was bought by Charles's grandfather, a brewer, but it was his father, Richard, a Lancashire county cricketer, who decided to take it on personally. "Not long after he took over," Charles tells us, "the kitchen fell into the river. Literally. Jolly good thing too: it was an excuse to reorganise and extend. He started the work and I gave up my job in advertising and took over 10 years ago."
Like his father before him, Charles stalks the auction houses, and the warm, welcoming and atmospheric inn is filled with a delightful collection of antiques. Bar meals are served in the spacious sitting room, a red velvet sofa here, wall of hand-printed Coles paper there, silver candlesticks on polished wood tables; or you can eat more formally (but not too formally) in the airy dining room.
We loved our bedroom in the coach house (though it lacked a view), with a hilarious Edwardian bath and shower contraption, a very French antique cane bed covered in pristine white linen and a blue and white check blanket, and a grandfather clock among the assortment of antiques. In fact, we loved every minute of our time here, in the finest of English inns, with a charm all of its own.
Nr Clitheroe, Lancs (01200 448222; www.innatwhitewell.com) Doubles from £127 per night, including breakfast. Access for guests with disabilities.