Review by Fiona Duncan, published 3rd May 2009.
"This is Guru. She’s a Difficult Journalist. Please show her around the hotel so she can see how well we care for it.”
It was a command I was to hear several times on the day that Andrew Davies, the irrepressible founder of the Von Essen hotel group, decided to educate me by taking me to several of his hotels in his helicopter.
I had ruffled his feathers by likening Von Essen, in this newspaper, to a sparrowhawk picking off garden birds in the way that the company gobbled up country house hotels, and was summoned to Battersea Heliport, which he owns, for a “show around”.
“You’re right, Guru, I am a sparrowhawk,” he said, peering through the window of the helicopter as it flew over Gloucestershire. “Pilot, what’s that estate down there? Sparrowhawk will buy it in the morning.”
It was pure theatre, of course, done to impress. What did impress was that at each hotel we visited he greeted even the humblest of staff by name, remembering each of their personal stories. And he is genuinely keen to preserve hotels in the spirit in which they were created, retaining managers and staff wherever possible.
But can a hotel group do the same job as a hands-on owner? What about here at legendary Sharrow Bay, created 60 years ago by Francis Coulson and his partner Brian Sack. Bought in 2003, it is Davies’ favourite hotel.
As far as preservation goes, English Heritage couldn’t have done a better job. It’s astonishing: nothing has changed, down to the last frilly loo-roll cover, nightmarish Seventies electric coal-effect fire, stiff, garish flower arrangement and brightly coloured porcelain ornament, plus Coulson’s sickly bedtime poem (and the hotel’s even more sickly, but famous, Icky Sticky Toffee Pudding).
The whole hotel, and especially the separate Bank House, is a marvellous, mind-blowing trip back in time and in particular to the taste and sensibilities of two professional, charming and much-loved gentlemen. I adore it; saccharine and old hat it most certainly is, but it's also pretty, quirky, full of personality and unique.
Pink swirly carpet? Blue baths? Fringed velveteen bedroom chairs? Dinner served promptly at 8pm, cooked from a tiny, unchanged kitchen by a head chef who has been here for 40 years? They are yours, plus the most serene views in Britain.
Now for the downside. Francis and Brian are gone, doubtless to velveteen armchairs in the sky. And while the new owners can preserve what’s there, they cannot replace the old owners’ personality. And their budget, I suspect, is tight. So while the place itself is unchanged, the level, and type of service, is not.
There is conviction still, certainly from the manager, the sommeliers and other staff who have worked here for many years, but the pulse is absent, the service ordinary. You pay for the legend, and you pay too much.
Lake Ullswater (01768 486301; www.sharrowbay.co.uk). Doubles from £270 to £500 per night, including breakfast. Access possible for guests with disabilities. Further information on the Lake District at www.golakes.co.uk; for trains, visit www.virgintrains.co.uk.