Good Walk, Great Hotel
Review by Fiona Duncan, published 8th May 2005.
With family and friends as companions, I stayed over the past few months in six hotels in prime English walking country, picked not just for their quality, but also because their location allows guests to set out on a circular walking route on the first day, return for a long soak, a good dinner and a comfortable night, and then strike out in another direction after an indulgent breakfast next morning. Cresting a hill after an eight-mile tramp, and sighting your goal – the perfect inn where you are expected for the night – that’s a proper reward. The walks and the hotels, as well as the practical details, are described below. Suggestions for less expensive alternatives have been given where appropriate.
The Monmouthshire countryside has a flavour all its own: very green (but with red soil); not exactly rolling, but full of abrupt little hills, often topped with woodland, with plain, hardworking farmhouses tucked into their folds; well cared for and yet delightfully free of the suburban feel that spoils so much of southern England; sleepy, lost in time, with few outside visitors (we encountered just four other walkers on the entire route).The Three Castles Walk, designed and waymarked by Monmouthshire County Council, is a 19-mile route that links three atmospheric Norman castles (two free, one with a small entrance fee) through woods and meadows, with many a stile to cross (any dog that has to be carried over the stiles, such as the portly spaniel that accompanied us, should be banned). The scenery is consistently beautiful, at times small-scale, at times magnificent, and the castles – Skenfrith, White and Grosmont – make absorbing and atmospheric goals. Our picnic spot, just after crossing the high wood between Grosmont and Skenfrith, had one of the loveliest views that any of us could recall in Britain.
Most people should easily manage the whole 19 miles in two days, although we didn’t. We chatted too much, the dog was too heavy, the scenery too beautiful and the hotel too seductive to complete more than two of the three legs. The Bell, Skenfrith (01600 750235; www.skenfrith.co.uk; doubles from £95 per night including breakfast) is as natural a partner for this walk as wine with cheese. Right on the route, it’s the perfect hotel for metropolitans to find their rural inner selves: on the river Monnow it has a candlelit, flagstone dining room serving locally sourced modern British dishes along with a well-organised wine list, a huge inglenook surrounded by sofa, settle and rocking chair; and eight adorable simple-sophisticated bedrooms. In the morning, the enormous Welsh breakfast will set you up for another day’s delightful walking.
The walk is thoughtfully waymarked, but while it’s fun trying to spot the next yellow marker, it’s probably best to augment the directions by buying the Three Castles Walk booklet, available from Monmouth Tourist Information Centre (01600 713899; £3.95). If you start at the Bell and split the walk between two days, the hotel will pick you up at the end of the first; they will also provide packed lunches, and they have a drying room, plus an unlimited supply of sticking plasters. If you don’t want to do such a long walk, the hotel has put together six others, equally lovely, and designed to compliment the season.
Once a hunting ground frequented by royalty, Cranborne Chase has the feel of an ancient place with its ox droves, Roman roads and prehistoric earthworks, and its combination of woodland, rolling fields and steep scarps. With wide views, big skies and a few scattered villages, it makes for superb walking. Leaving the car by the pond at Tollard Royal, we blew away the cobwebs on Win Green, the highest point for miles around, with marvellous views, walking back alongside Madonna and Guy Ritchie’s house, Ashcombe, at the head of its own valley (5.5 miles in all). The following morning we made an 8.5 mile exploration of the quiet Tarrant valley and the feudal village of Chettle, in a wooded hollow, overlooked by its fine 18th century manor house. We set off early as we wanted to be back at the Museum Inn in time for Sunday lunch – a good decision.
Cranborne Chase is closely associated with General Augustus Pitt-Rivers, the 19th century archaeologist, who built the Museum Inn, Farnham (01725 516261; www.museuminn.co.uk; doubles from £95 per night including breakfast) to accommodate visitors to his nearby museum. Today it’s owned by Vicky Elliot and Mark Stephenson, with cheery Australian staff and convivial, well-heeled customers (Madonna drops in from time to time). You can choose to eat in the rambling bar area, with cosy corners, or the elegant Shed restaurant, crisply done out in white and green. Mark Treasure’s sophisticated bistro food ranges from pressed ham knuckle and guineau fowl terrine to whole lobster and pommes frites, plus a great traditional Sunday lunch. Prettiest bedrooms are those in the inn itself, as opposed to the stables, and best is the General’s Bedroom, with plenty of light and a four-poster.The DetailsThe Win Green walk was devised by the hotel’s owners who will give you the directions and marked up Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 118 Shaftesbury & Cranborne Chase. The Tarrant Valley walk is from Adventurous Pub Walks in Dorset by Anne-Marie Edwards (Countryside Books, £7.99), also available at the Museum, as are packed lunches.
An exhilarating, strenuous figure-of-eight ramble taking in Cotswold quarries and country churches. There are plenty of swoops and troughs as you climb high onto sheep pasture and dip down into quiet valleys. The northern (9 mile) loop incorporates a particularly attractive section of the Cotswold Way with spectacular wold and scarp views – including the striking rock pinnacle, Devil’s Chimney. The southern (6 mile) loop makes a tour of three charming Cotswold villages, each with interesting churches. A main road interrupts more than once, but you soon walk away from it into a pleasing rural landscape.
The sort of exercise taken by the average guest at achingly hip Cowley Manor, Cowley (01242 870900; www.cowleymanor.com; doubles from £230 including breakfast) ranges from carrying a laptop on to the terrace to working out in the gym or swimming in one of the two pools at C-Side, the hotel’s modernist spa. Walking – that time-consuming, old fashioned pursuit – doesn’t feature much (despite the row of complementary wellies by the front door) and the hotel’s beautiful lake-filled Grade II listed grounds and its position in prime Cotswold walking country remains something of a well-kept secret. It’s definitely not for granny (staff in t-shirts and brothel creepers) but it is for stressed out urbanites and their children, a seemless blend of stone grandeur and contemporary bliss-out. The elegant stone terrace is a suntrap, with views that promise rewarding walking. Sit there and pull on your boots; you’ll amaze your fellow guests, and when you return, you will have made sense of why Cowley (which means cow pasture) with its plentiful supply of water and its sheltering woods and hills, was a self-sufficient agricultural community from earliest times. Alternative accommodation: The Green Dragon Inn, Cockleford (01242 870271; www.buccaneer.co.uk/greendragon; doubles from £80 per night including breakfast).The DetailsThe directions for the walk, which follow waymarked stony tracks and field paths, plus some tarmac lanes, are available from the hotel, accompanied by a marked up Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 179 Gloucester, Cheltenham and Stroud. If you walk over lunch, you can choose from the hotel’s delicious picnic menu.
Even if you stay in Holkham for several days, you need never stray from land belonging to the Earl of Leicester. As well as visiting stately Holkham Hall itself, there are a number of gentle walks around the vast estate, encompassing pinewoods, parkland, meadows, farmland and vast expanses of beach. Starting from the hotel, we chose the Lake Walk, just over 3.5 miles, contrasting it next morning with the Beach Walk, which can be extended from 2 to 10 miles, as you wish. The former began in leafy, sun-dappled woodland, peppered with deer, passed St Withburga’s church on its grassy knoll and then opened on to classic 18th century landscaped parkland, complete with winding lake (trips on electric boat), and the Hall’s charming 17th century thatched ice house. The latter is an enchanting and instructive meander (owned by the Earl of Leicester but managed as a nature reserve by English Nature) past lagoons and grazing marshes, through Corsican pinewoods and along the natural, dune-swept beach to the Lifeboat Station, beach huts and sailing boats at Wells-next-the-Sea.
The theme may be colonial India, with colourful furnishings imported from Rajhastan, but The Victoria, Holkham (01328 711008; www.victoriaatholkham.co.uk; doubles from £120 per night including breakfast) which was built in 1838 and given a major revamp in 2001 by Viscount Coke and his wife, feels thoroughly English in a laid back, slightly scuffed, child-oriented sort of way. Though it’s described as hip and stylish, it’s more friendly and feel-good than that, with guests ranging from retired couples to familiar-faced actors. The food is a highlight (impeccable fish and chips and rib-eye steak are favourites) and there’s an appealing buzz in the restaurant.The DetailsSerious walkers can tramp nearby Peddars Way and Norfolk Coast Path National Trail while circular walks in the Holkham area are described in Coastal Circular Walks in Norfolk by Joy and Charles Boldero, sold in local shops, including Holkham Art, Crafts and Fine Food Centre. Here you’ll find the Marshes Larder, an upmarket deli and café where you can choose your picnic (or let the hotel do it for you) and have it packed in your rucksack or, if you prefer, a pretty wicker basket. Directions for the Holkham Estate walks, including hand painted maps, are available from the hotel and on the website. The park is occasionally closed to walkers – enquire first. Dogs must be kept on leads.
THE LAKE DISTRICT
Our first day’s 6.5 mile route, which took us high above Windermere to Troutbeck, felt like a jolly day out, with exercise. The walk along the base of Wansfell offered Windermere at a gentlemanly distance, keeping the trippers and cruisers at bay, and was punctuated by lunch at the Mortal Man Inn, a visit to Townend, a 17th century yeoman’s farm frozen in time by the National Trust, and a boat ride back along Windermere to Waterhead. Next morning we set out on a mostly level 6 mile circuit of Loughrigg Fell, more of a lowish dome than a mountain, but rugged enough, and allowing us grand Wordsworthian views of two more lakes, Grasmere and Rydal Water. An old fashioned inn, The Badger, popped up just when we needed it half way round, where we tucked in to ham and chips, and then visited the poet’s home, Rydall Mount, next door.
There’s a string of hotels along Windermere, but we plumped for the one everyone is talking about, The Samling, Windermere (015394 31922; www.thesamling.com; doubles from £195 per night including breakfast). Set above the lake, with Wansfell rearing up behind, the pretty gabled house to which Wordsworth would walk to pay his rent has stunning views, 11 all-suite bedrooms with exceptionally comfortable beds and bathrooms, a Michelin star and scary prices (including the wine list: nothing under £25). We found the service willing but somewhat clunky on our visit, and the fag ends could have been swept away from the terrace, but dinner was excellent and the elegant breakfast kept us dawdling in our room, Windermere shining below, far longer than we ought.Alternative accommodation: The Coach House, Windermere (015394 44494; www.lakedistrictbandb.com; doubles from £50 per night including breakfast).The DetailsThe two circular (or one figure-of-eight) walks, starting at The Samling, were devised by Cumbrian Discoveries who offer tailor-made tours of the region on foot or by car (017684 84811; www.cumbriandiscoveries.co.uk). Directions and a marked up Ordnance Survey Explorer Map OL7 The English Lakes are available at the hotel. Ferries from Brockhole run hourly from 11.15 am to 5.15 pm. The Rydal Water walk is 8 miles from The Samling, or 6 miles if you drive to Rothay Park and begin and end there. Packed lunches are available from the hotel.
THE YORKSHIRE DALES
Nidderdale by Paul Hannon could have been written specially for guests of the Yorke Arms: several of the walks in the book begin from its doorstep or can be adapted to do so. We chose a route that took us along the valley to How Steen Gorge, and before I knew it my son had me crawling through sculpted limestone tunnels – like being inside a whale – helmet on and torch in hand. Later we sat in the churchyard at Middlesmoor and contemplated one of the most beautiful views in the region: the length of Nidderdale to Gouthwaite Reservoir. Next day we swopped lush dale for bleak, beautiful moorland by trudging uphill to Fountains Earth Moor. We should have continued, but to be truthful the thought of lunch in the sunshine overlooking the village green back at the Yorke Arms was too strong a temptation. So we turned round and walked the two miles home, with views of wooded Ramsgill Beck tumbling from the moor opposite, and shafts of sunlight playing across the valley.
The Yorke Arms, Ramsgill (01423 755243; www.yorke-arms.co.uk; doubles from £120 per night per person including dinner and breakfast) is the ideal place ¬¬– with flagged floors, beams and open fires – to welcome you home after a long walk. There’s a reassuring feeling of order: what should have been polished has been polished, and what should have been swept has been – and the candlelit restaurant serves as a showcase for Frances Atkin’s Michelin-starred, daily changing menu. Our dinner was sublime, from the canapés that came with our drinks to the raspberry surprise for pudding. The 12 bedrooms, all recently refurbished with lovely new bathrooms, are contemporary yet cosy. It’s hard to fault this place; in fact I can’t. The DetailsNidderdale by Paul Hannon (Hillside, £5.99), containing 22 walks, many of them circular, is available to buy or borrow from the Yorke Arms, and should be used in conjunction with Ordnance Survey Explorer Map 298 Nidderdale. The hotel can provide packed lunches, and there is a drying room.