LAURA Ashley has branched out from the high street into boutique hotels. Martin Gray checks in at its Windermere property
As we arrived at the Belsfield hotel on an autumn Friday afternoon, a wedding party was wending its way through the manicured gardens up towards the function rooms of the magnificent building on the shores of Lake Windermere. If there’s a more spectacular setting to begin a new life of romance, I’ve yet to see it.
Built as the home of the Baroness Von Sternberg in 1845, Belsfield is now a three-star boutique hotel operated by the Laura Ashley company.
And if you’re thinking Laura Ashley means a world of chintz, think again – the 62 rooms are decorated in a style perfectly matching the Victorian Italiante structure. The furniture is understated elegance while the wall coverings, bedlinen and carpets work together to encourage – nay, demand – relaxation. And if said relaxation includes a soak in the opulent bath, there are plenty of sumptuous Laura Ashley toiletries to hand.
Speaking of the facilities, the loo is beyond space age, with numerous bidet bells and whistles to cleanse and buff your bottom to perfection. My chap Steve loved warming his cheeks, but this Luddite was a tad daunted by Robo-Loo. Still, engaging with the bot-robot isn’t compulsory – only select rooms have one – and it certainly didn’t put me off one of the plushest bathrooms this side of Versailles.
The bedroom suite is equally enticing, with super-comfy settees, a grand writing desk, gorgeous bed, big flat screen telly – and those views. A hotel this fine would usually see me spending far too much time inside, but it’s difficult to resist the call of the outdoors.
With the sun glistening on Lake Windermere, and passenger ferries cruising up and down, a walk was called for. The Belsfield is just a couple of hundred yards from the waterside where we duly purchased tickets for a pleasure cruise the following day and then we wandered into town to explore.
While the actual town of Windermere a couple of miles away is pretty, but dull in its shopping options – if you’re not into fleeces and wellies, forget it – Bowness-on-Windermere is a tad more enticing. There are gift shops to spare, craft emporiums, speciality bakers, cute toy shops, confectioners – it’s all rather charming and a lovely place to pass a couple of hours.
Back at the Belsfield, it was time to dine. The hotel offers a number of eating options and we went for the restaurant the first evening, and the brasserie the next. Over the weekend we ate too many good things to mention, but restaurant highlights included a chicken supreme that’s a lot posher than it sounds; duck breast with sweet potato gratin, stem broccoli, fennel purée and marmalade jus; and roasted strawberry bavarois. There were aperitifs, amuse bouches and two very happy diners.
As for the brasserie, think poached cornfed chicken, tagliatelle, spring vegetable pesto and fine herb farce; sweet cured bacon steak, dripping chips, pineapple salsa, deep-fried egg and mustard sauce, followed by classic cherry Bakewell and Eton mess with vanilla meringue and cream.
Next morning, after a tasty English breakfast – continental is also available – it was on to the Tern, the oldest passenger boat working Lake Windermere, a splendid old lady able to host 350 travellers at a time.
The 45-minute cruise offered gorgeous view after gorgeous view, including the most rainbows I’ve seen in my life (I don’t recall any actual downpours). A commentary provided nuggets of historical interest, but with this scenery – we were heading towards the Langdale Pikes and Fairfield Horseshoe – it was tough to pay attention. On disembarking, we enjoyed the 20-minute walk to the village of Ambleside, where William Wordsworth worked as director of stamps. Were the poet living there today, he’d be selling a host of golden mountain bikes – the retail offering, once again, isn’t for those with a preference for the indoors.
Still, this is the Lake District, and the great outdoors is rather the point. There’s no denying the south Lakeland air so beloved of Beatrix Potter makes you glad to be alive.
On returning to the Belsfield, the obvious way to wind down before supper would be a dip in the swimming pool, but it was being refurbed. The revamped space was due to be ready around now.
After Saturday night’s brasserie meal we took advantage of the classy lounge bar before withdrawing, like good Victorian gentlemen, to the drawing room and library, where Laura Ashley’s designers have used “summer palace powder blue wallpaper” for a dash of refined elegance. And if you really, really like it, you can buy the wall covering because like pretty much everything that’s not nailed down at the Belsfield, you can buy it. Start with that wallpaper – it’s in the archive chinoiserie range – and before you know it you’ll have bought a settee.
Or maybe even a Robo-Loo…
• A double room at Laura Ashley Hotel The Belsfield (tel: 01539 442448, www.lauraashleyhotels.com/thebelsfield/) based on two people sharing with breakfast starts at £179. A return cruise trip from Bowness to Lakeside costs £10.50 for adults