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Travel: Ullswater

The curse of the tourist had descended on the Lake District as far back as the roaring twenties.

The majesty of Ullswater and its surroundings have long drawn motorists to the area. Photograph: Shutterstock
The majesty of Ullswater and its surroundings have long drawn motorists to the area. Photograph: Shutterstock

It should have been the perfect time to drive those narrow roads in grand cars such as the Armstrong Siddeley, six cylinder Napier, Wolseley Fifteen Touring or the Lanchester Forty - but HV Morton motored there in 1926 and was dreading it. He tells us in his book, In Search Of England, "I joined the Windermere queue at Lancaster and hoped for the best. Everyone in the north of England seemed at this moment to have decided to visit what the guide books call, so inanely, the land of the Lake Poets."

But Morton did enjoy "the grand solitude of Ullswater", and that's where we aimed our own "five-seat saloon limousine", as the Lanchester Forty was described in 1920. Our version was a BMW 730LD, packed with spaceship extras such as professional rear seat entertainment and active steering, which make the price-tag top £60,000.

We travelled from our home in the Borders to the narrow road that skirts Ullswater. At last we came to a driveway entrance with its original metal sign still clinging to the wall: Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel.

Built as a private house in 1840 and sitting in spectacular fashion on the banks of Ullswater, Sharrow was discovered in need of tender loving care by Francis Coulson in 1949. A talented cook, Coulson loved to look after people in a way few hoteliers have managed to emulate. He hated presenting departing guests with a bill so would always give them something to take home: a fruitcake soaked in brandy, a steak and kidney pie still warm from the oven. He also knew it would bring customers flocking back.

He had created the first country house hotel, and at a time of food and petrol rationing. Coulson was later joined by Brian Sack, whose strengths lay in front of house, and over the next few decades they created an institution. Guests dined in remarkable style and were made to feel exceptionally welcome. Squashy sofas, log fires and lake views made everything seem perfect.

It was the death of Coulson and then Sack that brought about the sale of Sharrow to the Von Essen group. Inevitably, for some, the place lost its charm. But a new chapter is being written. Von Essen went into liquidation in April 2011 and Sharrow came on the market but nobody wanted it. And that was the position when we arrived.

We had hoped for one of the lake view rooms that we had come to love, but were led to a block in the garden, a lacklustre place with no views. This was not a room Coulson and Sack would have been proud of. There were no flowers or fruit (something they insisted on), no magazines or newspapers. Two uncovered glasses of sherry stood on a table.

I rang and asked for the manager. He wouldn't be in until tomorrow. I asked when the sherry was poured. "About 2.30pm," the girl replied. (It was now 6.30pm.) And why were they uncovered? She apologised. We learned that the hotel no longer puts fruit or magazines in the rooms. We asked for another room, but none was available.

Dinner was our only hope. The French waiter was the essence of polite charm and efficiency as he worked the garden room where most guests had gathered. We had wine with canapés as we perused the menu.

It was a great comfort to know that head chef Colin Akrigg was still at the helm. Having come to Sharrow in 1968, Akrigg was trained by Coulson, and clearly inherited much of his cooking ability.

We began with seared scallop on thyme fondant, roasted shallot puree and Noilly Prat sauce, braised pig's cheek, black pudding, seared foie gras and apple and sage sauce. I followed this with noisette of local venison with ravioli of wild mushroom, spinach, braised sherry lentils and brandy and port sauce. My wife had fillet of brill with shrimp risotto, seared scallop and lemongrass sauce. We finished with a little cheese, and two delicious souffles.

Such a fine dinner made going back to our dull room more bearable. We left the next day after a good English breakfast and a meeting with the very apologetic manager.

Our BMW was waiting for us like a faithful friend. We had the whole day to explore the remoter parts of Cumbria, stopping here and there to take in the magnificent views.

TRAVEL NOTES

Sharrow Bay has been bought by hotelier Andrew Davis. Together with head chef Colin Akrigg he plans to restore Sharrow Bay's unique reputation. Sharrow Bay, Ullswater, Penrith, Cumbria. Visit sharrowbay.co.uk. Double room with six-course dinner and breakfast from £320 per night. Bed and breakfast from £170 per room, per night. BMW: bmw.co.uk.

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