At the thought of visiting the Lake District, memories of the year 10 geography field trip came flooding back. Trudging up hill and down dale under the pall of leaden skies. Moaning to my friend about the point of the trip – with all those pretty pictures of tarns, drumlins and U-shaped glacial valleys in our textbooks, was all this trekking about really necessary? Accidentally being overheard by our incredulous geography teacher and soundly ticked off.
But holing up for a couple of days at the four star Armathwaite Hall – a stately former hunting lodge set on the shores of Bassenthwaite Lake with its own top class spa facilities and an enticing five course dinner menu? That sounded more like it.
The origins of the hall can be traced to the 11th century, but many of the gorgeous period features you see today date from the 17th century and beyond as the hall matured into a fine country retreat. There are wood-panelled walls, marble fireplaces cradling flickering log fires, tall casement windows that look out onto rolling lawns, a grand and sweeping staircase. We visited in the run-up to Christmas when the hall’s lavish interiors were looking especially resplendent in a symphony of seasonal trimmings – wicker deer to greet you in the porch, towering Christmas trees decked out in red and silver, foliage and fairy-lights garlanding the dado rails and snaking up the banisters.
The lounge is where most guests gravitate. At the heart of hall, it offers a sea of welcoming, wing-backed armchairs and soft sofas where you can sit ensconced for hours, at all hours (the bar stops serving at 11pm but the night porter will bring you liquid refreshment right through to dawn, should you wish). Looming down from the walls is an assortment of animal heads and horns, notably a massive moose and a ragged, snarling-faced tiger – relics from the age of Empire. Although just quite how these exotic beasts have fetched up so far from home, no-one knows.
The bedrooms in the old part of the house have individual style, with traditional furnishings and decor chosen to chime with their surroundings. Our room was a short amble away in the hotel’s spa wing and had a fresh light green and purple scheme, with a statue of a sweetly-sleeping Buddha hinting at the Zen-like oasis to be discovered close by.
The hotel’s spa facility opened in 2009 and is really something quite special. Leading off the indoor pool area (there’s a large pool, and a smaller children’s pool), is a thermal suite – strictly grown-ups only. Here you can take your pick from an assortment of hydrotherapy experiences. We loved the aroma room where you can breathe in a heady, lung-clearing mix of steam and essential oils under a canopy of glinting pink and yellow lights. My only gripe would be that the tiled benches are U-shaped, so if you want to lie down you have to assume a slightly awkward foetal position. There’s also a traditional steam room and a dry sauna, with three slatted levels to recline on depending on how you like your heat. At the centre of it is all is plunge pool and massaging shower, ideal for a cool-down between forays into the hotter regions.
However, for us, the piece de resistance was the outdoor hot tub. This is no tight, back garden-esque affair where you worry about clashing legs with the hairy-chested man opposite. Rather, it’s less of a hot tub and more of an outdoor pool with the pleasant addition of bubbles, calming blue and green lights, and underwater ledges for lolling about on. Luxuriating in its warm waters, watching billows of steam drift off across the lawns and admiring the moon as it peeped through a skein of shifting ink-splash clouds, our one lament was that we didn’t have a little splash of something in hand to sip. Only later did we discover that drinks for the hot tub can be ordered in advance or from passing poolside staff.
The spa has a dedicated treatment centre on its upper deck, offering everything from traditional massages to mud wraps and facials. I had the Comfort Zone Full Body Tranquility Massage, a truly top-toe experience that leaves few regions of the body touched – it even includes the stomach, and earlobes! The lavender, mandarin and coconut oil concoction massaged into my skin left it feeling sniffably scrumptious. The spa’s massage beds are heated, a feature I had not come across before that reminded me of being driven to school in my mother’s Volvo on a cold winter’s morning, the seat heaters on high – only this was about a thousand times better. I could have happily basked there all day... After a treatment, the relaxation continued in the spa’s Hush Room, where I was tucked up in my own wicker crib under a faux fur blanket and brought a healthful mango yoghurt smoothie to sip and a sweet nutty confection to nibble on.
Should you be visiting the spa while pregnant, the thermal suite is sadly out of bounds. However, you can take advantage of the New Life massage and facial package specially designed for pregnancy. There’s also a Time to Celebrate massage for new mums designed to help the body regain tone.
What we ate
After a hearty breakfast – a Cumberland cooked breakfast, cereals and continental style fare comes included – we saved our appetites for the evening’s five-course meal, served in the Lake View Restaurant. The menu is in-keeping with the hall’s country demeanour, and much of it is sourced from local producers. Children are welcome to dine in the Lake View Restaurant at all times, and the chef is happy to downsize the menu to accommodate little appetites (there's also more informal dining available in the bistro). A cockle-warming carrot soup accompanied by artisan bread got things going – although not a black pudding lover, I tried the black pudding bread, a local speciality which turned out to be quite tasty. For the starter, I chose a duck and pork knuckle terrine accompanied with quail eggs, followed up by a succulent venison served with tart red currants, a fluffy chestnut croquette and a bed of red cabbage and pak choi. Dessert was a delightful chocolate pear and creamy parfait confection. To finish up, we retired to the main lounge with the rest of our bottle of Malbec, and were served tea, coffee and petit fours on a silver tray before the crackling fire. Bliss.
On-site facilites include a gym, tennis courts and croquet and the Children's Country Club offers activities for children in the school holidays. A path leads directly from the hotel down to Bassenthwaite Lake, although as there’s no sign you could easily miss it. On a mid-winter’s morning the marshy shore has an otherworldly feel, with slender tree trunks as pale as ghosts rising from the shallows. The Lake District Wildlife Park is also a short walk from the hall and is home to the likes of owls, eagles, primates, snakes, lemurs and even a cluster of zebras. Look out for special Animal Experience sessions. Armathwaite Hall sits in the shadows of Skiddaw, the fourth highest peak in England, and so is easily accessible to keen walkers. Further afield, there are lots of attractions to visit, from Beatrix Potter’s house at Hilltop to Wordsworth’s old haunts at Cockermouth and Grasmere and The Pencil Museum in Keswick which pays homage to the region’s famous Derwent Pencils.
Essential info Room prices start from £150 per person and spa breaks start from £330 per person.
For more information, visit www.armathwaite-hall.com
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