The escape plan had been hatched. The wedding was approaching and London was becoming filled to the gills with eccentrics and Royalists. Shy of leaving the country altogether, a weekend north in the wide-open Lake District
seemed the ideal rural getaway. As we descended on Newby Bridge, 17th-century Swan Inn certainly looked the part. A historical expanse gracefully overlooking the southern tip of Lake Windermere, a watery junction where ducks and swans were quietly going about their sunny business.
Fans of the Fells will be no stranger to the spectacular scenery in this corner of England, and the best of it is right on the Swan’s doorstep. The hotel has sat for four centuries years on the edge of the River Leven, which runs into England’s largest natural lake.
Warm welcomes are second nature in these parts, and if you don’t want to be far from a cosy fire or refreshing ale, this is a pole position. Skulls and Winchester rifles displayed around the front desk welcome us into a friendly hunting lodge-style lobby. In days gone by, this region’s thriving industries included the production of gunpowder – so rifles are de rigeur round here. (The other commercial success story was Backbarrow’s now-obsolete washing whitener ‘dolly blue’. So, weapons and washing enthusiasts, you know where to holiday.)
A perk of the reception area? Spotting a pool and sauna – not only a tease of the relaxation yet to come, but also useful to gauge if the pool is empty (bliss) or filled with excitable children armed with flotation devices (less soothing). Suitably impressed, we are checked in effortlessly by the cheery staff before being directed to our suite where we grab our swimwear and browse the menu of fancy Espa treatments.
Truth be told, the decor at the Swan errs on the chintzy side, but there are inspired modern touches in sturdy leather sofas, dark wooden floorboards and snakeskin-print wallpaper. Our room, the Ruskin Suite, has a huge, incredibly comfortable king-size bed, its own lounge with second TV (yup: two tellies!) and it overlooks the picture-postcard river scene. Our only gripe? The overload of pink – Pepto-Bismol tones enough to have those even with especially high oestrogen levels feeling a tad queasy. Mrs Smith is instantly assuaged by the classic-English Penhaligon bath products in the beautiful stealth-grey slate ensuite with a huge walk-in shower. And be assured, as we’d soon discover, this room is the purveyor of some seriously tranquil sleep. (So much so, this pair wakes up on the last morning feeling sad to leave such slumbering behind – fuchsia excess or otherwise.)
Dining at the Swan is a split-personalitied beast: there’s a family-orientated rustic pub and the River Room restaurant, with its loftier ambitions. The restaurant is in the old coach house, which has been passed through by many a travelling gentleman and his horse. (These days, it’s all about the families – although the gastropub prices are still pretty grown-up. Kids are welcomed with a toy or magazine, and can look forward to milk and cookies at bedtime.)
Seated in the Scullery, a little room off the main restaurant which Mrs Smith declares a windowless experiment in flock wallpaper. In spite of admiring the whimsical teapot lampshades, we’re redeployed to the main restaurant, and soon lavished here with the Swan’s signature service over our Mod Brit meets Med tucker. Some of the wines are even nationwide exclusives. 1976 Kesterner Paulinshofberg Beerenauslese, anyone? Local brews from Cumbria Legendary Ales such as Loweswater Gold and Dickie Doodle also fluttered their eyelashes at us. What ends up planting one of Cupid’s finest arrow aims in us is dessert. I could happily have made their honeycomb cheesecake my new Mrs Smith. Romancing a pud may sound unconventional, but you’d understand if you knew how delicious it was.
Thanks to glorious spring weather for our Cumbrian adventure, we spent most of our time ambling across rolling green, up bracken-wigged hills, down through oak-crowded woodlands, as far as our legs could carry us. We kept our eyes peeled for the land’s few red squirrels, and carnivorous plants – sundew and butterwort are two of the few animal-eating homegrown equivalents of Venus fly traps. When our footsteps became ponderous, we padded over to the steam-train stop, five minutes’ stroll away at Newby Bridge Station.
Novelty and nostalgia of the little train ride along Windermere to the boats and launches on the lake makes me regress to overexcited-child status. So much so I leave our bags – with all our valuables – on the train. It’s not back for an hour, so a swift call to the hotel has a porter dispatched quicker than you can say ‘all aboard’; soon enough, the day is saved.
We are ‘luckywiththeweather’, to wheel out that saying reliably prominent during any clement British celebrations. But had it rained, our affections for the Swan wouldn’t have been dampened, thanks to cosy corners and open log fires to curl up in front of. And despite my resistance of all things regal – what was initially a swerve from the madness of Will and Kate’s nuptials becomes the perfect setting in which to immerse ourselves in the patriotic mood. Cue Mrs Smith’s call to reception and a delayed check-out. Nope, never thought I’d say it, but yes, put your ear to our door, and you’d hear cooing over that
dress from the comfort of very own sitting room. Well, at least from Mrs Smith – the colour scheme hasn’t totally addled this illustrator’s mind.
Meandering, as the Swan does, between tasteful and the twee, this boutique hotel is a sweet mixture of Cath Kidston cutesiness and macho cool, care of Chesterfields, taxidermy and shot guns. A high-end family-friendly establishment that has turned the volume up on its quintessential British charm, this is one hotel where guests are guaranteed to get a right royal cosseting.