Jenna and Jamie Shail haven’t let the pandemic stop them progressing with their plans of creating a dream boutique hotel in Ambleside – and their chef Dan McGeorge has been on a triumphant mission of his own too.
Hats off to anyone who has completed something significant during this crazy period of change and lockdowns – I’m still finding excuses why I haven’t hung a picture, written a book, baked. Anything. We’re in the travel industry; the worry is enough to exhaust anyone I tell myself...
But married couple Jenna and Jamie Shail have used the time to roll up their sleeves and crack on with the renovation of their hotel, set inside an 1823 manor house in the Lake District’s honeypot village of Ambleside.
They have owned Rothay Manor since 2016 and have constantly been improving it since, completing a £1.25 million renovation last year, with all 18 guest rooms now reimagined in what is the only real stylish boutique hotel in the village.
The couple have collaborated with Matt Hulme of Dynargh Design for several years on establishing the style and tone of the hotel, which is a modern twist on country-house living. Farrow & Ball hues such as Stoney Ground, Bancha and Sulking Room Pink calm the eye against striking wallpapers from William Morris, Lewis & Wood and Colefax and Fowler, alongside Pooky lampshades, and tweed or soft leather furnishings. Quirky art touches include dog-themed illustrations in the dining room, and local photography montages in the lounge. All rooms are named after local nature features such as waterfalls.
But there are classic and practical pieces too, as in my Aira (Aira Force is the name of a local waterfall) room, where a good-sized desk/table had a mirror and plugs where you can easily reach them and chairs that aren’t too cumbersome to lift. On a grander scale, the most recently renovated Fairfield Suite boasts exposed original beams, a double-ended cast iron bath and a whimsical hand-painted mural by Melissa White. Some rooms have balconies boasting garden views, others have secluded terraces, one of which even has a private hot tub.
Having achieved all that, these tireless co-owners used that most recent lockdown to roll into the next major phase of renovation works – breaking ground on the creation of The Pavilion, a slick new building that replaces an old bungalow on the site. Cosmetically, they also repainted the front of the main house last summer, and have just re-paved the front terrace, ready for the May reopening rush.
It did all seem a little hectic when I arrived through the doors, but in the pouring rain, impatience is always heightened, plus the cramped little reception area is also about to be moved in the latest push of renovations. When done over the summer, it will have a larger room devoted to it to welcome guests in. The changes will also see cars arrive in a different route and what is now a small car park to the front of the hotel will be planted over, completing a scenic view that’s already 99% full of trees and flowers.
I’d like to tell you I sat there on my little first-floor balcony sipping a cup of tea from my “I’d rather stay at Rothay Manor” cup; but that same rain didn’t allow me that. Still, even looking out at non-stop greenery through the glass doors was such a welcome relief from the cheek-by-jowl flats and houses I have grown used to seeing from my little London flat. Such simple pleasures are to be treasured.
But what goes beyond these pleasures – also add to that the joy of sinking into a huge comfy bed you know you won’t have to make yourself – is the utter bliss of dining out again. And at the risk of sounding like an M&S advert… this wasn’t just any dining out, this was 3 AA Rosette dining out under the talent of Dan McGeorge, one of the finalists on the most recent series of BBC’s Great British Menu.
Guests design their own five or seven-course seasonally inspired tasting menu. My experience started with a sparkling glass of English rosé, and some sesame crackers with a divine alioli dip, as I chatted over the options with the lovely bar and restaurant team.
Once seated at my table, there was fresh bread to die-for with herb butter, chased up with a trio of canapés including a tiny lighter-than-air onion tart, an avocado taco, and piping hot arancini which all got the flavours pumping. I’m vegetarian – and what followed were things done to vegetables I’ve never seen done before, in the best of ways.
The Summer Salad was quite possibly the prettiest dish I have ever set eyes on, with a perfectly formed bed of gem lettuce, radish, cucumber, sweet pea, koji, wild garlic caper, herbs and flowers. Among the other dishes were “Potato & Mushroom”, a kind of panacotta-like dish of Jersey Royals, morel, truffle, quail egg, mustard seeds and chervil, and simply, “Carrot”, which was the humble orange veg cooked a number of ways and served with sancho pepper, goat’s curd and yeast. Hats off to the team on an incredible meal – and all other diners around me seemed equally joyous. And let’s not talk about the sinful cheese trolley…
Spoiler alert: as well as the honour of getting to the final, Dan was also picked as the overall Champion of Champions for the series. But he’s getting used to such recognition, having also recently received a 2020 Acorn Award, which picks the country’s brightest culinary stars under 30.
His final course on the show, Give A Dog A Bone, celebrated the training of the first four guide dogs by Muriel Crooke and Rosamund Bond. It featured a bone-shaped milk chocolate mousse, with a miso caramel centre, sprayed in chocolate, served with a miso caramel sauce, salted caramel ice cream, honeycomb miso tuile and yuzu gel and zest; and until the end of July, diners can try it, with a limited edition of Dan’s Great British Menu highlights beings served on a special menu.
I asked Jenna over a glass of wine in the bar what it’s meant to them; they knew Dan had it in him it seems, and are both so proud of him. She also says that seeing her phone ping with notifications of bookings for the restaurant as the TV show progressed gave them a huge lift after some tough months.
As well as great cooking shows, if you’re usually glued to any good TV drama like I am lately, you or your clients may also be feeling drawn to a trip to the Lake District after watching ITV’s Innocent, which was filmed in the area (much of the filming was around Keswick; and Ireland). The production team were based at Keswick rugby club, which was closed for months in lockdown so gave them a central hub, as they filmed life for Katherine Kelly who plays Sally Wright as she is released from prison. Not to give anything away, but you can almost feel her breathe again as she walks around the lakes and the countryside she knows so well and has missed. Haven’t we all missed freedom in some way?
The hotel is thankfully getting a lot of bookings which is helping to make up for lost time, but does still have gaps from August and into autumn. There’s no doubting tourism favourites such as the Lake District will fill up fast over the summer, so secure a spot for clients as soon as possible, and allow them the pleasure of chef Dan’s truly great British menu.
How to book it: Rooms at Rothay Manor cost from £200 per might, with breakfast; or from £310 per night with a seven-course tasting menu.