When Francis Coulson, co-proprietor of Sharrow Bay Country House Hotel in Ullswater, Cumbria, lost his fight against cancer earlier this year, an era in the history of English hospitality drew to a close. For 50 years Coulson, with partner Brian Sack, had set the standard by which all top-class country house hotels in the UK were, and continue to be, measured.
It comes as no surprise, then, that the Catey judges have chosen to honour Coulson and Sack with the 1998 Lifetime Achievement award. As one of the adjudicators said at the time of the judging: "This award recognises sustained achievement. Many operators do a good job, but few continue to break new ground over such a prolonged period of time. What Coulson and Sack created and maintained together may never be repeated."
The story of Sharrow Bay began shortly after the Second World War, when a recently demobbed Coulson borrowed money from his father and bought a mansion on the edge of Ullswater together with half-a-mile of lake shore and 12 acres of woodland.
It was a time of post-war rationing, but the enthusiastic new proprietor secured a £1,200 overdraft from the National Westminster Bank, bought furniture in sales, and found a supplier for the restaurant by, in his own words, "wandering around Penrith with ration dockets and discovering a local butcher who was also a wonderful grocer". A comfortable hotel with a reputation for good food was in the making.
Sharrow Bay was opened in March 1949 with only five bedrooms. It was a humble beginning but right from the start there was an emphasis on customer satisfaction. Coulson said later that his aim was to "cosset, nourish and nurture each client as they came through the front door".
Meanwhile, 200 miles to the south, Brian Sack was working for Ashley Courtney at the Node Hotel near Hereford, having given up a career as a chartered surveyor some years earlier. A chance conversation with relatives of Coulson pointed him in the direction of Ullswater. "There's a young man up in the Lake District who's on his own," they said. "He's a brilliant chef, but he needs someone to help with the business side of things."
Sack arrived at Sharrow Bay in the summer of 1952, initially for a "training period". He and Coulson hit it off immediately and his stay became permanent. The two partners shared an interest in cooking and believed in the same ethos that makes clients of the hotel, to this day, more than just paying customers. "We both had an intense love of people," Sack once said.
The hotel grew gradually over the years, until it housed 28 bedrooms, the majority in nearby cottages, and employed up to 50 staff. The standard for every aspect of a guest's stay was always high, and it is not surprising that boundless praise and recognition has been won over the years.
In 1981 Sharrow Bay entered the Guinness Book of Records for being the only hotel to have gained both the Egon Ronay Gold Plate for its restaurant and the Egon Ronay Hotel of the Year award.
The BBC made a documentary about the hotel in 1988 - the same year that Coulson and Sack won the Catey Special Award for their work - and then, in 1994, they were each appointed MBEs for services to industry.
The hotel's restaurant has also gained an enviable reputation. Originally, Coulson did the cooking himself, inspired by Constance Spry and Elizabeth David. He concentrated on English cuisine, a tradition that remains. "Critics in guides have been sarcastic about British cooking," said Coulson not long ago, "but now it's fashionable."
In 1996, the restaurant, with long-time head chefs Juan "Johnnie" Martin and Colin Akrigg in the kitchen, won a Michelin star.
The Lifetime Achievement Award has honoured two of the most popular and well-respected innovators UK hospitality has known. Francis Coulson will be missed, but Brian Sack and the staff at Sharrow Bay can be expected to keep memories of their friend alive for a long time. n