Andrew Wildsmith turned his back on a career as a chemist to open three luxurious hotels in the rugged landscape of the Lake District. Janet Harmer visits him at his newest opening, the four-silver-AA-star Forest Side, for a true taste of the countryside
The winter flooding in Cumbria had a disastrous impact on the economy of the county and, in particular, the tourism industry. With many of the major roads in the region closed and bridges awaiting repair, early 2016 could not have been a worse time to open a hotel in the heart of the Lake District.
However, in February, Forest Side, a 20-bedroom hotel a few minutes outside Grasmere, did just that. The Victorian property had undergone an 18-month, £4m renovation, including £1m spent on buying the building, and the owner, Andrew Wildsmith, needed to get guests through the door.
However, he was under no illusions that it was going to be tough. As founder and owner of Wildsmith Hotels, which has two other Cumbrian hotels: Hipping Hall in Kirby Lonsdale and Ryebeck in Bowness-on-Windermere, the business was already suffering.
"Following the floods we experienced a 50% drop in business at Ryebeck and 20% at Hipping Hall," said Wildsmith. "It was very upsetting. We had many cancellations and last-minute bookings over Christmas and New Year just drifted away."
A change of path
Wildsmith is confident that he and the business will get through what has been a stressful and challenging period. Indeed, an optimistic outlook is a trait he has exuded since he unexpectedly entered the hotel industry at the age of 27. If he had followed his original career path, he would be working in the pharmaceutical industry today.
It was during the course of a three-month placement with one of the UK's largest pharmaceutical companies - as part of his PhD at Cambridge University - that Wildsmith decided chemistry was not where his future lay.
"I had little contact with the outside world or even outside air," he says. "I was disillusioned. When you start out as a chemist, your hope is that you will be able to create a drug which will cure a major illness, but the reality was that I never met anyone whose project had ever come to fruition."
On returning to his home town of Lancaster, Wildsmith began looking for somewhere to live. "I was keen on the area around Kirby Lonsdale, as it was somewhere I had spent much time cycling when I was growing up," he says. "However, I got distracted and started looking at properties at the opposite end of the spectrum from what I could afford. I saw Hipping Hall on the market for £1m and, with financial backing from my parents, decided to buy it and become a hotelier."
What started off as an old-fashioned, six-bedroom guest house in 2005 was gutted and transformed into a stylish and welcoming 10-bedroom hotel that now boasts five stars within the AA's restaurant with rooms category as well as a three-AA-rosette restaurant. A stable next door has also recently been acquired , where an additional five bedrooms will open next month.
The Ryebeck hotel followed, although that had originally not been on Wildsmith's agenda. "Having seen what I was doing at Hipping Hall, my parents decided they liked the idea of running a hotel too, and bought the Ryebeck," he explains. "But it soon became apparent that it was not what they wanted to do at all and so I eventually took it over in 2013."
Wildsmith applied the same ethos at the 26-bedroom Ryebeck (previously known as Fayrer Garden) as he had done at Hipping Hall, but at a less elevated level. The hotel has three AA stars and two AA rosettes, but the ambition is to take it to three-red-AA-star level, with three AA rosettes.
In the meantime, Wildsmith was already looking for another property as he wanted a hotel in a more central Lake District location. The search took him, via Right Move, to Forest Side, a Gothic-style Victorian mansion set within 46 acres. It is situated on the side of the fell, so much of the land is almost vertical and inaccessible. "It is quite a magical location, as not many people ever get to see a large majority of the grounds," says Wildsmith.
Having first seen the property in the summer of 2013, Wildsmith completed its purchase in July 2014. Once all necessary permissions were granted, he spent 18 months turning it from a very run-down building into a sleek new hotel, which is dominated at its heart by a restaurant overseen by head chef Kevin Tickle, one-time sous chef and head forager at Simon Rogan's L'Enclume and later head chef at Rogan & Co.
The appointment of such a key head chef has been something of a coup, but perhaps is no surprise given that it has always been Wildsmith's intention to create a business which was food-led at the very highest level. "I've wanted each hotel to be all about the dining experience, with a strong service element and bedrooms that were aligned to what was happening downstairs.
"Although I've no previous hospitality experience - I didn't even work in a bar when I was a student, as you are discouraged from having a job at Cambridge - I've been driven to create the very best hotels and restaurants. I suppose it was something to do with the fact that I had come from the very best academic environment and it just followed that I would want to operate at the top level when it came to hotels."
Wildsmith was introduced to Tickle by his wife, Nicola Tickle, who worked as assistant manager at Hipping Hall, and is soon to return to the business as social media manager following maternity leave. "I knew before I had even bought Forest Side that Kevin would be the ideal chef for the hotel, especially one with land where we could create a kitchen garden."
Gardener Catherine Walsh and chef KevinTickle
Tickle's experience as a forager with close connections to Cumbria, where he has lived and worked all his life, has resulted in a restaurant which could not be more aligned with its locality. Typical dishes include hen's yolk, kohlrabi, sea lettuce and marsh herbs; and wild halibut, conifer, mussels, salsify and wispy leeks.
Tickle works closely with the hotel's gardener, Catherine Walsh, to ensure that the restored Victorian walled garden is packed full of produce that - together with his foraged ingredients - is used as the foundations for some of the most creative and delicious dishes being served in the county today.
"I don't think there is another chef in Cumbria who has got the same knowledge of indigenous Cumbrian ingredients as Kevin," says Wildsmith. "He also has the knowledge to extract the flavours from the ingredients to create some wonderful dishes."
Becoming a brand
Bringing in Lewis has also been a key appointment. In the earlier days, Wildsmith was totally operational and acted as the restaurant manager at Hipping Hall. But as the business has grown and become more complex, he knew he needed the support of someone with Lewis's knowledge and experience. Having previously worked for Swinton Lodge in North Yorkshire, Gilpin Lodge in Cumbria and Belmond Le Manoir aux Quat'Saisons in Oxfordshire, Lewis has experience in spades.
"As a hotelier, you can run one hotel on your own, but once you become a group, you need protocol and procedure in places, covering everything from HR to foodservice, and that is what I'm bringing to the business," Lewis says.
"Interestingly, while we approach issues from a different viewpoint - Andrew comes from a customer point of view, I draw on experience - we often reach the same conclusion. For instance, when we were working out the room rate for Forest Side, we arrived at a figure that was only £10 apart.
Four months after launching, Forest Side - along with so many other Lake District hotels - can now benefit from the reopening of the A591, the major north-south road through the key tourist region which has been closed since the December floods.
"This should really provide a boost for use," says Lewis. "In some cases, the closure of the road has added an extra 45 minutes or so to some guests' journeys."
Forest Side is also now at the point where it can plough ahead with its marketing plan. Difficulties regarding the logistics of reaching the hotel have enabled the business to build slowly and the 40-strong staff to gel as a team.
"We'll be doing lots of social media and PR, as well as marketing to our 25,000-strong email database," says Wildsmith. "We believe that excellence shines out, and by getting the hotel and people right first will lead to the beating of the jungle drums."
Will there be a fourth hotel in the Wildsmith portfolio? "Not for a long time, Wildsmith replies. "Not until I've recovered from this one. However, I know that I'm very lucky that running hotels has enabled me to work with the five things I am most interested in about life - food, wine, people in social situations, interiors and property - and I do them every day in the heart of the most beautiful countryside."
•Owner Andrew Wildsmith
•Operations director Tom Lewis
•Total investment £10m
•Total staff 105
Kirby Lonsdale, Cumbria LA6 2JJ
•10 bedrooms (additional five bedrooms to open in June)
•Bed and breakfast from £189 (with dinner: £269)
Bowness-on-Windermere, Cumbria LA23 3JP
•Bed and breakfast from £110 (with dinner: £180)
Grasmere, Cumbria LA22 9RN
•Bed and breakfast from £209 (with dinner: £299)
Bringing the outside in
While each of the three Wildsmith hotels has its own distinct look, they all share a connection to their location. At Forest Side this is represented by Kevin Tickle's food, which revolves around the produce of the region and by the interior, which has been designed to complement the hotel's gardens and the landscape of the surrounding lakes and mountains.
Lancaster-based interior design firm Mackies has overseen the refurbishment, with an emphasis on reflecting the beauty beyond the building. Original floorboards from the property have been recycled to make the restaurant tables, chef's pass and room signs, while the earthy-coloured ceramics produced by local potters used for Tickle's food reflect the hues of the surrounding scenery.
The menus are printed on recycled brown paper and tied together with yarn from the hardy Herdwick sheep grazing on the Lakeland dales, and the waiters' hacking jackets are made from Pendle tweed.
"We have aimed to support local businesses as much as possible," says Lewis. "The wool carpets for the bedrooms and corridors were made from over 2,000 fleeces and resulted in the biggest ever order for Herdwick." The wool is also used as insulation between the floors of the hotel.
However, while the surroundings beyond Forest Side are rugged, the interior of the hotel is very slick. Crushed velvet sofas in the bar and lounge offer comfort after a hard day's walking on the fells, as do the Harrison Spinks beds, which were specially commissioned to once again incorporate Herdwick wool.
Each bedroom has an accent wall of rich Zoffany paper, with curtains offering a contemporary take on brocade and damask. The bathrooms feature Bramley amenities, made from 100% natural botanicals, which once again reflect the outside environment.
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