'A rough diamond that needed recutting and repolishing': Langdale Chase reopens in the Lake District

04 January 2024 by

Viewed from the waters of Lake Windermere, Langdale Chase, a grand Victorian villa complete with turrets and a stone balustrade, peeks out from ancient woodland, its manicured gardens winding down to the waters' edge, where two jetties provide the perfect launch pad for wild swimmers.

William Wordsworth is said to have described its setting as "the loveliest spot that man hath ever found" and, during an extensive, 12-month restoration, owner Daniel Thwaites has sought to restore the hotel to the greatness of its surroundings.

The Grade II-listed stone building was built in 1891 by Edna Howarth, the widow of a wealthy Manchester businessman, who spared no expense in its construction and decoration, commissioning some of Europe's finest craftspeople to create stained-glass windows, engrave wooden fireplaces and lay intricate mosaic floors.

Langdale Chase remained a private residence until 1930, when it was converted to a hotel and opened to paying guests. Almost 90 years later, in 2017, it was purchased by brewer and hospitality operator Daniel Thwaites and at the end of last year it reopened its doors.

Chief executive of Daniel Thwaites, Richard Bailey, says: "Edna Howarth really didn't skimp on anything. She bought in the best craftsman, had the best stonemasons, the best stone dressers, the wood carvings were done by the eminent staircase designers and people come from Italy to do the mosaic floors and marble fireplaces. There are incredible stained-glass windows and she even had built the most expensive boat that Windermere had ever seen – four times more expensive than any other boat built for any other house on the lake. [When we took the hotel on] it was a rough diamond that needed recutting and repolishing, but the bones of it were absolutely incredible. The quality of the craftsmanship and the vision she had – none of that had been destroyed. All we have done is gone back to showcase that and that's what you feel when you walk around."

Design behind the Langdale Chase hotel

The hotel extends across 21 bedrooms in the main house along with several reception rooms, a bar, dining room, library, cinema and wine room. There are a further eight bedrooms in the Lake House and a single suite in the Boat House, which sits directly over the lake, with a wraparound balcony and rooftop terrace.

Daniel Thwaites worked with specialist hotel designer Jane Goff of Goff Associates, who explains that the project was "about bringing out the best in this unique property, uplifting it's quality offering while achieving relaxed comfort for guests".

She adds: "The challenge with a building like this, in the high Victorian style, is that it can be quite austere, so we were looking at ways to make it more relaxed and less intimidating."

Erroneous and incongruous additions, such as wooden panelling and heavy drapes, were removed and the public spaces gently and subtly re-modelled, allowing the architecture of the building, its original features and the stunning vistas of the lake to take centre stage. The guest rooms have been dressed with a light touch, with classic fabrics and palettes taking cues from the styles of New England in the shuttered windows and the 1930s heyday of the area, when visitors flocked to the region and the lake showcased feats of engineering as speed records were set on its waters.

The focal point of the hallway is a beautiful carved staircase that wraps around a gallery above. It is an imposing double-height space with original stained glass windows and a roof light, as well as intricate carved friezes and minstrels' galleries at the higher level. Later claddings have been removed, making way for a bespoke fabric wall covering that fills the lower space and takes inspiration from the lake and mountains. The "moody" design took months to perfect and softens the room, complimenting rather than competing with the architectural features of the space.

Photographs from the late 19th century showed that the room had originally been lit by four lanterns, rather than a central chandelier. Goff and her team reinstated the four lanterns feature, in a style evocative of the time, and they now cast a soft light stretching into the perimeters of the rooms, picking up details in the wood carvings.

The hallway leads to the bar and a series of lounges, which include original features such as an overmantle, carved by the Grasmere Hermit and bearing the date 1891, and then into the dining room, a later addition to the hotel, with a glass wall offering a stunning view over Lake Windermere.

Goff adds: "Our concern has been in considering the guest ‘journey'. On arrival you see the full glory of the Victorian building, standing adjacent to your direct view of the lake. Then, as you enter there's the ‘wow' of the impressive hallway, now made very comfortable to relax in, have your morning pastry in or to just sit by the fire with a book. The cosy bar and the series of lounges, all with their own character, which you can now wander through, lead to the restaurant. The lounges all have lovely views, so we have been mindful not to obstruct them with drapes. The tall windows with their panelled reveals become the ultimate picture frames for the lake itself. As the restaurant is located in a later addition to the building, it provided an opportunity to develop a more modern, yet classic approach, where the majority of the external wall elevation is glazed, which is quite exciting as it allows you to feel at one with the lake."

'The best location in the Lake District'

Langdale Chase has a dual-aspect view of the lake, which can be seen from almost every bedroom. Accordingly, the individually designed rooms encourage guests to stop and take in their environment, whether that be while curled up in an armchair or relaxing in the bath.

Bailey adds: "They're really stunning spaces, making the most of what is the best location in the Lake District and possibly one of the best views in the UK."

The restoration of the property has been quite the undertaking for Daniel Thwaites, but the company is confident in its product and accordingly so, given its enviable position in a UNESCO World Heritage site that attracts 12 million visitors a year.

Bailey says: "The most important thing for us now is focus on the guests who are here – our early guests – and make sure the experience they have is fantastic because the best form of marketing is word of mouth. This building has been here for 130 years. We're not in a hurry to brazenly have a massive fireworks display, but we have a lot of confidence that we have something really special, and if we focus on the guest experience and people's visits, we believe this will be a great success as a place for people to come and enjoy, and there are lots of people inside and outside the UK who want to do that."

For general manager Mike Vincent it is all about ensuring guests receive warm hospitality and a personalised stay. He says: "We want to create a kind of comfortable luxury. The ethos is very much about a professional service, but unfussy. We want people to feel at ease and to keep coming back. We're looking for something that's very comfortable. Nothing will be too much trouble. We want everyone's stay to be as individual as they are. A very personalised experience without the pomp."

Accordingly, the team speak to guests in advance of their visit and plan activities, be it a boat ride across Lake Windermere, paddleboarding, off-roading, climbing, hiking, sailing or curling up to watch their favourite film in the cinema room.

Despite opening in the chillier months, the team has been surprised how many guests have made use of the lake. Bailey adds: "We opened in November and many people have been wild swimming. We weren't really expecting it and we had to slightly scramble to put steps into both of the jetties so people could get out."

At the moment, the team are focused on ensuring those early guests are singing their praises. But much is happening behind the scenes with a new Swallows and Amazon afternoon tea under development, and the four and a half acres of gardens being carefully tendered by head gardener Claire Farrington with a vision to create a series of rooms within the grounds for guests to explore. Watch this (exceptionally scenic) space.

The food and beverage offering

Faced with a challenging recruitment environment, executive chef Michael Cole decided to build his team from the bottom up.

Aside from himself, sous chef Wayne Munn and pastry chef Camila Leao Rachiotis, all those working in the kitchen are just three months into their culinary journeys.

He says: "I've been lucky enough to have a fantastic career and achieve everything I wanted to achieve and for chefs who have been in the industry as long as I have, it gets to a point of what do I want to achieve now? And now I am passionate about bringing that next generation of chefs through."

Recruiting such an inexperienced team means it will take time for Cole to realise all his ambitions for the hotel's food offering through what he describes as an "18-month to two-year strategy" adding, "the team we're building will be our future".

In a region offering some of the finest tasting menus in the country, Langdale Chase has bucked the trend offering its diners an à la carte restaurant menu, a bar menu, afternoon tea and Sunday roast offerings. It's a decision the hotel believes is key given the average length of stay is expected to be three days.

Cole adds: "For us, it's about the guest, and I think choice is very important. That's not to say that in the future we wouldn't consider a tasting menu and à la carte running parallel, but I don't feel we're in the position to do that at the moment.

"If we have a guest staying for two or three nights it's really important to offer that level of choice and give them the option to have fish and chips or a burger or something a little more refined. We're trying to get away from any level of pretentiousness, if you want fish and chips from the bar menu in the restaurant that's fine, if you want it in your room that's fine."

Across the menu Cole showcases some of the region's finest produce, including Lakeland Dexter beef served with a crispy oyster and stout as well as Goosnargh guinea fowl paired with wild mushroom and celeriac.

Cole has high ambitions for the hotel's afternoon tea, with a festive offering to be followed by one paying tribute to Arthur Ransome's Swallows and Amazons. The author is believed to have visited the house and there is speculation it formed part of his vision for the book. Accordingly, when the original film was made in the 1970s, the cast and crew visited the hotel.

Cole adds: "I've never seen anyone captivate the market for afternoon tea in the Lakes and it's a big thing for me that Langdale Chase should be known for afternoon tea. I want the best afternoon tea outside of London.

"Our pastry chef does an amazing job and we've really worked on balancing the sweet by bringing more savoury choices in, so it almost has a tapas feel to it. It's a real head-turner and I think that will only build and grow."

Building the team

While recruitment has been challenging across the hospitality industry, building a team in the Lake District presented its own difficulties.

Bailey says: "Given the state of the employment market, everyone has to be more open-minded, because we are fishing in a very small pool. We had to think about how we attract people who will fit with our business and culture and skill them.

"We're doing as much as we can and being as creative as we can. We've invested in staff accommodation – Cumbria in particular is crying out for staff accommodation."

Langdale Chase has accommodation for some 23 members of its team, with others living in the surrounding towns and villages. Team members have been recruited for personality, with several having taken career changes or starting their journey in the workplace.

Vincent adds: "It's been challenging. A lot of people have left the industry and it comes down to us as a business to create an environment that people want to come to. We've been recruiting on personality first and foremost and we have people in the kitchen who up to eight weeks ago had never picked up a knife, but now are doing fantastically.

"We're building a team and doing it slowly and organically. If we build a team with the right set of people who all have the same ethos, we can't go wrong."

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