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Is Bowness the foodie capital of the Lake District?

PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 June 2017

Interior of Choco Bar in Bowness

Interior of Choco Bar in Bowness

Sandy Kitching https://sandyanimalphotographer.smugmug.com/httpssandyanimalphotographer.smugmug.com/

Food promises to become as big a draw to Bowness as its heavenly lakeside setting. Mike Glover reports. Photographs: Sandy Kitching.

Stefan Rae, general manager The Hydro HotelStefan Rae, general manager The Hydro Hotel

A GRAND old dame of the tourist honeypot Bowness-on-Windermere has re-opened after the first stage of a massive redevelopment designed to put it back at the centre of the village map.

The Hydro Hotel is one of the oldest establishments in the Lake District, having first opened its doors to the public in 1881. For years it was one of a couple of iconic hotels overlooking England’s largest lake. Its pool, tennis courts and bakery made sure it was part of the local community.

In recent years it had become run down and focused on the coach trade. But now its new owners believe a makeover, totalling more than £3m, will restore its glory days.

The man with the onerous job of seeing through the transformation is Stefan Rae who also takes on the role of general manager.

Faye Ramsey, owner of Porto Restaurant in BownessFaye Ramsey, owner of Porto Restaurant in Bowness

The business was bought by Squire Hotels in 2014. It is the third property for the group, which launched in 2012. It also has Etrop Grange in Manchester and Best Western Plus Samlesbury Hotel in Preston.

Mr Rae joined the group after working his way up at Radisson Blue Edwardian Hotel in Manchester.

The Hydro closed in January for the refurbishment and the first phase, costing £1.2m, has just finished.

The ground floor public area comprising the ballroom, restaurant, orangery, reception, sun room and bar, as well as 24 lake view bedrooms and suites have been refurbished in this phase one.

Mark Tomlinson and his wife Radana, owners of Choco Bar in BownessMark Tomlinson and his wife Radana, owners of Choco Bar in Bowness

‘Everything has changed. The new design is based on grey slate, so greys and whites predominate, while keeping the Victorian theme,’ said Mr Rae. ‘I don’t think anyone who visited the old Hydro will believe it is the same hotel. It is a complete transformation.

‘It is a Grand Old Dame of a building and deserves looking after and restoring to its former glory. We aim to put the Hydro back on the map.’

Another popular fine-dining restaurant to have a redecoration and renovation this year is Porto in Ash Street. Formally known as Porthole, the bistro was bought seven years ago by local lass Faye Ramsey, who was then just 24-years-old.

Educated at Crosthwaite Primary School and Windermere St Anne’s as it was then called, Faye’s original ambition was in showbusiness.

She got a scholarship to Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts and had a successful career as a backing dancer to the likes of Gareth Gates and Will Young before injury ended her showbiz career.

She spent much of her time in London attending swanky restaurants and tastings, and got a real appetite for the food business.

Faye came back to the Lake District to train as a teacher at Charlotte Mason college at Ambleside, now part of Cumbria University, but the pull of catering was too strong, so when the Porthole came up for sale she bought it with the help of her farming family.

She started modestly but with the help of head chef David Bewick, who joined her from Nigel Haworth’s empire based at Northcote, near Blackburn, the restaurant has entered the fine dining market, albeit at the affordable end.

David, who also worked at the Three Fishes at Clitheroe and The Highwayman near Lancaster, has been with Faye from the start. To keep it in the family, his wife, Kasia is the restaurant manager, although she was off on maternity leave after the birth of their daughter Grace, when Lancashire Life visited.

Porto is the only restaurant in Bowness village to have an AA Rosette, yet a two course lunch costs £16-95 a person and a three course dinner about £30. And just as Lancashire Life went to press Porto gained its second Rosette.

‘We are very happy all our hard work seems worth it!’ said mother-of-two, Faye. ‘Our motto is “we want you to be full and happy.” We want to produce beautiful food that doesn’t cost the earth.’

With her showbusiness background it is no surprise that the likes of actor Warwick Davis and TV personality Duncan Bannantyne are known to drop in. The Dragon’s Den veteran gave Faye’s business a boost when the restaurant turned a Twitter spat about another Bowness establishment to Porto’s favour.

Locals and tourists alike appreciate Porto’s offerings, with a noticeable increase this year in American, Chinese and Australian visitors. Like many others in the Lake District, Porto is benefitting from the value of the pound.

‘We are proud of where we have come from and what we have achieved. We are very passionate about what we do and every element of the plate is thought through,’ added Faye.

Round the corner, at Quarry Rigg precinct is another assault on the taste buds in the shape of chocolate heaven.

The ChoccoBar was set up by Forton-born Mark Tomlinson and his wife Radana two years ago. It was her Slovakian background that planted the seed of an idea for a continental-style coffee shop.

But instead of coffee the couple took their inspiration from Belgian chocolate which they melt down into a warming brew.

It took them three months to come up with the perfect recipe. It obviously worked as they now get through up to 35 litres a week, with customers from all over Britain.

‘One woman comes up to Bowness from Bolton especially for one of our chocolate drinks,’ said Mark. ‘It is a bit daunting to think people will make that journey for our product.’

The basic on-tap chocolate drink can be enhanced with 30-or-so flavours, from amaretto to vanilla. One of the most popular is venison!

The shop also specialises in making waffle batter creations which have helped push the ChoccoBar to number one on TripAdvisor’s Bowness cafe listing.

No wonder the cafe displays a pastiche of Bill Shankly’s summary of the appeal of football: ‘Chocolate is not a matter of life and death – it is more important than that.’ Also, on the wall it says: ‘If they don’t have chocolate in heaven, I am not going.’

Instagram for foodies – Lake District

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