Behind the scenes at Nanny Brow in Ambleside
PUBLISHED: 00:00 05 April 2018
Gone are the days of basic bed and breakfasts in the Lake District and leading the way in luxury is Nanny Brow in Ambleside. Emma Mayoh reports
There was once a time when bed and breakfast could involved battleaxe landladies, hair in curlers, telling guests the front door would be locked at 10pm. If you weren’t in, you’d face their wrath and accompanying stern glare. Bathrooms were shared and a cruet cost extra.
How times have changed. Now, many are luxurious boutique places with Egyptian cotton bed sheets, the fluffiest towels and pillows plumped to perfection. You’ll find others with double ended slipper baths the size of a rowing boat, state-of-the-art technology, the finest furnishings and breakfasts full of tasty local produce.
It’s all part of the service people have come to expect, according to Sue Robinson, who runs and owns Nanny Brow with husband, Peter. The couple, who moved from the Cotswolds to the Lake District, have been flying the hospitality flag in Ambleside for almost ten years. Their bed and breakfast, a stunning example of Art & Crafts architecture, has garnered itself a reputation as one of the finest in the country.
They’ve won awards including AA Guest Accommodation of the Year, The LUX UK Hospitality Award and AA 5 Star Guest Accommodation. But Sue and Peter work hard t
o keep ahead in an area that has stiff competition not just from other bed and breakfasts but also great hotels.
‘Hotels are difficult to compete with, particularly when you’re aiming at the customers we are,’ said Sue. ‘We’re cheaper than luxury hotels around here but we are the most expensive bed and breakfast in Ambleside. That’s a challenge for us. It means we have to constantly strive to be the best.
‘But many of our customers don’t want that hotel experience. Some live in hotels for a lot of their working lives and they want to get away from that. They want that personal touch, that interaction with us.
Guests also love the special story behind Nanny Brow. There’s one man who stays with us who spends 360 days a year in a hotel. The remainder are with us. He loves being here.’
Nanny Brow has an enviable history. It was built in 1904 by renowned architect Francis Whitwell, who practiced in London and was a fellow of RIBA. He came to Ambleside to build his family home.
The property, on the solid rock of Nanny Brow Crag overlooking the Brathay Valley, has many features characteristic of the Arts & Crafts movement including motifs of animals and flowers, oak paneling and leaded windows.
Peter and Susan painstakingly worked to restore the grand building for two years, revealing old tiles and fireplaces, intricate carvings and detailing hidden under 100 years worth of paint. They worked through the winter with no heating.
‘That was a crazy time,’ said Sue. ‘We’d work in here for a few hours and they have to go outside to get warm again because it was warmer out there.
‘But we loved the place. We had to do it. If we hadn’t, it would have got past repair.
‘It was almost at that point when we took it on. We couldn’t let this beautiful building pass us by.’
Determined to stay true to Nanny Brow’s history, they refused all shortcuts.
It was a labour of love and they worked to old plans showing the original layout. Today, you can see architectural drawings, paintings and photographs on the walls, including a copy of Whitwell’s detailed painting showing the house he wanted to build while he was searching for land.
‘That’s something our guests love hearing about,’ said Sue. ‘We get a lot of people asking about the history and it’s something we’re really proud to pass on. We’ve heard stories from many people who had visited here in the past.
‘Before we came here a lady moved in next door to our holiday cottages in the Cotswolds. It turned out she was the granddaughter of Francis Whitwell.
‘She gave us access to the family albums so we had some lovely pictures from the 1900s and lots of information about the house and the family. We’ve definitely not taken the easy options.
‘There are times we could have cut down on the renovation time period but we wanted stay true to the house.
‘We’re custodians of Nanny Brow. We have a responsibility to look after it for others to enjoy in the future.’
Another thing they have become known for are the delicious homemade cakes put in guests’ rooms each day and Sue’s efforts have even won the attention of television chef Michel Roux.
‘I was absolutely amazed,’ beamed Sue. ‘The cakes are our USP.
‘He stayed with us while he visited one of the wonderful restaurants here. He said he loved my lemon drizzle cake.
‘When I realised he was coming, I was so nervous. We made breakfast for him and he loved it - particularly the bacon.
‘We work really hard but when you hear things like this from any of our customers, it makes it all worthwhile.’