Two hotels that Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon should have visited on The Trip
PUBLISHED: 00:00 10 October 2015 | UPDATED: 15:19 19 January 2016
Northcote and Gilpin are two of the north's finest hotels. Together, they make a formidable team as Roger Borrell discovered
We’d spent the week practising our Michael Caine and Sean Connery impressions prior to staging our own mini-series of The Trip. If you’d nothing better to do on Sunday evenings, you might recall this was the BBC TV programme featuring Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon eating their way around the north west at the licence payers’ expense while talking to each other in vaguely amusing voices.
Not a lot of people know this, Mish Moneypenny, but they inexplicably missed out two of the finest, Gilpin Hotel and Lakehouse near Windermere and Northcote in the Ribble Valley. Whoever chose the locations ended up with a little egg on their face – probably accompanied by a delightfully fluffy hollandaise sauce. We set out to right this wrong.
Between Gilpin and Northcote is an extraordinarily beautiful landscape largely made up of the Trough of Bowland, an area of outstanding natural beauty described (sadly not by me, but by the father of Northcote’s Craig Bancroft) as ‘Heaven with the gate shut.’ It sums up perfectly one of Britain’s loveliest yet most neglected wildernesses.
While 60-odd miles separate them, there is much Gilpin and Northcote have in common. Both are members of Relais & Châteaux, that exclusive club open only to establishments serving the finest food and providing the most luxurious hospitality, and they are Pride of Britain Hotels. Both are privately owned and independently operated and both have kitchens packed with stars capable of setting off culinary fireworks.
It seems logical, then, that rather than slug it out for business they should join forces in a campaign they call ‘Winter Gourmet Retreats.’ These allow guests to wine, dine and stay at one venue, drive through stunning countryside and then repeat the process at the other end. What could be simpler or more pleasurable?
We started off at Gilpin, a lovely Edwardian country house hotel which has been run for a quarter of a century by the affable Cunliffe clan. In recent years the place has expanded but it still has the feel of a family home, albeit an extremely luxurious one.
The public rooms are a combination of upmarket old style with touches of contemporary chic and it works well. They don’t skimp on bodies – it’s not one of those places where you wonder if the staff have found somewhere better to go – and they know what they are doing and they do it in a genuinely friendly fashion.
Lovers of TV reality programmes will know the man now running the kitchen is Hrishikesh Desai, selected in front of millions during BBC 2’s Alex Polizzi: Chefs on Trial. He deserves a medal – or a Michelin star, which is more likely - for coming through that ordeal with a new job and a broad smile on his face.
At the time of writing Hrishikesh was putting together his new winter menu but, regardless of season, this is a kitchen aiming high. Dinner included a piece of hogget that was gamey and melt-in-the-mouth marvellous while a dessert based on a deconstructed Snickers bar (Marathon if you don’t mind showing your age) had great wit and sumptuous flavours.
Our junior suite was bright, well-equipped and welcoming with the bonus of French windows giving views of the fells and a friendly herd of llamas. A little down the road is the Gilpin Lake House, an exquisitely refurbished building with six suites, its own tarn and one of the most dramatic – and opulent - spas in the north. Back at the main hotel, there will be five new suites with their own spa facilities by Christmas and the family is planning new work on the gardens. However, the Cunliffes are determined not to grow much more, jealously guarding Gilpin’s intimate atmosphere and personal service.
Less intimate was the drive down to Northcote across wide open, spectacular moors. We went the pretty way – across Catlow Fell, past Stocks Reservoir and through Slaidburn, Dunsop Bridge, Whitewell (home of the wonderful eponymous Inn) and down into Langho.
If you haven’t been to Northcote in recent times you’ll notice some fairly spectacular changes but the one thing that hasn’t changed is the standard of food coming from the Michelin-starred kitchen. Nigel Haworth, Lisa Allen and Aled Williams are the culinary equivalent of the Barcelona forward line with Nigel’s business partner Craig Bancroft as midfield general, orchestrating everything beyond the kitchen.
Recent developments have included the creation of a private dining suite, the Louis Roederer Room, and the new cocktail bar is a cool, sophisticated emporium in pink with modern art and a variety of gins that wouldn’t shame a Hogarth engraving.
Other innovations are a cookery school overseen by Michael Vanheste and there’s a chef’s table where you can gather with friends and watch famous chefs cook your dinner. A kitchen garden is now well established and further work on the grounds will soon be underway.
However, much of the considerable investment has gone into refurbishing existing rooms in the main house and the creation of a grand new Garden Lodge.
These eight rooms have taken Northcote to a new level offering the sort of beautifully appointed facilities you might only find in six star hotels in some exotic part of the world.
The rooms are large with high-end furnishings and top-of-the-range electronics. Our bathroom was as high spec as anything you’re like to find and the ‘his and hers’ shower-room, bigger than some students flats, had two giant shower heads so you could either share it with a friend or run between the two.
Of course, the beating heart of Northcote is the food and its dining room. Comfortable banquettes, crisp white tablecloths, original art and an enormous chandelier provide a fittingly dramatic stage.
Nigel and Lisa are old hands at TV, both triumphant in BBC’s Great British Menu, and Aled Williams is following in their footsteps as a very talented head chef. Their gourmet menu included native lobster, a delicate bread soup, Wester Ross ‘just cooked’ salmon, salt marsh lamb and another gorgeous dessert – orchard plum forest gateau. It would have sent the most curmudgeonly diner on his way with a smile.
I was particularly impressed by the serving team, running like clockwork but full of friendly Lancastrian chat and an unswerving ability to anticipate what you want almost before you know you want it.
Gilpin and Northcote, two forces in the north west hospitality industry, have united to create the very best of both worlds.
To go on the Autumn Gourmet Retreat, you can book from either hotel
Northcote, Northcote Road, Langho, Blackburn, BB6 8BE. 01254 240555. www.northcote.com
Gilpin Hotel and Lake House, Crook Rd, Windermere, LA23 3NE. 015394 88818. thegilpin.co.uk
The ones they did visit
You won't be surprised to hear that the hotels that did feature in Series one of The Trip have received high praise from us over the years.
Episode One - The Inn at Whitewell
The first episode saw the duo "forced" to share a room due to a fictional booking mix-up, it was clear to see that they both enjoyed the rest of their stay with the fine food and dramatic views on offer.
The highlight for us was their Lancashire Life Food and Drink Award Hotel of the Year Award for 2002 proudly displayed on the fireplace which they regained a decade later in 2012.
Episode Two - L'Enclume
This is the episode where the impressions really started to take hold of the two stars; from the car journey up to Cartmel and throughout the taster menu at L'Enclume.
We visited L'Enclume back in 2014 to see how foraging helped shape their unique menu and we named Simon Rogan our Chef of the year at our 2013 Food and Drink Awards.
Episode Three - Holbeck Ghyll
After a quick detour to Greta Hall, Former home of the Lake Poets, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and Robert Southey the companions headed up to Holbeck Ghyll in Windermere.
Holbeck Ghyll has been received many accolades in our Food Awards over the years. The chef may not be the same as the one who served up the meal for the show, but the standards remain as high as ever under the stewardship of Darren Comish.
Episode Four - Hipping Hall
The last stop before the tour headed over to Yorkshire, Hipping Hall is set in eye-wateringly beautiful surroundings and is a previous Lakeland Hotel of the Year winner.
While the hall is ancient the restaurant is modern with 3 AA Rosette dining and the taster menu is definitely a hit.