Anthea Gerrie visits the Lake District to review The Forest Side Hotel in Grasmere.
Perpetuating a Lake District tradition of exquisitely decorated hotels dedicated to gourmet dining which has gradually diminished since its 70s heyday, The Forest Side is a thriving 21st century successor. Sitting close to the late Michael’s Nook, its closest neighbour of the last generation, the establishment named Best Country Hotel of 2022 by the Good Hotel Guide has once again made Grasmere, the liveliest and loveliest village in the Lakes, a fine as well as a popular casual dining destination.
This former Victorian hunting lodge may be a Gothic mansion perched on a lonely hillside, but there is nothing remotely gloomy about the 20 bedrooms, dining or sitting/sipping areas. Size may vary – Master bedrooms are clearly larger than those in the Cosy category, and there is Superb in between – but all rooms are designed for high-end comfort, harnessing luxurious wallpapers and textiles by Zoffany, carpets made with wool spun from hardy Herdwick sheep, and Harrison Spinks beds bespoke for the hotel.
Oak, where we slept, was every inch a Master suite, with huge picture windows overlooking woodlands and a bathroom with views of the front approach and greenhouses of the kitchen garden beyond. Shades of silver-grey were simultaneously glamorous and soothing, a sofa at the foot of the bed was perfect for taking tea or watching television, and a dramatic canopy gave the whole room a sense of occasion.
If the bedroom was sumptuous, the bathroom was a model of minimalistic elegance with its freestanding tub, spacious sink and a pair of matched abstract paintings adding interest not normally found in the ablutions area. The only lack of attention to detail was failing to provide an eye-level perch in the huge walk-in shower for the large containers of botanical shampoo and conditioner by Bramley and soap or body wash; it would hardly have compromised the clean design lines to instal a transparent glass corner shelf invisible when not in use. At least there were hangers on the back of the door, furnished with bathrobes and slippers.
The icing on the cake was the – er- cake of the day placed in rooms for every guest, on the day we visited a tiny individual treacle tart to enjoy with tea from a well-furnished tray. Given high-quality tea and coffee bags, it seemed strange that a hunt should be necessary to find a plug point for the kettle, whose very short lead meant the only solution was to boil up on the floor.
Forest Side Hotel’s own description of itself as a Restaurant with Rooms reflects that activities at The Forest Side are limited to wandering around a beautiful back garden with a delightful, fern-lined dingly dell at its nether limits, sipping an aperitif on the terrace or in the handsome indoor bar clad in bird-print wallpaper or building up an appetite with a brisk walk around the lake or stroll through Grasmere village, all within walking distance.
Dinner, courtesy of Michelin-starred head chef Paul Leonard, is the main event and comes for most as an eight-course feast with the option of just half the courses for a considerable saving. Actually, even the £85 menu described as “four-course” has one more dish than that as well as the copious, flower-bedecked amuse-bouches which precede a meal intended to represent Cumbria on a plate.
But although the shorter menu included, on the night we visited, the sublime nugget of North Sea cod poached with buttermilk and nasturtium as an intermediate main, we would have not tasted the other outstanding dish of the night, barbecued morsels of lobster fished off Hartlepool, of all places, nor the hand-dived scallop pointed up with pickled green strawberries which preceded the other seafood in the full £130 eight-courser.
Only the final main of new season Texel lamb seemed a tiny bit pedestrian after the innovative combinations of the earlier dishes, the richest of which combined tiny tastes of whipped bone marrow with caviar, the simplest a hero dish of beetroot cooked all day in its own juices.
The star of the show at Forest Side Hotel was the cheese trolley curated by Courtyard Dairy, which specialises in British fromagerie, and while it seems naughty to charge a £15 supplement on top of an already heftily priced set menu, the selection was spectacularly worth tasting. We finished with a refreshing cucumber and lemon verbena pre-dessert, after which strawberries with sweet Cicely and white chocolate seemed almost redundant.
Wine pairing flights are available at £75 for the four-course menu and £125 for the full eight. Each comprises the respective number of 75m tastes from a list which includes some unusual choices. We were served an orange wine, a sublime natural white from New Zealand and a red from Serbia alongside classic French vintages from Burgundy and Bordeaux, and an English dessert wine. There is a large selection of wines by the glass at £11 for a 125ml serving, while a smaller selection of “prestige” whites and reds starts at £18 and ascends to a jaw-dropping £35.
In fact, the enjoyment is about far more than food and wine at The Forest Side, for many starting outside on the terrace, where cocktails include a margarita infused with nasturtium from the kitchen garden as well as northern rhubarb syrup, one of many classics given a twist by the hotel’s homegrown produce. Even local gin has been infused with flowering currants and there is Cumbrian vodka on offer, while a wide choice of craft beers includes an excellent pilsner from the nearby Ulverston Brewery.
Dinner is served in a spare but handsome room overlooking the garden which echoes nature itself in the bare, scrubbed wood tables and the individual rustic leather pouches packed with cutlery which are delivered to each diner to select from at will. A printed menu slotted into a handsome, take-home print of a lakeside scene by famous Grasmere 20th century artist William Heaton Cooper was an unexpected souvenir to be treasured, and service by extremely well-trained young staff who managed to combine professionalism with informality made the meal an experience to remember.
Breakfast is less formal, but no less good, featuring the best porridge tasted outside Ireland – proper coarse oatmeal cooked in water if preferred to milk, and served with a choice of whiskey and honey or fruit accompaniment. All the usual variations on eggs Benedict were available, made with superlative Hollandaise sauce, juices were freshly pressed and coffee was from the local Red Bank roastery.
A fellow guest we met in Grasmere next day was looking forward to her third night at the hotel, for which the tasting menu was being varied to avoid repetition; she and her husband had chosen The Forest Side as a gourmet replacement for another Lake District hostelry of the previous generation which had recently bitten the dust. Despite the high prices and cost of living crisis, The Forest Side is an act which looks likely to run and run.
Tell Me More About the Forest Side Hotel
The Forest Side Hotel Keswick Road Grasmere Cumbria LA22 9RN
T: 015394 35250
4 Course Dinner, Bed & Breakfast From £479 8 Course Dinner, Bed & Breakfast From £579