Roving Report #3: Penrith

A few weeks ago I read this great review of the George and Dragon pub/inn in the Guardian. It’s situated in a little village in Cumbria, just outside Penrith. We’d been looking for somewhere to go to celebrate our 6 month wedding anniversary (any excuse!) so last weekend we booked ourselves in and had a little north lakes holiday.

The inn is on the doorstep of the Lowther estate (belonging to the Earls of Lonsdale – the name behind the  boxing brand). So after having decided that we would explore Penrith on the Sunday before getting the train back (which turned out to be a major mistake, more on that later) we arrived at the George and Dragon at about 11am, and after a warming pot of tea in front of a log-stove, we left our stuff at reception and set off to explore the estate. The sky was a pale shade of grey for most of the afternoon. It was also very cold, and had snowed just that morning.

The ‘main attraction’ is Lowther Castle, or rather its remains. It was built in the early 19th century. The architect was Robert Smirke, who later built the British Museum. The 5th Earl, known as the ‘Yellow Earl’ for his love of the colour, liked the high life and squandered the family’s fortunes. This led after his death to the sale of most of the castle’s contents and architectural fittings, and eventually the removal of its roof.  It was used to test a secret tank weapon during the Second World War, and after that was totally abandoned.

Gaudiness aside it was quite sad to see a building in such a state. A project is now underway to open up the remains of the castle and its 120 acres of gardens – the first phase opens this April. For now however we had to make do with the church, parkland, and entrances to secret gardens, Frances Hodgson Burnett style.

 

This is the entrance to Lowther Village. The village was demolished and moved several times to make room for the castle, and then to improve the view from the castle. It currently stands a good 20 mins walk away. It was apparently built to the designs of Robert Adam.

 

On the way back to the George and Dragon we came across Clifton Hall, a 15th century manor house, of which only the tower remains. Amazingly, you can go inside.

Back at the George and Dragon, we extricated ourselves from our muddy boots and waited with anticipation and empty bellies for our dinner reservation, and waited we did… We booked a table, because both the website and the woman I emailed to book the room said we should do so to avoid disappointment. We booked for 8pm. We arrived at the restaurant promptly at 8 to be told that they were ‘running a bit behind, and would we mind waiting in the bar for 10-15 minutes’. This seemed reasonable enough. So we went to the bar and pulled up two stools in the ‘Grumpy Men’s Corner’, so-called for the locals who usually sit there, and got chatting to a lovely local man about the Lowther Estate and game-shooting! And we waited, and waited, and waited. We were given menus and asked for our order, while still sitting and waiting at the bar! When the waitress took our order, two of the specials we wanted were already gone and quite a few of the normal menu dishes were as well. We decided that we would wait to order a bottle of wine until at the table but eventually, after 30 mins or so, we gave in and ordered a couple of glasses of Prosecco to cheer ourselves up. The bar woman checked whether anyone was ‘taking care of us’. I explained we were waiting for our table. Her reply? ‘Well, they are very busy this evening, over 150 people through the doors’. Well, excuse me, but that is not my problem! You told me to book, you knew I was coming! While we were sat there waiting (have I mentioned we were waiting?), yet more people arrived, were sat at tables in the bar, and were allowed to order food and eat it. I figure we were sitting ducks. As guests at the hotel, and with very few other eateries around, it wasn’t as if we were about to go somewhere else for dinner. And they knew it.

Eventually, at 9.10pm, a whole hour and 10 mins after our reservation, we were taken through to our table.  Surprise, surprise there were plenty of empty tables. The food was OK, but it soon became clear that it was totally over-priced for what it was. Our starters (the double-baked cheese soufflé, and the pigeon breast and roasted black pudding salad) were admittedly fabulous. But the mains were mediocre. The rabbit tagliatelle was pretty tasteless, and the sea bass though well cooked (it really tasted fishy and wasn’t soaked in olive oil like it often is) was sat above a dollop of quite plain mashed potato with a few green beans and broccoli. You might say it was honest food, dishonestly priced. Dessert was little better.  My panna cotta with rhubarb was yummy if a little on the small side, but Florian’s cheeseboard was hilarious. It was supposed to include 4 different types of cheese, except two of them were the exact same cheddar (we did a blind taste trial to test our theory). When we brought this to the waitress’ attention, her reaction was ‘Oh, how funny. Did they come in the same shape?’!!!!! There was no apology, or ‘I’ll see what I can do for you’, just a shrug of the shoulders and an ‘Oh well’ before she turned her back and promptly left! By now it was approaching 10.30pm, the last few guests were leaving, and the tables all around us were being cleaned. Feeling rushed, we finished up and took what was left of our wine through to the bar. An extremely disappointing dining experience all round.

I think this place has become a victim of its own success. This is a shame because the staff were on the whole very friendly, the breakfast (which was included), was large, filling and very tasty, and the room was wonderful (warm and cosy, with an extremely comfy bed and excellent shower).

The next day we toured Penrith, and learnt three important lessons:

1. Always check the opening times of attractions, such as the Penrith Museum, properly.

2. Always buy anytime return tickets, as that way, when it’s bitterly cold, there are no attractions open, and your other half begins to feel ill, you won’t have to contemplate finding nothing to do for 4 hours, and can in fact escape on the next available train without having to pay over £70 for new tickets.

3. Penrith isn’t very interesting.

The last point is probably a bit unfair. We didn’t walk up to the Beacon (built in 1719 to commemorate where beacons would have once been lit in the reign of Henry VIII), for example. It’s supposed to be a good walk with excellent views over the valley and the Lake District hills, but it was bitterly cold and we doubted there would be any views to speak of amidst the cloud and rain. My feeling is that Penrith looks better on a weekday or a Saturday in summer. Here’s what we did see:

Penrith Castle began life as a Pele tower (small stone buildings unique to these parts, originally built as defensive structures by the people of Cumberland and Westmorland against Scottish invasion in the reign of Edward I). It was added to at the very end of the twelfth century and was later home to Richard III before he was made king.

 

As I said, there wasn’t much going on about town. We were still too stuffed from breakfast to take up our taxi driver’s recommendation of a roast in one of the local pubs, so we instead had a light lunch in the lovely, very modern and arty-looking, and I suspect very unusual for Penrith, No. 15 Café Bar and Gallery. No pics but you can find some here.

 

The ‘Giant’s Grave’ in St Andrew’s Graveyard. Tradition has it that it is the grave of Owen Caesarius, King of Cumbria from 920 to 937 AD. The four hogback stones surrounding the grave are said to represent the wild boar he killed in the nearby Inglewood Forest. The two norse crosses are apparently c.11 feet high.

And that was our weekend in Penrith.

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