This is a very British affair; homely, historical, quirky, understated, a little awkward with a faint but pervasive air of decline.

Another TravelZoo voucher propels me hungrily on a splendid food journey at Lovelady Shield Country House Hotel, in a slightly forgotten tract of the North Pennines.

En route to Lovelady Shield

Sandwiched in the northern-most reaches of England between Penrith on the M6 in the west and Durham on the A1 in the east, is a sizeable lump of mostly deserted and often featureless farmland and moors, designated the North Pennines area of outstanding natural beauty, or AONB. Driving across this lump is a voyage back in time as well as along the road less travelled. Just as with the Peak District, it is more common to take the major trunk roads that run parallel on either side of these vertebral outcrops, then cut across to one’s final destination.

Choosing whether to head north on the M6 or the A1 was eased by the existence of a modern day wonder, perhaps the eighth wonder of the world; a motorway service station called Westmorland not long after J38 on the M6 that is both beautifully located and offers good locally-sourced food at sensible prices. The same splendour awaits people moving south on the opposite carriageway, although these services are called Tebay. This was my first visit to Westmorland, but it will not be the last. I’d go back just for an emotional reacquaintance with the lamb pie.

The services at Lancaster a few miles to the south provide the juxtaposed context for this wonder – they, in stark contrast, loom menacingly over the weary traveller like a monolithic ocean liner inexplicably beached on a hillside, desperate to spill its crude through needle holes in its rusty hull intravenously into your bloodstream. Unfathomably expensive slow fast food seeps mournfully by osmosis onto chipped off-white plates and ageing plastic trays through its sweaty concrete cancer walls. Industrial urinals bubble with the sickly smell of truckers’ piss, yellow bricks and broken promises.

Bright dancing lights and silly electronic noises attempt to polish the turd by suggesting you came here to mindlessly feed pound coins into a fruit machine. It’s the only fruit in sight. And then as you pull away, death veil slowly lifting from your face, wondering if you’ll ever be the same human being as the one who arrived an hour earlier, you are charged £1.45 per litre for the privilege of refuelling without having to leave the motorway. That’s why they have bins at the pumps – it’s for you to vomit in.

If you’re wondering why I included the Lancaster link above, please take a minute to read the Visitor Feedback section, with its tales of hairy burgers and so on. You’ll understand.

But I digress. I call the North Pennines AONB a ‘lump’ because its inclines are much gentler and its peaks less impressive than the big boys sitting just to the west in the Lake District. If the Lakes are the jewel in Cumbria’s crown, the North Pennines might be the beaten metal in which the jewel is seated. Rising up to the Hartside Café at one such summit on the A686, having first traversed the great sprawling fertile plain of the Eden valley from Penrith, it is possible even on a not-so-clear April day to gaze upon Wordsworth’s treasured mountains, about which he said:

…in the combinations which they make, towering above each other, or lifting themselves in ridges like the waves of a tumultuous sea, and in the beauty and variety of their surfaces and colours, they are surpassed by none.

 

Perhaps the proximity of these towering ridges and their obvious tourist lure goes some way to explaining the scarcity of travellers along the North Pennines’ winding B-roads. This countryside has less a feel of those picture postcard landscapes and towns, more a hard-working rural sensibility amidst bleak moorland hilltops and dells in which farming and economic survival are still very much the bread and butter of the region’s life.

The nearest ‘attraction’ is no doubt Hadrian’s Wall just further north and the towns like Hexham that built up around its impressive forts. The wall was marginally more successful than Trump’s, in that it was actually built. It apparently diminished incursions from the barbarians of the north as much as Trump’s would keep out the Mexicans, i.e. not at all. The 6-year task of building a 74-mile defensive barrier was probably the result of a huge misunderstanding. Emperor Hadrian probably just meant it as a metaphor, a Roman alternative artefact.

But this trip was not a sightseeing tour, although the region is certainly charming in its own way, especially if solitude is high on your agenda. No, it was principally and securely about food. This was my second outing to Lovelady Shield Country House Hotel near Alston, the retracing of my steps most certainly the result of the excellent 2AA rosette 7-course tasting menu last time out in August. Was it a fluke? Can those high standards be a consistent feature of a visit here? Call me predictable, but I resolved to find out through indulgent repetition.

Old Grumps

We are met by Grumps himself, a tag Peter Haynes (the proprietor) semi-jokingly tolerates due to the idea that his grumpy ghost in the shell on various websites, particularly TripAdvisor, could be held with some affection. The ghost may on first impressions not be a million miles from the shell.

We’re not talking Basil Fawlty here, but there is a certain air about Peter in person too; like things could be better, like expectations were not quite matched somewhere along the line, like he was meant for more than this. Personally, I warmed to him. I don’t do gushing, and I appreciate it when my host doesn’t either.

It’s not that his welcome wasn’t friendly; it was understated, maybe a little cool, very British. This is a somewhat dry gentleman, with an arid humour bubbling underneath his black besuited, rather funereal frame. I feel like you could easily get on his wrong side, but I swear I liked the man. Talk wine with him in the language of grape varieties rather than regions or terroirs or New World versus Old World and he almost shows you his belly. Peter’s ok with me.

As we check in, we notice that the bookings for the weekend are without exception made through TravelZoo. Maybe that’s the rub. It must be hard to make a profit when the only source of visitors is a third-party website with a half-price deal and commission to boot. It’s becoming a common problem for establishments in the more undiscovered parts of the country without the benefit of footfall. I actually felt a little sorry for him on this count, despite being part of his problem.

The place

Lovelady Shield is a 19th century country house boasting 12 bedrooms ranging from ‘classic’ through ‘superior’ to ‘luxury’, with a 4-poster bed option in the latter category. Initial impressions are that of a slightly tired building, both inside and out. My superior room, for example, had large damp patches on the wall. The garden furniture and grounds could do with some attention, although to be fair, this is still kind of the off season. The dining room, if I’m being picky, seems to have arrived through a hot-tub time machine from the 1980s. Maybe that’s a little unfair – it is mostly in keeping with the other rooms, but perhaps a previous attempt to modernise it happened when ‘kooky traditional’ wasn’t de rigueur.

Having got the negatives out of the way, let’s focus on the positives. This place has bags of character, with an enjoyable quirkiness to it. The reception room, lounge and bar have a certain Georgian grandeur about them with darkwood panelling and ceiling cornices. Heavy draped curtains adorn the windows. The colour scheme is a regal sort of warm ochre with claret and blue flavour bombs. The two bedrooms I have seen were both airy, tastefully decorated and reasonably well-appointed, with comfortable beds and decent (if a little small) en-suite bathrooms.

The rooms and carpets are clean, which you might think of as a baseline, but a tired building gleans longevity from this simple fact so it is particularly welcome here. The view across the garden and further down the valley to the east is wonderful and there is a strong sense of seclusion, as if the valley and the stream that busies past the house is yours for the weekend. Birds chitter and chirp and flitter between the branches of the garden’s mature trees. At night, the stars shine brightly away from the urban heat islands of distant civilisation. If the clouds would bugger off, obviously.

I’ve cheated a bit with these external photographs: the last three are from a sunny day last August.

 

The main attraction

The food. Ah, the food. And the wine also; one of the great things about the 7-course tasting menu at Lovelady Shield is Peter’s insistence on supplying wine to complement each of the main courses. This adds a touch of refinement to an already accomplished offering. If you think about it, it makes perfect sense – why would you order a bottle of wine that was a great match for the main fifth course, but clashed with the earlier fish course or the soup? And for me, an appreciator of wine, but by no means an expert, this can truly break down both my culinary and winey ignorance barriers.

The dining experience here begins with a drink in the bar whilst we wait to be seated, surrounded by the other TravelZoo couples. There’s a slightly odd formality about the atmosphere, with most people adopting the hushed tones of a library for their intercourse. A little music wouldn’t go amiss in this situation. There’s a sense of strangers being thrown together, which can be a positive thing, but it can also be a little awkward in a place that has lost some of its sheen and bustle.

Having been here before, my travelling companion and I find it easy enough to spark conversation with other couples about the gourmet delights that await. Each couple is eventually shown to their dining seats one at a time, leaving an ever depleting community in the bar. The best seats are given up in the process, so the remaining contestants play musical chairs until their name is called. We are last to go through. Obviously.

The dining room is no more happening than the bar was, so the hush continues. It can accommodate 32 covers, and this evening it is roughly half full. One thing I really like is the table presentation; nothing pretentious, but clean white tablecloths and silver cutlery adorn the tables – lots of it too, which inevitably invigorates the sense of anticipation about what is to come.

Our hostess announces the courses before they are delivered. Helpfully, she also describes the wine, its origin and the reason for its selection. But these aren’t her words, they are Peter’s, and she apologises for her own lack of knowledge. She also apologises for a staffing crisis that currently afflicts the establishment. Fortunately, it is not the chef who has gone AWOL. But Peter has gone home at this point, which will become slightly problematic later.

 

The courses

Chef’s amuse

I am used to an ‘amuse bouche’ being a tiny portion of consommé or soup in a shot glass, so it is a very pleasant surprise to find a plate of smoked salmon on wholemeal toast with lemon-infused cream cheese and capers arrive at the table. I have to admit, by this point I was so hungry that I forgot to take a photograph (schoolboy error), but it was daintily presented and tasty. It did its job well, tittilating the palate and cleansing it of the bold Bordeaux I just drank to make way for incoming flavours.

Course 1: starter

The starter was a soufflé with subtle undertones of goat’s cheese, accompanied by some punchy cherry tomatoes, infused with truffle oil to give that nice robust, slightly garlicky resonance to the sweet fruits. Red onion marmalade and balsamic jelly were the perfect counterpoint for the delicate soufflé, and a micro herb salad with lemon dressing added a freshness and some texture. This was complemented delightfully by a bright, crisp, Venetian Pinot Grigio rosé, that would be with us through the following velouté course, assuming we could employ some restraint.

Course 2: velouté

This was a Jerusalem artichoke velouté, essentially a thick, creamy soup with artichoke crisps. The velouté possessed a nice body and its concentrated depth of flavour was impressive, especially bearing in mind that artichoke can be a slightly bland ingredient. The faintly bitter quality of this tuber was balanced beautifully by its creaminess and enriched by truffle oil, giving it a warming, almost spiced quality. I added a little seasoning, but that was a personal choice; it really didn’t need it. The crisps were cooked to perfection, adding a satisfying crunch. The accompanying bread, however, was a little lacking in flavour and ever so slightly chewy, but the dish benefitted from its presence all the same. Being a bread-maker myself, it did seem a tad frustrating.

Course 3: fish

 

In the style of a Masterchef voiceover, the chef has prepared seared scallops, cauliflower purée, hot apple fluid gel, toasted cashew nuts, beer battered cauliflower and cumin foam. This was another fabulous, beautifully balanced dish. Everything worked tremendously with everything else. The cumin was a definite presence, but certainly not overpowering. It would have been too much in a sauce, but concealed in the delicate foam, produced a goldilocks amount of savour alongside the sweet apple gel and the unctuous cauliflower purée. The scallops themselves were done just as I like them, seared simply in butter and cooked just beyond raw in the middle.

Unfortunately for the scallops, that’s not quite the end of the story for this course. You see the wine to accompany this course, no doubt painstakingly selected by Peter, was a 2014 Aligoté Chateau de Chantilly Burgundy. But the spiel before receiving it told of fairly new winemaking processes, whereby white wine could successfully be aged rather like red. Anyway, to cut a long story short, the vintage opened was a 2005, not 2014. Its nose and taste was somewhere around painfully dry, yet horribly weak sherry. It seemed that Peter’s aridity might extend into his wine collection.

I couldn’t drink it, and neither it seems could anyone else in the room. Collectively, un-Britishly, slightly timidly, we complained. The apologies were of course immediate and unequivocal. Peter was phoned for advice, and I believe old Grumps returned to the hotel afterwards although we didn’t see him. In the end, our devastated, almost traumatised hostess opened a 2015 vintage of the same wine. It was delicious, but by this point, we had all finished our fish course and it was an odd accompaniment to the following sorbet.

I tried to reassure the hostess that this wasn’t a big deal, and it really wasn’t, in fact it gave the evening a spark that precipitated a much better atmosphere in the room and conversations between couples rather than just within them. Some music was magically put on around this point too. Ironically, this ‘disaster’ was just what the evening needed.

Course 4: sorbet

 

The sorbet was a sorbet. In all the excitement, I forgot what fruit flavoured it (another schoolboy error) and the menu doesn’t retrospectively jog my memory. It was probably raspberry or cranberry. I just remember that it didn’t go with the wine, and more fool me for not downing the Burgundy before the sorbet appeared.

Course 5: main

 

The main course consisted of pan-roasted duck breast, fondant potato, glazed baby heritage carrots, carrot and anis purée, black pudding scotch egg, buttered kale and a red wine jus.

I have to say this dish was astonishing. The anis and carrot purée was inspired, a perfect foil for the scotch egg, which was a star in its own right – black pudding instead of sausage meat lifted it high in terms of sophistication and the dainty quail’s egg inside was cooked just right. The duck itself was awesome, pink, juicy, seasoned, succulent gorgeousness. I am a big duck fan [I don’t mean a fan of big ducks], and this was manna from heaven.

The carrots were possibly the best I’ve ever tasted, walking the fine line between al dente and too crunchy, densely packed rooty goodness. The Red wine jus added just a little sweet acidity. The kale was not overly buttery and had a hint of garlic that solidified its place in the mix. The fondant potato was also outstanding; crisp on the outside, fluffy butteryness inside.

More than these exquisite individual elements was the way their flavours, aromas and textures interacted and danced in harmony on the palate. It was clear to me that the chef understood what he was aiming at, and then knocked it out of the park.

The Bordeaux served with this course, a 2011 Chateu de Mallet, was a smooth mix of merlot and cabernet sauvignon grapes. It was frankly an excellent drinking wine on its own, but also augmented the duck yet further. It was delicious, its blackcurrant notes lingering to give a very pleasant aftertaste. It still hinted with some subtlety at the earthy trait of wines from the region, that slightly indefinable lift given by the antiquity of the terroir, but its smoothness counterpointed and overwhelmed this to leave a velvety sensation.

Course 6: cheeseboard

It would be a challenge for any plate of food to follow the previous course. But cheese was definitely the way to go, with a little Bordeaux still in the glass and the rich afterglow of the duck still bringing a smile to my face. The cheeseboard or slate offered up 4 cheeses from the Appleby Creamery, of which I know absolutely nothing, although Google kindly tells me it’s around 27 miles away in Westmorland, very near where I devoured my lamb pie at lunchtime.

The cheeses, if they were to be categorised by more famous regional counterparts, were a nutty Gruyère, a soft Brie, a mild creamy Wensleydale-ish blue, and a crumbly red vintage Cheddar. I can report that none of them let the side down, but perhaps the Gruyère stood out for me above the rest. That’s partially because it so ideally complemented the grape chutney with its lovely subtle cinnamon hints and the spectacular truffle honey, over which a titanic battle was fought for control of the spoon. The toast was nice, but in the absence of biscuits, I think two slices each would have been more suitable.

Course 7: dessert

 

The dessert was a playful Willy Wonka take on an old favourite – rhubarb and custard. It was extremely refreshing. The sorbet was a nice addition, seemingly a chef’s favourite. The little meringues gave a bit of crunch, although texturally, my companion felt the dish needed more crunch and less wobble. Flavour-wise, the rhubarb and custard did not disappoint, and this was a fitting end to a truly gourmet journey.

Summary

I would not be exaggerating if I said the tasting menu could be described as Michelin Star quality. The thought that went into each dish was matched by the journey through the meal, each course triumphantly taking on the baton at full speed from the previous. The quantity was just right too and in the end I felt sated but not overly full.

Put into the mix Peter’s excellent wine choices, and this was a real tour de force. It could be argued that front of house and service are the only barriers to the Michelin accolade. It’s not that it was lacking in enthusiasm, but there is a certain way of doing things at top restaurants that elevate a dining experience beyond the quality of the food. So, holistically, it falls just short in my opinion, but that mustn’t take away from the magnificent sense of enjoyment to be gleaned from an evening’s dining at Lovelady Shield.

As a footnote, I requested an Irish coffee following the meal and the waiter, after looking a little sheepish, disappeared and returned five minutes later with a cafetière, a jug of milk and a glass of Scotch on a tray. It was clear he had no clue what an Irish coffee was. Feeling somewhat embarrassed for him, I asked for some cream and a teaspoon to pour it onto, so that I could make my own. I was a little tiddly by this point, so it was taken with good humour, but that diminished the following morning when I saw the £8 bill for this drink.

And maybe that’s a relevant point here: the place is fine, but it lacks a certain polish.

Breakfast

Another day, another dining room adventure. It would be remiss of me to omit the Lovelady Shield breakfast from this story, especially since it is inclusive in the price for residents (normally £16). As previously mentioned in my review of the Barbon Inn, I am apparently unable to stay at a guest house or hotel without sampling the full English breakfast.

Here, you may take advantage of ‘refreshers’, including freshly squeezed orange juice, other fruit juices or banana smoothie; cereals or fruits with Greek yoghurt (like the Agen prunes shown below); a variety of coffees and teas; toast, muffins, crumpets, croissants or pains au chocolat; and then a variety of traditional breakfasts, of which the traditional North Pennine version of the full English is only one. My companion took the kedgeree, and the minuscule sample she offered me tasted divine.

The North Pennine breakfast consists of Cumberland line sausage, unsmoked back bacon, ‘award winning’ Bury black pudding with glazed (and slightly burned on this occasion) apple, fried bread and mushrooms, grilled tomato, baked beans and an egg cooked whichever way you fancy. It was a cut above average for this type of meal, although being picky, the fried bread was basically a crisped sponge full of oil, and I couldn’t finish it. Anyone who knows me is currently reeling on the floor.

 

Return journey

I’ve not said much about the region in which Lovelady Shield Country House Hotel sits. Unfortunately, this was just a flying visit. But on a rainy April morning driving southeast from the hotel towards Barnard Castle, the sparse splendour of the North Pennines becomes obvious, if you like that sort of thing. I imagine fell runners (those crazy mofos) would be in their element here. We also passed some spidermen, ardently propelling their bicycles up the slopes and waving their shiny backsides at us.

Descending on the east side of the lump, we stopped at High Force Falls and The Bowes Museum of art, antiques and curios. The falls are worth a look and a listen, if you can stomach paying for parking and the sanitised pram-friendly path for whose maintenance your parking ticket pays. I hope this image conveys some of the waterfall’s thunder.

The Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle is an intriguing collection of art, fabrics, antiquities, ceramics, photography and exhibits, all housed in a magnificent 19th Century building. It is home to the (apparently) famous silver swan, an objet de curiosité with internal clockwork mechanisms dating back to 1773. Mark Twain is said to have been delighted by it. I’ve attempted to capture its movements in the video below.

Ceramics, porcelain and even antiquities aren’t really my bag, but the painting and photography galleries are worth the entry price on their own. Of the paintings, I admired some of the works in the French, Italian and Spanish schools, with artists like Francisco José de Goya, François-Saint Bonvin, Joseph-Désiré Court and Echille-Etna Michallon particular favourites. A couple of Turners and a room full of religious works dating back as far as the 16th century are also worthy of attention.

Lovelady Shield: conclusion

Here’s the link again to the website: Lovelady Shield Country House Hotel where photos more professional than mine and information can be found. I’ve decided not to state the price I paid for my stay, mostly out of terminal TravelZoo guilt. With the voucher, the value was astonishing, embarrassing almost. I’d prefer to recommend that it’s a great visit even without a discount.

To sum up the place, I feel I need to reiterate its character. This is a very British affair; homely, historical, quirky, understated, a little awkward with a faint but pervasive air of decline. In a world of Nandos and KFC, Travelodge and Ibis, Lovelady Shield feels like a true escape from ugly modernism, whimsical nonsense, characterless urbanity and hypernormalised food and accommodation chains. It is delightful to my tired eyes and my voracious stomach in equal measure. I will definitely return, if old Grumps will have me.