James Illingworth takes a weekend break near the shores of Coniston Water in the Lake District
Living in the North West as we do, there can be a tendency to take our proximity to the Lake District for granted.
I will readily hold my hands up to this. Having one of the world’s most iconic areas of natural beauty on our doorsteps may have been overlooked far too often for package holidays guaranteeing a suntan and not much else.
So what better way to get reacquainted with the Lakes than a weekend break, two-hours from the office, transported into a tranquil cottage surrounded by cliff faces and far-off peaks.
The drive through Coniston and up to the secluded Coppermines Cottages takes a windy route on roads it would be slightly perilous to negotiate in frosty weather.
The worst we had to deal with was dodging the odd sheep and as we parked up outside the row of Irish cottages we were treated to the wonderful sight of packs of the woolly creatures herded off the hills with the booming voice of the farmer, issuing instructions to his trusty sheepdog, echoing across the landscape.
The Coppermines cottage, located in what is described as an Irish Row, makes the most of what is a limited space.
There’s all the creature comforts to make your stay a comfortable one with a few blankets and a well stocked fire (with instructions) ensuring you won’t feel the chill when the sun goes down.
In a quirky but endearing way the compact design works and gives an authentic feel to your base for the perfect weekend away.
There’s even a well-stocked DVD collection and bookshelf if you want to close the curtains and switch off from the outside world for an hour or two.
The next morning we ventured down to Coniston Water for a ride on the steam yacht gondola. It’s hard not to feel a sense of nostalgia as it comes chugging along, smoke billowing from its funnel and stepping on-board is like stepping back in time to the Victorian era.
We perched ourselves on the outdoor seats to feel the winter breeze on our faces but with the huge engine behind our backs there was always a source of toasty warmth to counteract the cold.
You would be hard pushed to see the best of the stunning scenery around Coniston from anywhere else than on the water itself.
And for those who like to travel in style, there’s a hearty lunch basket available, lovingly prepared by the Bluebird Cafe at the Coniston Pier. The food provided in the package really is superb with delicious sandwiches, a savoury pastry and cream tea and scones all included, although it can be a bit much at 11am.
But don’t fear, the friendly staff on the boat told us cruise times may be tweaked from next season and in any case, there’s always the option to leave some of the goodies on the gondola and return to them later.
We disembarked for a stroll around Brantwood and the John Ruskin museum, once again stepping back in time for a touch of history.
The grounds of the house provide several scenic routes along the water’s edge and further afield with varying lengths.
And please do try to make time to pop into the the Jumping Jenny cafe. Both the indoor and outdoor seating areas provide stunning views over Coniston Water while you can take a time out to enjoy a brew and one of their delicious homemade cakes.
Having jumped back on the Gondola and chugged back to Coniston Pier it was now nearing late afternoon and a trip back to our cottage for a quick refuel before heading out for dinner.
Luckily for us our booking at the Sawrey House Hotel – a 10 minute drive or so from Coniston – was not too late in the evening and we were able to see the sun setting over Esthwaite Water from the dining room. The hotel has scooped up a host of awards in recent years so we had high hopes for the meal and Ashley Wood and his team certainly did not disappoint.
This is a chef well grounded enough in classical fine dining to put an effective contemporary slant on traditional favourites.
I’m one of those people who spends an age scrutinising the menu before making a choice and then spending the wait for the courses to come worrying if I’ve made the right choice.
And as a result I become almost instinctively nosey and try to inspect the dishes on the way out to the tables other than my own.
I was impressed to view plate after plate of delicious looking food, attractively presented with no hint of over-complication.
In particular the smoked haddock risotto starter with crispy hen’s egg was a superb blend of classic warming flavours improved with a flourish of modern technique.
And the expertly executed apple tart tatin received an enthusiastic double thumbs up from both my wife and I. Served with apple sorbet and caramel sauce, the caramelised tart was an absolute dream of a pudding.
With dinner polished off, it is worth noting the hotel’s comfortable bar area stocks a range of locally produced spirits, gin in particular, providing a suitable end to a busy Lake District day.
The next morning we waved goodbye to our cute little cottage and headed over to the scenic Tarn Hows, a pleasant 20-minute drive from Coniston.
Maintained by the National Trust, a stroll round the tranquil Tarn in the late morning sun is the perfect way to spend a lazy Sunday and great place to bring young children.
Our only grumble – definitely aimed at ourselves rather than the location – was that we really should have brought a picnic.
And so after our pleasant amble on the snaking paths around the water it was back to the car with thoughts turning to work the next day.
A little later as we hit the M6, our heads were nodding in agreement: “We really should make a habit of this.”