Sharrow Bay: A great hotel reborn

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Adapted from an original post by Adam Raphael

When it was announced in September 2020 that Sharrow Bay was to go into liquidation owing more than £2 million, it looked like the end of a long and woeful saga, so we were delighted to hear, in January 2024, of its acquisition by the Lowther family’s Ciel Hotels, owners of a long-time readers’ favourite, Askham Hall, near Penrith.

A programme of refurbishment is underway, and there are plans to relocate Askham Hall’s Michelin-starred restaurant, Allium, to Sharrow Bay, increasing capacity for diners — and so begins a new chapter for a cherished Lake District institution.

The original country house hotel, Sharrow Bay was a delight; it spawned many imitators. Paradoxically its closure came as good news for all those who treasure memories of their stays there on the banks of Ullswater, in the hotel’s heyday. But great hotels in glorious locations rarely die, and the fortunes of Sharrow Bay can be restored by its new owners. What, though, caused the downfall of this wonderful hotel, leaving suppliers and guests in the lurch? Covid-19? If only it had been that simple!

Sharrow Bay was opened in 1948 by Francis Coulson, who, with his partner, Brian Sack, created an informal place to stay where the food, comfort and welcome were outstanding. Francis was an inspired cook, Brian a charming, urbane host. There was no reception desk, the atmosphere was relaxed, there were elegant statues, objets d’art, and masses of books — the country house hotel was born. The Good Hotel Guide’s first edition in 1978 noted: ‘A highly civilised and distinguished hotel. Here you will not only be peaceful but pampered.’

Sharrow Bay prospered for more than half a century. Its many famous guests included David Cameron and Heston Blumenthal. Sir Paul McCartney famously proposed to Heather Mills while staying there. It invented the famous sticky toffee pudding. After the deaths of its founders, the hotel was sold in 2003 to the Von Essen Hotel Group, which proceeded to buy many of Britain’s finest country house hotels, including Cliveden and Chewton Glen. After a couple of years, the Guide, alerted by readers to poor service and failing standards, omitted all but one of the Von Essen-owned hotels. It was soon clear not just to the Guide, but to other industry observers, that this extraordinary buying spree would almost certainly end in tears. Eventually it did. In 2012 the Von Essen group collapsed with debts of nearly £300 million.

In the subsequent fire sale, Sharrow Bay was bought by a private equity company for £1.5 million. A year later, Von Essen founder Andrew Davis bought it back and claimed to have invested £1.2 million in improvements. The second liquidation of the hotel he blamed on Brexit, road repair works, and the pandemic. Clearly, none of this helped. But the real reason is that a good hotel is where the guest comes first. The new owners understand this. We wish them every success with such an exciting venture and look forward to hearing from readers when the hotel reopens.