The waiter sets a white ceramic plate in front of me and slightly adjusts the position so that the peeled cherry tomatoes and cucumber pearls look especially nice. He adds a drizzle of cracked pepper. Smiles. Then he picks up a little jug filled with a clear liquid resembling white wine and carefully drowns the tomatoes with the liquid. “Now, here you have…”, the waiter explains the content of the plate, but I manage to forget everything immediately. I don’t know what I am eating but it tastes delicious.
Usually I prefer to cook my meals and save some money. However, a dining experience where everything – taste, appearance, smell, and texture – is carefully considered is a real treat. Especially when the thorough planning extends to the surroundings as well. Such is the fine dining experience at an old Lake District country house called Askham Hall.
When my boyfriend and I arrive at Askham Hall, we are greeted by a smartly dressed lady. She takes us to the hall where a grand piano stands in one corner and fire consumes logs in a large, open fireplace. The light is dim, and the place carries a noble atmosphere. Indeed, this 13th-century country house has been grand enough to host Price Philip and the Queen herself, and the French Room has an original fireplace from Lowther Castle of which ruins are just up the road. The walls are decorated with assorted art pieces and pictures of Lowther family, who owns the house.
Askham Hall, like many other large county houses in Britain, is no longer just a private home. Most of the country homes that survived bankruptcy and destruction after World War I and II have had to come up with creative ways to pay the bills. That is why we can get a glimpse of the grand lifestyle.
Most of the British country houses were built in the 16thand 17thcentury for the gentry. However, the World Wars, which took lives of many heirs and workers, strict taxation that followed, and the rise of democracy that ended landowner’s power, caused many families to sell and demolish their oversized mansion. According to the Telegraph, more than 1,000 were destroyed in the 20thcentury. It is understandable: running a massive house is expensive. In a CNN article, Francis Fulford, who owns the Great Fulford mansion, estimates that it costs £20,000 a year to run the house which has no fixed staff!
Nowadays owners can seek exemption from inheritance tax if their country houses are kept open to the public. Askham Hall has a restaurant that uses the produce from their own – open to public – gardens and surrounding farms. They host weddings and offer accommodation in their stylish rooms. They have a garden café and a pub across the road as well.
However, the owners of old country houses are required to keep the houses in good shape. Since most of these houses are Grade I or II listed (protected from alterations without permission), their restoration work can be very expensive. When we are enjoying our main course – an amazing garden pea risotto – we overhear the waiter telling other guests how a wedding party has damaged one of their en-suite rooms. The repair will be costly. I wonder if it will be added to the wedding party’s bill…