Thank-you massage

The view across Bowness
The view across Bowness
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Forget the unpredictable weather, Sebastian Oake relaxes on a spa break in the heart of the Lake District.

Stand and gaze across Windermere, England’s largest lake, from Bowness and you’re soon entranced. Belle Isle, not far offshore, is cloaked in woodland, while small boats chug slowly by and wavelets lap the shore.

It’s hard not to think of Swallows and Amazons looking out from the Macdonald Old England Hotel and Spa. My partner Lynn and I also found our room much to our liking. The bed was enormous and comfortable – the most important test for anywhere you agree to stay for the night – and everything was well presented and spotlessly clean, from the writing desk to the espresso coffee machine. In the immaculate bathroom were big, white fluffy towels – the second most important test. It was tempting never to leave, but on a spa break, there’s so much to experience.

Our treatments were booked for at 4pm and before that there was the pool. I am amongst those feeble people who normally tiptoe into a swimming pool and recoil sharply when the water reaches belly button level but here the water was decidedly tropical.

Next to the pool were three doors labelled steam room, rock sauna and ice room. If you were short of time, it would be easy to decide which one to leave out, but we dutifully tried all three. Not counting the bedroom of a Dales cottage I used to live in, I’d never been in an ice room before. The room had an ice-making machine capable of producing enough material for a small snowball suitable for throwing. Lynn was not amused.

Then it was into the relaxation room upstairs to await our therapists. Lynn had opted for a facial treatment while I, like most men, couldn’t resist ticking the massage box. The therapists, Melody and Heather, arrived and we were soon putty in their hands. After an hour I was relaxed, soporific and very unwilling to get up.

My partner’s facial knew no bounds and drew on a veritable forest of plant extracts, including moringa seed, burdock, linseed, apricot, meadowsweet, papaya, pineapple and sea rocket.

Afterwards, we were shown round the gym, but after the mellow hour we had just experienced, hectic exercise seemed inappropriate, so we returned to our room, still in our white spa dressing gowns.

It was a good choice because there were two glasses of bubbly waiting with a ribbon-tied mini-box of chocolates.

Soon it was time for dinner in a room with a broad outlook onto the lake. I should say right now that I am a traditional diner; I like old-fashioned big helpings. Our dinner at the Old England prioritised inventiveness, taste and presentation over sheer bulk. It’s the way things are now and I suppose it’s better for our waistlines anyway. I eventually chose pan-fried monk fish with braised fennel and shallots in a white wine and cream sauce, while Lynn had beautifully tender lamb shank with a butter bean puree and parsnips.

The food is not cheap and nor is the wine, but what you do get is refinement and highly attentive staff. Every single member of the pan-European staff we spoke with was not only impeccably polite but friendly with it, taking time to ask about our day and sharing stories with us.

It had been a long day, so after dinner we retired early. Our room was perfectly quiet and we had an excellent night’s rest. Early morning brought with it something unusual for the Lake District – blue sky. We made plans to take in a walk before we returned home.

But first, breakfast. It turned out to be the undisputed highlight of the stay. I can truthfully say it was probably the best I have ever tucked into. A sumptuous cold buffet included cereals (among them three different granolas), fresh fruit (including green figs), sliced ham, Continental cheeses and meats, croissants and pastries, and bread so fresh and delicious you would eat the whole loaf if the people in the queue behind you would allow it. Neither of us felt the need to order a cooked breakfast. Instead, we asked for a second cafetière of coffee and lingered looking at the view until long after 10am, reluctant to take our leave.

After checking out, we wandered into the grandiose, polished lounge and sat for a while on a comfortable sofa between two grandfather clocks, the deep ticking and tocking adding to the sense of tranquility and timelessness.

Again we looked out onto the lake, the boats and the wooded island, all under a sky of scuttling clouds and sudden bursts of sunshine. Again we could have stayed all day.

And that is perhaps the third important test of a stay, after the size of the bed and the fluffiness of the towels: do you have an urge to hide behind the curtains and refuse to go home?

Getting there

Sebastian Oake was a guest at the Macdonald Old England Hotel and Spa on Church Street at Bowness-on-Windermere. A Luxury Spa Break there costs from £190 per person. Visit or call 0844 879 9144.

You can get to Windermere town by train and from there a bus runs to Bowness. Visit for details.

For information about lake cruises on Windermere, go to