IF SUCH a thing existed as an award for a retreat house in the best location, Rydal Hall in Cumbria would surely be in the running.
The 16th-century conference centre, hotel, and retreat house is located between Grasmere and Ambleside, a couple of miles from Lake Windemere, in the heart of the Lake District National Park, and boasts views of Fairfield Horseshoe — one of the Lake District’s most impressive fell walks — as well as Nab Scar in the Rothay Valley.
The hall has been owned by the diocese of Carlisle since 1963, but was once home to an aristocratic family who rented part of the estate to William Wordsworth. He lived there from 1813 until his death in 1850, inspired by the lakes and dramatic fells of England’s highest mountain region.
Today, the Lake District draws something in the region of 16 million visitors a year, but at Rydal you would never know it: sheep meander on its driveway, its quiet garden is indeed a place of peaceful reflection; the Grot by its waterfall (Britain’s first purpose-built viewing station, developed in 1668 and admired by Wordsworth) quietly enjoys its accolade; its formal gardens designed by the landscape architect Thomas Mawson are genteel, and its walking and sculpture trails peacefully deliver natural highs for visiting walkers and families (the estate’s birdwatching hides complete the sense of getaway-from-it-all adventure and relaxation).
“The Angel”, a sculpture by Shawn Williamson from a piece of limestone from York Minster, in Rydal Hall’s quiet garden
But Rydal offers sanctuary away from the busyness of life in other ways, too. It markets itself as offering Christian hospitality to all, and certainly offers accommodation accessible to most. As well as B&B, half-board or fully catered stays in the hall itself, the 30-acre estate accommodates two self-catering cottages, a “Bunkhouse” with dorm accommodation for group visits, and also a campsite open year-round (also with three wooden eco-pods). Alternatively, it’s possible to book to stay in a shepherd’s hut or a yurt on the estate, though both are operated by outside companies.
Rydal Hall is used to facilitating parish weekends, youth group stays, and a programme of retreats and quiet days — this year’s programme includes singing, painting, recorder, English country dancing, icon painting, and walking retreats, and one based on Celtic spirituality. It also hosts other privately arranged group holidays and retreats, and family celebrations. But its chapel is open daily to all guests, whether on retreat or using Rydal as a base for exploring the Lakes.
In the spirit of nourishing the soul, Rydal Hall’s estate also features a tea shop offering cups of tea and slices of homemade cake (as well as soup, sandwiches and other drinks, of course) to guests and walkers day in, day out bar Christmas Day.
Walkers stop off at The Old School Room Tea Shop at Rydal Hall
More guest house than corporate hotel, part of what makes Rydal feel genuinely homely and hospitable is that its staff seem to understand that hospitality is a way of expressing God’s loving care to those who stay. Diners also sit at shared tables to eat and chat, served by a resident community of workers, many Christian students on gap years, who are equally happy to chat in between their chores.
We sat next to Ronnie and Paula Toyne, from Cleethorpes, Lincolnshire, for one meal. Mr Toyne, 72, who didn’t consider himself “overly religious”, first stayed at Rydal Hall three years ago. He seemed bowled over by the warmth of the Christian hospitality that Rydal seeks to offer. “The hall itself and the people in it, if you were a millionaire you would not get anything better,” he said. “The quality of the food, the service, the kindness . . . fantastic.”
A stay at Rydal Hall costs £60 B&B, £79 HB; £95 FB pppn (discounts for children). Camping £11 pppn; £6 pppn children aged 3-16; Eco-pod from £37pn; Coach House Cottage (sleeps ten) from £125 pn or £805 per week; Stable Cottage (6 max.) from £495 per week; Bunkhouse (29 max. in four dorms) £315 pn.