FIRST, there is a flash of white a few metres away in the corner of my eye. Then, it moves into focus: a majestic barn owl glides over a crystal-clear tarn in broad daylight before settling into a nearby tree. Open-mouthed, we scamper up into a nearby bird hide and watch it take off once again over the water. It’s the first time I’ve seen an owl in the wild, rather than, as my companion wryly points out, ‘on somebody’s arm in a shopping centre’ – and it is magical.

We are the only ones watching the bird, apart from a disinterested pheasant on the water’s edge. We were also the only ones who saw two deer scamper through the woods half a mile back. In fact, we don’t see another soul for the whole of our walk. We are in the Lake District out-of-season and it is, in parts, delightfully deserted.

Of course, there is rain, sleet and frost. But this is usually the perfect excuse to flop down next to a pub fire with a glass of red wine and a book, whiling away the hours until the next meal.

It’s no secret that the food scene in the Lake District is now one of the best in the UK. But while the foodies often head straight to trendy Cartmel, there are now delights dotted all around the Lakes just waiting to be discovered.

One such place is the Wild Boar Inn, which lies on the main road between Kendal and Windermere. A sprawling rabbit-warren of buildings, some of which date back to the 17th century, the inn is now at the forefront of hipster eating.

Guests wandering through its atmospheric lounge – all exposed beam ceilings and pub paraphernalia - will see an incongruous modern glass door just to one side of a roaring fire. Push open the door and they’ll find themselves among the gleaming vats of the inn’s on-site microbrewery, where beers with names like Mad Pig Ale are created.

The Wild Boar Inn is also the first place in the Lakes to set up its own smokehouse, creating a huge variety of smoked foods which head chef Marc Sanders has used in abundance throughout his menu. Even the peanuts at the bar taste like they’ve been sat around a bonfire all night.

Guests can also learn how to smoke their own food by taking one of the hotel’s regular courses, which include guidance on how to repurpose old filing cabinets into mini smokehouses.

For dinner, we opted for the deli platter to start, which showed off the homemade smoked salmon – the best I’ve ever tasted – along with all sorts of other smoky delights. For the main course, I went for the smoked wild boar chop the inn is famed for, while my companion chose a wild boar sausage and mash. Both were excellent, as were the home-brewed ales we felt it rude not to sample.

The Inn offers four-star rooms, which were well appointed and each given a suitably porcine name, although the real selling point for a stay here is the 72 acres of private woodland which guests can explore, and where we happened upon the owl.

But you don’t need to be on private land to enjoy a walk away from the hustle-and-bustle of say, Bowness. Even on the touristy eastern edge of Windermere, we enjoyed a tranquil walk along the water’s edge, on a signposted route starting from a car park near the ever-so-posh Miller Howe hotel. We also popped in for tea-for-two, which was just about worth the £6.50 price tag, given the stellar views over the lake.

On the journey home, we stopped off in Kendal and soon found ourselves in a very welcoming cafe called Brew Brothers, decked out liberally in hessian sacks, wooden crates and Kilner jars. Not hungry in the slightest after a slap-up breakfast at the Wild Boar, we nevertheless got stuck into some of the six flavours of chai tea on offer, along with huge wedges of brownie and flapjack.

Kendal, of course, was one of the areas worst hit by Storm Desmond, the December floods which left many areas of Cumbria devastated and a key route between the north and south Lakes washed away by a landslide.

But by the time of our trip, nearly every business in Kendal was open and the town was bustling, even though around the river there were signs of major renovations under way in flood-hit buildings and sandbags still scattered around doorways.

Visitors are advised to check their routes before they travel – at the time of writing, the A591 at Thirlmere was still awaiting major repairs, meaning the 20-minute journey between Grasmere and Keswick could instead take up to two hours.

But the vast majority of the Lake District is open for business and keen to tempt back the tourists. Our trip to the south Lakes went without a hitch, and we’ll certainly be going back for a warm welcome in the colder months again.


Claire Wilde was a guest of the Wild Boar Inn, Crook Road, Windermere, Cumbria (0330 4042 928). Rooms start from £96 per night. In the restaurant, starters range from £3.75 to £8.50, while mains cost between £15 and £35.