Fifteen years have elapsed since I last drove along Ullswater to Sharrow Bay Hotel in the Lake District but little seemed to have changed. More children were rollerblading, more adults windsurfing and farmers had obviously given over more fields to campsites and caravans rather than livestock. But the light on the water was as beguiling as ever, the distant fells equally alluring.
Inside the hotel itself nothing seems to have altered at all. The mirrors, pictures and ornaments are as highly polished as ever; the walls as cluttered with knickknacks; the couches and cushions, whether in the original lounges or the new conservatory, are magnificently comfortable and the staff courteous and efficient. Even the hotel's time-honoured tradition of laying out all the desserts on the way into the diningroom in the evening carries on.
But behind all this seemless continuity lies continuous innovation. Francis Coulson, who opened Sharrow Bay in 1949, and his partner Brian Sack planned their succession immaculately, grooming and then handing over the business to Nigel Lightburn, who joined the hotel in 1973. Judging by Lightburn's easygoing but professional manner with his guests and a not insubstantial girth, which shows an obvious passion for food and wine, the hotel is in safe hands for many years to come.
Lightburn has stamped his imprimatur on the hotel in two distinct ways, via the wine list and the menu pricing, both of which offer incredibly good value.
The wine list, Lightburn is the first to admit, is the creation of sommelier James Payne who was Champagne Ruinart's UK Sommelier of the year in 2001. In design, layout and ease of use it is an absolute model of clarity but its contents are, for the wine lover, even more exciting. There are wines from the classic regions of course but the bulk of the list is highly sought-after gems from Australia, California, Italy, Spain and Argentina at very fair prices. Sharrow's English heritage is not forgotten in an unusual English red, Wyken 1996 £20 and a magnum of the country's best sparkler, Nyetimber 1994, £75. For those who have to renegotiate the Lake's narrow byways there is as catholic a range of wines by the glass as in any first-class wine bar and seemingly far more generously poured.
This generosity extends to the menu pricing, £36.25 for five courses including a fixed fish course, in our case a plump fillet of halibut on al dente risotto and a fruit sorbet, a dish that did betray the kitchen's pedigree. But Lightburn is only too aware of how important the concept of value-for-money is in the north-west. He commented, 'I try to keep our prices as reasonable as possible because I want my customers to come back as often as they can.'
It is much more difficult for the kitchen, in which Johnny Martin and Colin Akrigg have been cooking for the past 34 and 32 years respectively, to make such seamless transitions to modernity and it would be little short of criminal if Lightburn were to allow it. After all, Sharrow has been hugely responsible for the renaissance of British cooking since the 1950s.
But by sticking so resolutely to tradition the menu does come as a shock, listing as it does one main ingredient followed by at least half-a-dozen extras. A breast of Lunesdale duckling, for example, comes marinated in honey, soy sauce and orange juice with a boudin of duck and mixed spices and Grand Marnier and Kummel sauce, but somehow manages to taste much better than it has any right to. And the gravy with the beef is, naturally, made from nothing other than the Goodness of the Beef!
As so often in the north of England the cooking becomes more and more assured as the meal progresses towards the dessert course. Two first courses, a ravioli of lobster, scallops and truffles and a roast quail on an oxtail crépinette, were both underseasoned but a fillet of English lamb on a slice of a braised shoulder of lamb was first-class as was an escalope of salmon with braised leeks and a champagne sauce.
Despite the fact that I had spotted a set of weighing scales in the gent's lavatory, I had the famous icky sticky toffee pudding, which came with over a pint of double cream in a separate china jug. It was, unquestionably, the best I have ever, ever eaten.
All this, with a glass of champagne, four glasses of wine and soft drinks came to £183 for four. There was no attempt to sell any expensive mineral water, as unlimited iced tap water was available, and this total included service. Also included, as we were given a table by the window in the diningroom overlooking the lake, was a view of Nature that cannot be bettered by any other British restaurant.
And the best news is that, with the appropriate planning permission, Lightburn intends to increase the accessibility of this view to the whole of the diningroom by the beginning of next summer, a move that will also allow a long overdue redesign of the kitchen.
With the addition of an espresso machine, to compensate for the uncharacteristically thin filter coffee, Sharrow Bay looks set fair for another pleasure-seeking generation.
Sharrow Bay, Lake Ullswater, Cumbria CA10 2LZ (tel 01768 486301, web www.sharrow-bay.com)
Room rate from £150 per night which includes dinner and English breakfast.
Over 500 items of memorabilia and decorative furniture collected by Coulson and Sack will be auctioned by Thomson Roddick and Medcalf in Carlisle on 9 July (tel 01228 528939).