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Great British Boltholes: A review of The Black Bull in Cumbria

Great British Boltholes: Feng Shui meets the Fells at The Black Bull in Cumbria

  • The Black Bull is located in the market town of Sedbergh in Cumbria 
  • The 17th Century coaching inn has recently received a  £2.4million revamp
  • The 18 rooms have glass panels that divide sleeping areas and bathrooms 

Framed by the steep-rising slopes of the Howgill Fells, part of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, the Black Bull is tucked away on the narrow Main Street of the market town of Sedbergh. And what a delight this ‘new’ place to stay is.

I use quotation marks as the property is a 17th Century coaching inn, and until last September it had been closed for two-and-a-half years after being given up on by previous owners.

‘When we bought it there was a water feature in the staircase,’ jokes James Ratcliffe, who runs it with his partner Nina Matsunaga, who has Japanese ancestry and is the talented head chef.

The exterior of the Inn, which is located in the heart of the market town

He is referring to a great leak from the lovely stained-glass skylight depicting bulls at the top of the central staircase.

That’s been fixed, and the couple, who also run the Three Hares bakery and cafe in Sedbergh, have poured £2.4million into revamping the old property. In came wine-coloured leather banquettes, bonsai trees, cow-hide rugs, modern art, eye-catching pictures of the Howgills and a complete overhaul of its 18 rooms.

Oh yes, and then there’s the wabi-sabi. What is this, I ask? ‘The Japanese philosophy of slight imperfection,’ he replies, pointing to a section of old floor in the restaurant that looks like scruffy concrete and to slightly out-of-place original hall tiles. Locals and tourists alike, judging by the busy scenes on our Saturday stay, seem to love it.

The USP: Its unexpected Japanese streak, which makes it an exotic choice for walkers exploring the Howgills (maps are stocked in reception). Others may stay to browse in the dozen or so bookshops or wander the cobbled streets of this once-booming hub of the wool industry. Sedbergh is an official ‘book town’ and, like many rural communities, is building up its events portfolio – with Sedbergh Sheepfest (a two-day celebration of all things sheep) next weekend.

Asian aura: One of the 18 rooms, all of which have had a complete overhaul

Asian aura: One of the 18 rooms, all of which have had a complete overhaul

The rooms: The Far Eastern influence continues in the rooms where glass panels divide sleeping areas and bathrooms, which can be blocked for privacy by curtains. Charcoal-grey carpets, oatmeal curtains, pale-blue wood panels and little bedside reading lamps create a feeling of neat sophistication, with just the odd exposed beam or original wall adding some wabi-sabi.

The food: While there is a warming bar with log-burner, the dining room steps up the fare. Forget every- day pub grub, this is fine-dining. Nina’s touch is exquisite, and the menu is mouth-watering: woodland mushroom tortellini with truffles, lobster broth, partridge with celeriac and morel. My cod cheek with dahl and coriander is spicy and subtle, while the sage and chestnut pastry is mustardy and delicious, and the venison perfectly cooked. 

For pudding, go for the gorgeous chocolate with blood orange served on a sesame crisp. Three courses are from about £29. Next morning, guests are invited to ‘Breakfast like a king’ with eggs from the Black Bull’s own small flock of free-range chickens featuring highly on the menu.


The Black Bull Inn, Sedbergh, Cumbria. B&B doubles from £125. For more information visit


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