It was a horrible high-pitched squeal that suddenly made us aware that something serious was happening close by. But little did we expect to see a juvenile stoat attempting to kill a large rabbit just yards from the RSPB Campfield Marsh building where we were eating our picnic lunches.
It was certainly one of nature's less attractive moments, but as we were on a four night 'Autumn Wildlife in the Lake District' holiday, then it became one of the major talking points with our fellow guests back at HF Holiday's lovely Derwent Bank Hotel during the evening.
Located on the banks of one of Cumbria's most attractive lakes and just over a mile from the town of Keswick in the pretty village of Portinscale, Derwent Bank is one of 18 UK hotels owned by the company which began life as Holiday Fellowship back in 1913.
Surrounded on all sides by mountains, Portinscale's village name has an odd twist for in old English it means 'Harlot's Hut' – Portcwene meaning 'harlot' and skálitranslated as 'hut' – so you can draw your own conclusion as to what went on there!
Britain's Lake District was granted UNESCO World Heritage status just six months ago which positions it with other ‘must see’ iconic outdoor destinations such as the Grand Canyon and Great Barrier Reef and I was delighted to be invited there for a four night stay by HF Holidays.
Following an easy four-and-a-half hour drive from Bedford, I was met by 28-year-old Russell Hedley, our wildlife expert and guide for the duration of the holiday. Now I've met several naturalists before, but Russell's knowledge really rubbed off on our group of ten – which included five retired teachers – his sheer enthusiasm seemingly taking everybody's interest in wildlife to a new level.
Sitting together in the hotel's lounge on the first evening, Russell explained that he intended taking us into coniferous forests and deciduous woodland and then to visit wetland habitats in the hope that we might see plenty of wildlife, although he added that the intended itinerary was always subject to change.
Our transport for the Monday to Friday holiday was a Mercedes minibus driven by Bolton-born Nathan Greenhalgh who, just weeks earlier, had been ferrying the cast and crew of the television drama The 'A' Word around its lakeland location.
"I had breakfast with Christopher Eccleston and Lee Ingleby one morning and they were delightful," he said. "However I wasn't allowed to say anything about the filming or the actual locations as it's all very hush hush."
Our first destination on the Tuesday morning was to Whinlatter Forest, the largest man-made plantation on a mountainside in Britain. It was established between the two World Wars in a bid to replace some of the timber used in the Great War.
We spent the morning searching for the elusive red squirrel and despite seeing plenty of signs – and a few colourful crossbills – our quarry remained hidden apart from seeing one on a live camera feed on television once we returned to the forest's visitor centre.
There were plenty of LBJs – Little Brown Jobs – which I failed to identify with my limited knowledge although we spent our lunchtime watching the bird feeders which attracted dozens of blue, coal and great tits, chaffinches and the occasional siskin plus Britain's smallest bird, the goldcrest.
After that we drove off to the other side of Keswick to visit the Great Wood and Frier's Crag before we walked into town alongside the lakeshore where we watched a huge murmuration of starlings, redwings chasing mistle thrushes from tree to tree, a pair of goosanders, a shy kingfisher and a whooper swan which was being hounded by a slightly larger male mute swan.
In total we walked around seven miles and also enjoyed a hot chocolate at the Keswick Theatre restaurant before returning to the hotel for a hot shower before dinner. En route we passed Keswick's quirky Pencil Museum while that evening we were treated to a talk by Keswick Museum's curator who bought along a huge selection of strange objects for us to try and identity and to guess their age and useage.
The following morning we set out for the Woodlands Trust-owned Powter How where Russell pointed out dozens of different fungi and numerous plants but again the squirrels stayed hidden.
Then it was off to lakeland's most northerly mass of water, the four mile long Bassenthwaite Lake in the shadow of the mountains of Blencathra at 868 metres and Skiddow at 931 metres, the latter being the sixth highest peak in England.
It's only found in Bassenthwaite and Derwentwater, but the vendace is one of the world's rarest fish, having been trapped there after the Ice Age. However as the lake has otters and cormorants on its shores, it could well be even rarer – or even extinct – as their quest for food wouldn't distinguish the vendace from any other fish!
Sadly there were no waders but just a few tufted ducks on show so we headed off to the more impressive seven hectare Dubwatch Silver Meadow wetland nature reserve where we first spotted a peregrine falcon while several snipe rose from the boggy landscape to zig-zag away into the distance.
Given that barn owls are common there, we popped into the nearby Pheasant pub to sample their mulled wine before returning to the meadow as dusk began to fall only to find a couple of owl pellets which were carefully dissected by Russell and the group back at the hotel. It revealed that the owl had eaten three individual field voles plus a tiny shrew in the last 24 hours.
Our final full day saw a change of plan, for instead of visiting the re-wilding projects at Ennerdale, Russell arranged for us to travel north to the Solway Firth where the sun shone all day from a cloudless blue sky and gave us excellent views across the water to Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland.
It was also easily our most successful day of wildlife watching as we saw more than 30 bird species, from various waders on the shoreline like dunlin and redshank to numerous winter visitors like fieldfares and whopper swans. And then there was that stoat which managed to disable the unfortunate rabbit only to run away into a nearby barn every time it let out that high-pitched squeal.
But the little stoat returned at least a dozen times before finally ending the poor bunnies misery with a savage bite to the back of the neck. It then proceeded to try and push the rabbit into the barn only to discover that it was much easier to pull it. It took it at least 20 minutes but it was a lessen learned and it also reminded us that nature itself can be so very cruel.
Walking out onto the boggy Campfield Marsh reserve on a raised walkway, we spotted three roe deer while our hopes of seeing that elusive red squirrel quickly evaporated. However we were treated to watching a large flock of pink-footed geese and four whooper swans fly in to roost for the night.
Over the three days we had spotted and enjoyed seeing 113 different species of birds, plants and fungi, all carefully logged by Russell who present a list to us at our final evening get-together. Oh! and one thing I had never heard of before was that by reversing your binoculars and looking through the 'wrong' end, they become microscope-like when viewing plants or leaves from close quarters.
DERWENT BANK HOTEL
Located on the shore of Derwentwater in the quaint Cumbrian village of Portinscale close to the town of Keswick, the four-star Derwent Bank Hotel has been owned by HF Holidays since 1937 although it actually dates back to 1788 when it was constructed as Finkel Street House by Joseph Pocklington (1736-1817).
However the house has been sold to various owners since then and has undergone some major changes in appearance, its three-storey original having been deemed 'very ugly' by all who saw it, its owner being branded 'A Man With No Taste' by the locals.
Various wings and extensions have been added and major improvements made by its later owners down the years. But the biggest changes came in the early 1900s when wealthy widow Emily Haigh Edmondson (1862-1936) had several walls removed, opening up some of the rooms while adding a number a dated features like the huge wooden fireplace which stands proudly from floor to ceiling in the current dining room.
However once Holiday Fellowship purchased it together with its 20 plus acres of woodland garden in 1937, they began adding bathrooms, toilets and extending upwards above the current bar/cafe area, bringing the number of bedrooms to 38 – 23 being twins and 15 singles.
Having undergone a total refurbishment just last year, Derwent Bank has everything you need for an outdoor-style holiday, especially with that separate boot room to help with the drying of the wet clothing and footwear, the entire lakes region likely to suddenly change from bright sunshine to a torrential downpour at the drop of a hat.
There are no particular frills inside the building itself which has a large comfortable lounge, a conservatory and bar while its bedrooms are nicely finished. Our premier room (No15) looked out across the lake with its wooden jetty while other rooms faced the extensive flower and vegetable gardens and the hotel's own bee hives.
All the room are nicely furnished and provide plenty of storage while there is the usual television, tea and coffee making facilities and free Wi-Fi while the beds themselves are particularly comfortable.
Derwent Bank currently has 13 staff members under the guidance of its Spanish manager Mariano Marcos-Granados who has been with HF Holidays for a total of 21 years and has headed up the Portinscale operation for more than a decade.
"I've really enjoyed my time here," he told me. "We've got a great staff and we really try and give our guests an enjoyable experience. They are really loyal to the HF Holidays brand and many return year after year and have become good friends.
"Our head chef João is Portuguese and he looks to use as much local produce as possible. In fact last night's six-course dinner was pretty much all local produce, even the tapas starter of Serrano ham, chorizo and salami were made here," he added.
While local dishes often include Cumbrian Herdwick lamb, English Lakes ice cream together with numerous Cumbrian cheeses, everything else is supplied by local butchers and grocers. Drinks too are brewed and distilled locally with speciality gin now becoming a firm favourite.
However it was the breakfasts that I particularly loved. A bowl of freshly-made yoghurt with honey and granola plus a fruit juice to start with and then a truly memorable Full English – black pudding, bacon, sausage and hash browns, tomato, beans, fried bread and plenty of mushrooms. While there were plenty of other choices all cooked to order, the former certainly set me up for a day of healthy walking and bird watching in the crisp lakeland air!
There's a choice of lunchtime picnic sandwiches – which you pre-order the night before – while you can then load up your lunch bag with fruit, crisps, pies and healthy snacks before setting off for the day.
It's the same at dinner, for you are able to choose the following evening's three-course meal just after you've eaten the current one and before you meet up with fellow guests in the conservatory for coffee afterwards.
One word of warning… on arrival day we happily tucked into warm scones, jam and cream at 4pm but then struggled through dinner a mere three hours later. Just saying!
Travel writer Alan Wooding and photographer Alan Stafford was guests of HF Holidays – www.hfholidays.co.uk – on their four night 'Autumn Wildlife in the Lake District' holiday staying at the Derwent Bank Hotel on the shores of Derwentwater in the village of Portinscale. The hotel is open year round and caters for all outdoor activities, both guided and self-guided walks plus cycling.
Wildlife expert Russell Hedley has worked with HF Holidays for five years and is managing director of Talks & Walks Guided Nature Tours – www.naturetalksandwalks.co.uk, tel: 07505 149582, email firstname.lastname@example.org
Many thanks to Alison Barr and all at Gough Bailey Wright – www.gough.co.uk tel: 01527 579555 – of St John's House, 16 Church Street, Bromsgrove, B61 8DN for arranging the holiday.
All HF Holiday country houses welcome self-guided walkers, so you can enjoy the same diverse array of scenery, culture, history and wildlife as the rest of the guests, but with the freedom to explore wherever and whenever you choose. Each of the houses has a Discovery Point packed with a selection of local walks for you to explore. All you need to do is decide how far you feel like walking that day, pick your route card off the wall, lace up your boots and head off.
HF Holidays is actually owned by its members. Standard membership can be brought for a minimum investment of £100 (100 £1 shares) while Investment Membership means an minimum outlay of £1,000 (1,000 £1 shares) – details at www.hfholidays.co.uk/membership or call 020 8732 1290. Membership itself means various rewards, discounts and advanced booking privileges.
With over 100 years' expertise in creating unique breaks, HF Holidays have devised special courses with experts for Photography, Arts & Crafts, Music, Theatre and Festivals, Dancing, Natural World, Mind & Body, Bridge and Touring. And while the majority of these activities take place in Great Britain, there is the opportunity to travel to all parts of the globe by checking out the website at www.hfholidays.co.uk
The 18 HF County Houses inn the UK are:
Chy Morval, St Ives, Cornwall;
Harrington House, Bourton-on-the Water, Cotswolds;
The Pevril of the Peak, Doverdale, Derbyshire;
Freshwater Bay House, Isle of Wight;
Derwent Bank, Portinscale, Cumbria;
Monk Coniston, Coninstonwater, Cumbria;
Longwynd House, Church Stretton, Shropshire;
Abingworth Hall, Abingworth, Sussex;
Craflwyn Hall, Snowdon, Wales;
Dolserau Hall, Dolgellau, Wales;
Alltshellach, Glen Coe, Scotland;
Larpool Hall, Whitby, Yorkshire;
West Lulworth House, Luworth Cove, Dorset;
Holnicote Gouse, Selworthy, Devon;
Nether Grange, Alnmoutrh, Northumberland;
Nythfa House, Brecon, Wales;
Newfield Hall, Malhamdale, Yorkshire Dales;
Thorns Hall, Sedbergh, Yorkshire Dales.