With a talented chef, garden produce grown just four miles away and an ethos of high welfare and quality, a border inn is already winning accolades – and it has clear ambitions for more

Perfectly pickled ribbons of carrot, a squeeze of lovage mayonnaise, the punch of chargrilled broccoli. Vegetables offer endless possibilities to a chef who appreciates how to play to their strengths, in this case Chris Archer at Pentonbridge Inn.

The 33-year-old has been in post since the former coaching inn, 15 miles from Carlisle, was transformed into a restaurant with rooms with a target to become one of the top places to eat in Cumbria.

Chris is a man on a mission – a Michelin star mission – and he certainly has the pedigree to know how to achieve it having started his career in a two-star establishment when he was still at school.

He is working towards making Pentonbridge the place where he finally earns the prestigious accolade for himself, his team and the inn’s owners.

The story of the recently transformed Pentonbridge Inn begins four miles away at Netherby Hall.

The 17th Century, grade II* listed mansion was bought in 2014 by retired investment banker Gerald Smith and his wife Margo, a music teacher and keen horse and carriage driver.

Based in Edinburgh, the couple acquired the estate with a view to making it a private residence and plans to develop it, in particular the neglected stable block and walled garden that was overgrown and in a state of disrepair.

Operations director of the estate Alasdair Knight explains: “Gerald has always said he feels let down and disappointed by the fact that when you go to National Trust and other properties the stables are always the tearoom or the gift shop. He likes renovated buildings to be returned to their original function and he wanted the Netherby stables to be stables.”

This is a major understatement. Netherby’s newly renovated stables are equine residences of the highest quality for up to 14 horses who will move in soon, along with a groomsman.

Other buildings within the stable yard, including the clock tower and coach house, have been transformed into self-catering holiday lets.

Given its border location, the self-catering apartments and the inn are expected to draw from Cumbria, Scotland, the North East and North Yorkshire, offering a true rural escape for minimum three-night stays.

Each apartment offers one or two-bedroom en suite accommodation with a sitting room and kitchen, all fitted out stylishly in oak and other natural materials selected by Margo.

Local tradesmen and suppliers were drafted in, including Latimer’s of Langholm who supplied the beds, bedside units and lamps.

No expense has been spared throughout the renovation.

Part of the hall has been retained as private quarters for Gerald and Margo, but the rest is available for corporate events.

The oak hall hosts afternoon tea and other visitor events, such as craft fairs, food fairs and a classic car rally in 2021.

Even more important for Chris and his kitchen was the renovation of the two-acre walled garden, which was built in 1780.

The walls were rebuilt and immense new glasshouses constructed, with pathways, fountains, arches laid out for strolling around the abundant vegetable patches and flower borders.

The original gardener’s cottage has also been renovated as holiday accommodation.

Head gardener Mark Jeffery has worked tirelessly to transform the unproductive plot into a garden of plenty, from enormous apples to six-foot tall artichokes, from tomatoes ripening in the glass houses to abundant, lush green brassicas, interspersed with sunflowers the size of bin lids.

With a garden producing at full pelt, what do you do with the harvest? You buy an inn of course, which is exactly what Gerald and Margo did in 2017. Last year Pentonbridge Inn won the title of Newcomer of the Year in the 2019 Good Hotel Guide.

Alasdair explains: “Food and drink is another of their passions. Up to 75 per cent of all the fruit and vegetables used at Pentonbridge Inn will be grown at Netherby and the quality is as near as it can be towards achieving a Michelin star.”

If Chris requests a particular ingredient or new varieties, Mark will have a go at growing it. “Some aren’t easy to grow and others, like King Edward potatoes, suffer from the wet,” says Mark, who worked for the National Trust for Scotland for 17 years.

“This year the soft fruits have not been too good because of the rain but we can also grow in the glasshouses and polytunnels.

“The brassicas have been very good; we grow lots of different types if kale. Turnips, carrots, beets and salads have done well.”

Some of the varieties grown have been dried for use as botanicals in Netherby Hall’s own gin which is being trialled with Solway Spirits. Local cider makers are using some of the apples, and there is also have a vegetable box scheme for local people.

Any other surplus will be used to make jams and chutneys, and there is a plan for an estate honey. Beef and dairy cattle will be raised on estate farms, all providing a foundation for a new farm shop. Very little, if anything, will be wasted.

For head chef Chris, a kitchen garden the size of Netherby’s must be a dream come true.

“I said at my first interview that I wanted to be able to use the best produce, whether that’s meat, fish, dairy or veg, and that’s what Gerald and Margo want as well. It’s not about making more money by using lesser products. Aiming for a Michelin star reflects on the hall as well, it’s about creating excellence across the board,” he says.

“It’s not a vanity project, it’s a passion. If something isn’t relevant to what we’re doing then we don’t do it, but if it fits with our ethos and there is something we want to try then we can do it. It’s one of the best things I could have hoped for.”

That ethos is high welfare, ethically produced food, which, as far as possible, is local. Beef and lamb is supplied by Aireys of Ayside and game from nearby Cartmel Valley Game, in south Cumbria, and organic pork comes from Askerton Castle, near Brampton.

“I came across them in lockdown; people say you can’t get good pork in Cumbria but this is among the best pork you could ever eat,” says Chris.

Fish and seafood are supplied by Hodgson and Bell’s of Kingstown.

“They send me a text to let me know what they’ve got and because we’re flexible I can put it straight on the menu. I’ve worked all over the country and I know I’m unbelievably lucky to have the suppliers we have within 30-40 miles.”

Chris knew as a young teenager that he wanted to be a chef, but he also knew he wanted to learn in a kitchen, not a college. After starting with two-star Winteringham Fields, near Scunthorpe, close to his hometown of Goole, in east Yorkshire, he moved to Midsummer House in Cambridge.

After working at the prestigious Yorke Arms, in North Yorkshire, for three years, he came to Cumbria for his first head chef position at the Cottage in the Wood, in the North Lakes, which he took from two to three AA rosettes.

After a spell travelling throughout south east Asia he started looking for his next head chef position.

“I loved living in Cumbria where I had a great relationship with some fantastic suppliers,” he says. “A friend had applied for the Pentonbridge job but he probably wouldn’t have got it, so I asked if he was OK with me applying.”

He got the job and started last year.

“Because we are a pub we are trying to keep it really British with a few influences from France. This year has been about experimenting with different things in the garden, some things have gone well – there’s always a healthy portion of greens with our Sunday roast, for instance.”

The seasonality of homegrown produce isn’t as simple as it might appear, however.

“We spend time perfecting a dish but then it might only be on the menu for three weeks. You just get used to using something, then it’s gone,” says Chris. “We’ve got a better system now where I know what’s coming through and what I can put it with.

“We don’t take things like Herdwick off the menu because we get such amazing quality lamb, in the summer it might be with artichoke then broad and fine beans. The menu has a framework of great suppliers then it’s what the garden gives us.

“The great thing about being a small team is that we can change the menu on the day.”

That team comprises sous chef Alex Kohut, who came from Michelin-starred Forest Side at Grasmere, Aaron Seymour and Sam Holroyd, who Chris has trained from being a pot-washer to working on starters and pastry.

“I really love training people. Sam is only 21 and it’s his first job in a kitchen but he is doing fantastic, not a lot of people can do what he’s done in a year.”

Restaurant manager Alex Gautereau, 31, who was born in Normandy, grew up in the Caribbean island of Martinique and studied catering but opted for front of house on moving to England when he was 20.

Alex was able to use lockdown to perfect his wine list and also to spend every Tuesday working in the hall garden. “It has given me a different perspective and the hard work that goes into it that I didn’t really know about,” he says.

Whether based at Netherby Hall or Pentonbridge Inn, everyone involved seems determined to make it a success.

Chris adds: “Gerald and Margo are amazing. They have a real passion for Netherby Hall and the pub and have spent an incredible amount of time, money and energy on them. They want it to be successful and it would be great to win an accolade.

“I’m trying to forge a path and make sure that people know about Pentonbridge Inn. When people understand what we’re doing here and can see the work and effort that goes into everything we do, then they will travel; it will be the place to come.”

• Pentonbridge Inn pentonbridgeinn.co.uk


From its location on a crossroads in Reiver country, it’s easy to see how Pentonbridge Inn sprung up as a hostelry in times past. Since being bought by Gerald and Margo Smith in 2017 it has been expanded, updated and turned into a modern restaurant with rooms.

An extension at the back has added more rooms and a wrap around bar area with picture windows overlooking the valley. The bar continues at the front and moves seamlessly into the restaurant with a double sided chimney breast between the two, and an open kitchen. It’s cosy and traditional yet contemporary and stylish at the same time.

Which kind of sums up the menu too, stalwart dishes like Herdwick lamb and roast cod but presented in a light, modern way. If there’s one thing that characterises Chris Archer’s cooking it’s a lightness of touch which allows the ingredients to shine – especially those freshest of fresh garden vegetables.

With our party of three declining the black pudding sausage roll amuse bouche, the replacements were sublime – a mini slice of smoked haddock tart and the most endearing egg shell with its hat sliced clean off presented in a little nest of hay and filled with a rich and creamy Montgomery cheddar and ale velouté with bacon bits. I could have dined on a bowl of that alone and left very happy.

The homemade marmite-topped bread rolls proved that it isn’t a love-hate thing after all, the haters declaring them delicious. They came served with home-pickled onions and potted beef.

The choice of four starters and four main courses may seem restrained, but the range of dishes ensures there’s something for everyone.

Our party sampled three different starters. The Cumbrian shorthorn tartare was generous, its squeeze of lovage mayonnaise a revelation; the Whitehaven lobster refreshing; the home smoked mackerel with beetroot sauce with little brambles of ethically produced British caviar earthy and wholesome.

Two chose the Herdwick lamb for main; it won the overall dish of the evening prize, its texture and flavour sending them both into raptures, closely followed by praise for the mini pulled lamb and potato pie accompaniment – “perfect” was the verdict.

Although well cooked and sitting in a delicious bouillabaisse, the highlight of the cod main course was the mussels, which were as light and soft as you could come across, like fairy-sized pillows.

From the choice of four desserts, the cheese-lover opted for the board of – you guessed it – four, declaring the creamy Harrogate blue his favourite. Garden raspberries and sorbet grappled with a bossy Thai basil sorbet for top billing in one dessert, while the rhubarb sorbet sang in the creamy custard and crisp pastry slice option.

The youngster was disappointed to learn that the end of meal treats that resembled mini chocolate cakes with toffee sauce were in fact spiced rum cakes, their crisp, burnt sugar outer yielding to a soft, battery middle, with apricot and vanilla puree. The adults loved them.

Many choices on Alex’s well curated wine list are available in three different glass sizes. My vegan New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc proved an excellent choice.

At £60 for three courses, dinner at Pentonbridge Inn comes at a price you won’t find at many Michelin star hopefuls. Whether they can sustain it remains to be seen so best go sooner rather than later.