Husband and wife team James Ratcliffe and Nina Matsunaga bought The Black Bull in 2018 when it was derelict, having been severely damaged by flooding in 2015. They have lovingly restored this historic coaching inn, preserving many of its original architectural features but adding some contemporary flair and one of the top restaurants in Cumbria.
The Black Bull is for foodies: if you don’t plan to spend quite a few hours of the day eating here, the experience will be wasted on you! That said, it is also a great option for couples or families wanting to walk in the nearby Lake District. If you spend all day walking or climbing on the fells, you will work up an appetite and deserve a three-course meal when you come back.
Guest rooms at The Black Bull include a luxurious suite and a selection of double rooms, three of which are suitable for guests visiting with their dogs. Some of the rooms in the historic part of the coaching inn have original ceiling beams, wood panelling, and stained glass.
The minimalist decor and furnishings reflect James and Nina’s love affair with Japanese design and culture and are inspired by the elements of water and air. But there are plenty of Cumbrian features, too: photographs by award-winning local photographer Rob Whittier decorate the walls, and the blankets were handwoven by Laura’s Loom in Sedbergh.
In the bathrooms you will find bespoke Petrichor toiletries, which have been designed exclusively for The Black Bull by The Sedbergh Soap Co. “Petrichor” is a word which comes from Ancient Greek and it describes the smell when the first rain falls on dry soil or grass. The suite and two of the luxury rooms have deep free-standing baths as well as rain showers, and in the third luxury room, there’s a Japanese soaking tub.
Food and drink
The biggest draw of The Black Bull is its fine dining restaurant, where Nina created an exceptional menu fusing culinary influences drawn from her family heritage Japan, Germany where she was born and trained, and the Lake District which she now calls home. Nina prioritises using native breeds for her meats, and sources most of her ingredients from within 20 miles of the restaurant. These include mushrooms foraged by James. Expect to find dishes such as handmade ravioli with asparagus and wild garlic; wild Lakeland venison with Hokkaido, tagliatelle, and three-cornered leek; and black sesame panna cotta with strawberries. The restaurant is ideal for people watching as the huge windows look straight onto Sedbergh’s high street.
If you prefer a light bite or something more casual, The Black Bull has a bar menu, too. This can be eaten either in the bar or the restaurant. The shorthorn roast beef and horseradish sandwich and Howgill Hereford beef burger looked particularly good, and the presence of multiple children confirmed that James and Nina have created a family-friendly space popular with locals.
At the back of The Black Bull in what was once the inn’s stables there’s a separate outdoor menu, much of which is cooked on the barbecue. All the dishes are seasonal and change daily, but you can expect to find things like smoked pork hot dogs and pulled Herdwick lamb, as well as a selection of sourdough pizzas.
Unusually for a property in central Sedbergh, The Black Bull has plenty of parking on site, and they can even arrange for you to charge an electric car. There’s also an attractive garden to the rear of the building, which is a lovely place to relax and enjoy a beer on a warm summer evening.
Classic Doubles at The Black Bull start from £139 per night, including breakfast, or you can treat yourself to a room with breakfast and dinner for two from £199.
The Black Bull is right in the middle of the historic town of Sedbergh, which has plenty of independent shops to explore. Particularly recommended is Farfield Mill on the edge of the town, which has been converted into artists’ studios, galleries, and a cafe. Here you can watch printmakers, weavers, and other artisans at work, chat to them about what they’re doing, and buy their products.
Sedbergh is also well located for walking and sightseeing in both the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District National Park. It’s an easy drive to Kendal and to Kirkby Lonsdale, and also to Sizergh, a house and gorgeous gardens owned by the National Trust.
VERDICT: James and Nina have done a truly remarkable job bringing The Black Bull back to life. The restaurant alone makes it worth a trip to Sedbergh, though the rooms are beautiful, too.