York is blessed with more attractions than you can shake a Yorkie bar at. There’s medieval Minster, the Vikings, the Shambles, the ancient city walls and York’s rich history of chocolate making.
But just outside the city, a stone’s throw from the racecourse, another delightful piece of York history awaits.
Middlethorpe Hall is the perfect example of a fine country house hotel with character literally seeping from every creaking nook and cranny. An authentic William and Mary house in 20 acres of manicured grounds, it’s had stories to tell throughout its long life. Built in 1699 by master cutler Thomas Barlow (who sadly died before it was finished), it was rented to Lady Mary Wortley Montagu the famous 18th-century diarist. It was a girls boarding school for a time, and then, in 1972, it famously became Brummels, one of York’s finest nightclubs.
These days, under the ownership of the National Trust, it welcomes a rather different clientele, but there are still gentle and curious reminders of its colourful past wherever you look; the panelled dining room, the marble chequerboard floor, the wonky staircase, the sash windows, the large portraits and the quirky collectable odds and ends you always find in houses like this.
There are 29 guestrooms at Middlethorpe Hall, 10 in the main house and the rest in restored 18th-century cottages in the adjoining courtyard. Mine was up on the second floor of the main house. “It’s better we walk if you don’t mind” general manager Lionel Chatard told me, “the lift will only fit one person.” Another glorious quirk.
M. Chatard, whose reign here has been so long he could almost be auctioned off at Christie’s, opened the door and told me “I think of all our rooms, this is my personal favourite.”
He wasn’t wrong. It was a very impressive room. Huge sash windows looked directly out over the spectacular lawns and topiary below, a vast four-poster bed dominated one wall, the others bedecked with period furnishings and comfy settees. It was, dare I say it, a room of timeless elegance, perfectly befitting such a country house setting. The en-suite bathroom had a bath gratifyingly big enough for actual humans and towels that were equally gratifyingly fluffy.
Back downstairs the pre-dinner outdoor terrace crowd were in full swing. Locally crafted beers and violet gins were doing big business so it seemed churlish not to join in. We sipped while enjoying a cabaret from the estate deer enjoying a sundowner frolic in the grounds. Chef Ashley Binder lauds it over the candlelit 2 AA rosette Oak Restaurant, a panelled room that had me wondering which panel concealed a hidden passage. Well, why not, it was that kind of house.
With a seven-course tasting menu, a summer seasonal menu, a very English pudding menu and a la carte options, there are easily enough choices on hand for most palates.
As we could mix and match, we did exactly that with the starters. The beetroot, goats’ cheese and herb starter from the summer menu was a triumph. It came on a small beetroot risotto with a delicious whipped goats’ cheese horseradish. I, on the other hand, plumped for a sweet corn velouté with chicken tortellini, barbequed sweet corn, Yorkshire chorizo and dark trompette mushrooms. Our waiter, looking suitably prim and proper, theatrically poured my velouté over the aforementioned gathered ingredients. It was, all in all, a masterful first course.
Hake with orange fennel, white herb butter and ratte potatoes was up next. The hake beautifully fluffy, the fennel’s anise flavour combining perfectly. I decided on vegetarian for my main; an excellent combination of asparagus and herb gnocchi with baby artichoke and aged parmesan.
The finale was a tough choice. The Yorkshire rhubarb with white chocolate and gingerbread was a contender, but the celebration of English and Irish cheeses won the day. A super British camembert and a good strong cheddar with tomato chutney, grapes and celery.
This was a very enjoyable dinner.
I fell into the four-poster dreaming of wild deer and hidden passageways.
We walked into York the next day. A lovely 40-minute stroll along the river. A climb up the 275 steps to the top of Minster’s central tower burnt up enough calories to enjoy the tale of Terry’s and Rowntree at the York Chocolate Story. We travelled back in time at The Jorvik Viking Centre for a ride around 10th century York, using very humanlike animatronics, before walking through The Shambles and tackling the longest city walls in England.
After refuelling at the Star Inn the City, hidden away in the old pump rooms inside the city walls, we headed back to Middlethorpe Hall.
Too tired to walk back, we grabbed a bus outside York station. “Our hotel is right near the racecourse,” I said to the bus driver. “Middlethorpe?” he said, “Tell you what, I’ll drop you off at front door.” Now that’s Yorkshire hospitality for you.
After all that walking, a visit to Middlethorpe’s spa was a blessed relief. Tucked inside two charming Edwardian cottages, the spa is deceptively spacious. There’s a steam room and sauna, a large indoor swimming pool and behind that, in a small Victorian summer house, is the gym. But I was looking forward to an essential oils massage upstairs in one of the three treatment rooms. When a therapist takes one look at you and says “You need a pick me up, you’re looking fatigued.” I silently cursed all that walking around York.
An hour later after a memorable massage using an energy reviving mix of essential oils, I was genuinely reinvigorated. A cup of green tea at a table in the small front garden sealed the recuperation.
Middlethorpe Hall is, without doubt, a quintessentially English luxury country house, but it’s the quirkiness that is its charm for me. You expect the floorboards to creak and the bedroom doors to stick, after all, it is over 300 years old. Definitely worth an entry in Lady Mary’s diary I fancy.
Tell me more about Middlethorpe Hall
Middlethorpe Hall, Bishopthorpe Rd, York YO23 2GB
T: +44 (0)1904 641241
Rooms from £199 per night including breakfast.
Tasting menu £75 pp wine pairing £34 pp. Seasonal menu available Sunday to Friday £45 for 3 courses, £37 for 2 courses.
The York Pass
The York Pass gives you the choice of entry to over 30 attractions. Passes are available for adults and children for 1, 2 and 3 days at York Pass or by calling 01904 554471. Prices start at £40 for an adult 1-day pass and £26 for child 1-day pass. Attractions mentioned in this review are included as well as a York cruise sightseeing tour and the hop on hop off bus tours.
For more details on visiting York, please go to Visit York.
Food images and Hotel main image (c) Andy Mossack. York images (c) VisitYork.