Michael Edwards enjoys a piece of history as he travels back in time staying at Middlethorpe Hotel and Spa in York.
Even though the 17th century had seen two civil wars and plague, it finished reasonably well for Thomas Barlow. His family had made big money as cutlers – the profession of making knives rarely seen on LinkedIn nowadays. Also, he had acquired a coat of arms, an imposing authoritative eagle, and a male heir. But, in the brutal lottery of life that was the 17th century, he had lost his wife to illness.
Barlow was embarrassed that his wealth was perceived as nouveau riche. Aspirational and social-climbing, he decided to reinvent himself as a civilised country gentleman on the outskirts of fashionable York. Far from smoky industrial Sheffield where he had made his fortune.
Middlethorpe Hall, when building began in 1699, announced with its Hampton Court style mellow red-brick and white-sash-windows framed by limestone, that a gentleman of substance had arrived on fashionable York’s social scene. A symmetrical horizontal skyline, topped by the Barlow’s stone eagle, was an echo of the Italianate architecture Barlow had admired on a Grand Tour of Europe.
Today, a stay at Middlethorpe Hall Hotel and Spa, run by Historic House Hotels and owned by the National Trust, is like taking a step into history: staying in a museum, dining in a gallery. You will find a Hogarth-style satirical cartoon decorating your bathroom, covers of the 19th-century fashion magazine The Queen adorning your walls. Dark wood bureaux, chests of drawers, four-poster beds, gilded mirrors, numerous side-tables and settees look as if they could have been acquired at Christie’s or Sotheby’s. The wide four-poster beds with their Museum of Bedding sheets, blankets and eiderdown, are a glimpse into a Golden Age of Sleep.
But, back in the hair and flares of the 1970s, the decade that style forgot, Thomas Barlow must have been turning in his grave. His beloved Middlethorpe became Brummels Nightclub where “the age of Regency lives on” to the sounds of Abba and the Bee Gees. Since 1980, Historic House Hotels have continually restored the building to days of former glory which featured neither John Travolta nor Olivia Newton-John.
The Lady Mary suite, overlooking the south lawn, pays homage to Middlethorpe’s most famous resident. After Thomas Barlow had died unexpectedly in France, on a second Grand Tour, the renowned diarist Lady Mary Wortley Montagu rented the house. She was a formidable woman. Having eloped to marry her husband, she returned from his time as an ambassador in Turkey determined to defeat smallpox with inoculation – long before Edward Jenner further developed the technique. Lady Mary had lost both her brother and her own good looks, to smallpox.
Much of the charm of Middlethorpe Hall derives from the glorious 20 acres of estate: a flagstone terrace for afternoon tea and pre-dinner drinks, striped lawns, deer dashing across the parkland, a lake with perch and roach. A National Trust leaflet guides you round the trees planted over the ages: an oak over two centuries old, a towering Wellingtonia, a Cedar of Lebanon and a Judas Tree. Barlow and his successors built and planted with an eye for legacy and posterity.
Two gardeners and National Trust volunteers tend the walled gardens and grounds. Agapanthus, buddleia, dahlias, daisies, roses and sweet peas are grown for flower displays within the main house. Ancient pear trees thrive, producing fruit for cooking rather than eating, their names lost in gardening history. This has also been a good summer for the glossy red Discovery apples.
A glut of damsons provides the jam to accompany a chicken and leek pressing in the AA two rosette restaurant. Similarly, an early crop of cherries takes their place with chocolate on a rocky road dessert. The chocolate is a reminder of another chapter of Middlethorpe history, when Sir Frank Terry, from the chocolatiers who later engineered Terry’s Chocolate Orange, owned the property.
Beehives provide honey for sweetening cocktails and desserts. Looking ahead, after 2020’s disruption to supply chains, the plan is to develop a French-style potager garden of flowers, herbs and vegetables. Also, with garden centres closed, the Head Gardener has taken advantage of plants’ tendency to seed themselves.
Less than two miles from the centre of York, Middlethorpe Hall Hotel and Spa is well-placed for visiting York’s Minster, The Shambles, The National Railway Museum and the Jorvik Viking Centre but guests slip into the relaxed pace of yesteryear. Breakfast meanders into coffee on the terrace. A leisurely stroll through the parkland, stopping on the way back for a game of croquet, drifts into lunch. Then there’s a swim and hot-tub at the spa. Before you know it, you are taking pre-dinner drinks on the terrace and perusing the dinner menu once again.
Tell Me More About Middlethorpe Hall Hotel And Spa
Middlethorpe Hall Hotel And Spa, Bishopthorpe Road, York, YO23 2GB
T: 01904 641241
A standard double/twin room in The Courtyard costs £219 including Yorkshire breakfast.
A four-poster bedroom in the main house, including breakfast, costs £429.