You have only to look at the exterior of the Black Swan Hotel to realise that it’s certain to have quite a life-story to tell. Three distinct façades speak of a pedigree that flows back to Tudor times, witnessing the arrival of the motor car and through the coaching days of the 17th and 18th centuries: the Leeds-York ‘Helmsley Highflyer’, known locally as the ‘Mucky Duck’, passed this way three times a week in the 19th century.
Located on the southern edge of the North York Moors National Park, the inn looks out over the main square of the popular and bustling market town of Helmsley, itself the base of the national park’s administration, and once famous for its wool and linens. William and Dorothy Wordsworth stayed in the Black Swan Hotel on at least two occasions. So happy with their stay were they that Dorothy noted in her journal for October 1802: ‘My heart danced at the sight of its cleanly outside, bright yellow walls, casements overshadowed with jasmine and its low, double gavel-ended font’.
From the moment that you arrive there is a hygge cosiness combined with historical idiosyncrasy that permeates the entire building, from the original Tudor inglenook fireplace, constantly aflame during the winter months, to the canted oak beams, some of which will deal you a hearty reminder that this provenance of historic architecture comes with in-built height limits.
The metamorphosis from a traditional coaching inn to a modern, 4-star boutique hotel has not disregarded that history; the floors creak charmingly – which was great because for a while I couldn’t hear my knees doing the same – and fashioning a labyrinth of warm corridors leading to the 45 bedrooms.
Our room overlooks the Market Square and despite not being double glazed is remarkably restful and peaceful. The bed beneath the snug duvet is so large I have to send my wife a goodnight kiss by text, she seems so far away. Excellent WiFi, iPod docking station, replica old-style telephone, TV and a bathroom filled with everything you could need, including a small travel kit, bathrobes and Molton Brown toiletries.
With the emphasis on comfort, the hotel’s public rooms are mutely decorated and furnished with tartan-influenced furniture. Moreover, the hotel forms fifty percent of the Helmsley Galleries, a unique collaboration between the Black Swan and the nearby Feversham Arms to feature works of art by respected and award-winning artists from around the UK, and sensationally talented new artists…all the paintings are for sale should you be enthralled by Nicholas St John Rosse’s ‘Incoming tide’, or Mike Bernard vivid portrayal of villages in Madeira.
One of the many agreeable features of the Black Swan hotel is its tearoom, located within the hotel and serving a delectable array of teas, including their own ‘Cygnet’ brand, and other refreshments. Traditional English Afternoon Tea, delightful patisserie, as well as light meals and snacks are all sure to appeal to those with an appetite for a little self-indulgence. And, let’s face it, if you didn’t like the occasional modicum of self-indulgence, you wouldn’t be here.
For foodies, the Gallery Restaurant offers local and seasonal fare and a menu that changes regularly to make the most of the seasonal produce Yorkshire has to offer, as well as a six-course tasting menu that admirably showcases the skills of the head chef.
In the event, the tasting menu was quite a tour de force, probably not eased by opting for the wine pairing; even with just six courses – seven if you also take the optional cheese course – it becomes easy to lose track of where you are.
It all began in the Cygnet Bar while I was making friends with a lovely 11-year-old mongrel with an evident passion for the joy of open log fires.
The starters – canapés – came in assorted sizes and flavours, being an assembly that matched goat’s cheese and broccoli with Monmouth ham on a nettle mousse, cod with Saffron sofrito, and a quail egg with garlic, parsley and shallot. It was all quite palatable, but rather left me wondering what cuisine it was referencing; French, Italian, modern British? Whatever, it all went down alarmingly speedily.
Once at our table, a warm napkin of chunky fermented beer bread was brought accompanied by beef dripping butter and cultured butter, neither concept something I was familiar with except to say that for someone with dour memories of immediate post-war austerity, dripping is not something that would ever pass my lips again. Cultured butter on the other hand is achieved by adding live bacteria to cream before churning, and since live bacteria are good for you, I was happy with that.
Its purpose, however, seemed to be to accompany the Turnworth cheese – regarded by some as the best camembert in the world – which coated a pan-fried cauliflower floret, cauliflower purée, and truffle finished with rye bread breadcrumbs. In the wine glass was a refreshing Trimback Riesling from Alsace – except it didn’t arrive until we’d both finished, and thereafter the wine pairing was out of sync leading to an inevitable clutter of part-filled wine glasses on a diminishing table.
The fish course came in the form of an Orkney scallop with a sublime Jerusalem artichoke velouté and Italian parsley. With it we sampled the earthy ripeness of a Californian Viognier, even though we were still discussing the merits of the Riesling… a bit more attention to the pace of service, allowing time to combine wine and the dish, would greatly enhance this experience. That’s my minor quibble.
Although not great fans of foie gras, when it came served with quince poached in French sauternes there was no doubting that a master was at work in the kitchen. With the Orkney scallop, we should have been served a Grenache Viognier from Vars in France. But that seemed to be on the missing list, and we were informed that the Californian wine would have to serve two dishes.
That isn’t an acceptable way of doing things; if there are problems, tell me at the outset to give me the choice. It smacks somewhat of a lack of wine management that was only made worse when our next course, a superb piece of Texel lamb, nettle purée, ewes curd and blackened onion was meant to be accompanied by a Quinta do Crasto Reserva from Douro in Portugal. But it, too, was not present, although we were promised an excellent alternative, also from Portugal, a country whose wines I do like to champion. Alas, that was AWOL, too, and while the Italian alternative that finally reached us was truly outstanding; that’s not the point.
Blackberries, meadowsweet, apple, almonds, baked toffee cake and peanut butter ice cream brought the meal to an end, and left us in no doubt that despite my minor gripes, the three AA rosettes are undoubtedly well deserved.
Alas, although the restaurant was well staffed with friendly and helpful people, there didn’t seem to be a Maitre d’, or a sommelier – although they may have been engrossed in other things – but one of the essentials of a fine-dining experience is the sense that you are being treated exclusively (even though we all know we’re not). Admittedly once one of the waiters, from Portugal, discovered our fondness for Madeira and the Azores, we struck a note of accord that went some way to giving me what I wanted. But, that was a chance thing, and as it is, service came across as a little haphazard.
That, however, should dissuade no-one from visiting the Black Swan Hotel; I’m being hyper-picky in the hope of pushing the restaurant to a fourth rosette, and, who knows, maybe a little Michelin pointy thing. At least, everyone is pulling in the same direction, singing from the same hymn sheet, at ease with themselves, as it were, and that augurs well for a successful future. We’ll certainly be back, incognito.
Tell me more about the Black Swan Hotel
The Black Swan Hotel, Market Place, Helmsley, Yorkshire YO62 5BJ. Tel: 01439 770466;
Bed and breakfast rates, available only from Sunday to Thursday, range from £155 to £260, while the dinner, bed and breakfast packages, which include an allocation of £45 per person to spend on dinner, range from £235 to £340 for double occupancy, and £155 to £205 for a single room.
The 6-course tasting menu is £65 per person, and the wine pairing is £40 per person.
The Black Swan Hotel is dog friendly. There are several bedrooms for visitors with dogs at a charge of £10 per dog per stay. Dogs are permitted in the public areas of the hotel, except the restaurant and tea room.
There is a small parking area directly in front of the hotel, and a separate car park up a narrow lane to the rear. When full, there is a huge pay and display car park in the market square (maximum period 2 hours).