It had been a glorious autumnal day at Fountains Abbey, as we drove from Harrogate towards Masham and our treat of the trip: a stay in Swinton Park Castle Hotel, a proper Yorkshire castle.What had been intended as a quick hour’s visit – after all, we’d been to Fountains Abbey before – turned into several hours as the sun shone, the autumn colours proved glorious, and even the pigeons added to the atmosphere with their proo-proo-prooing in the monastic ruins.
When we eventually dragged ourselves away from this paradise of peace on a midweek afternoon, and headed for Swinton Park Castle Hotel near Masham, it turned out we weren’t leaving Fountains Abbey behind after all. The rooms there have names not numbers and we were in… Fountains Abbey.
We’d already been impressed by this luxury castle hotel as we drove through the entrance arch, which made it feel like you were driving into Buckingham Palace. There was another arch around the door, and above that a huge ivy-clad tower. We climbed the grand staircase to our room, admiring the deep red walls and the family portraits that hung from them. The castle is owned by the Cunliffe-Lister family (the Earls of Swinton), and its history goes back to 1695.
The castle is set in 200 acres of parkland, some of which we could see from our room, the trees a magnificent mix of autumnal reds, browns, oranges, yellows and greens. As if to welcome us, a small herd of fallow deer grazed under the trees and wandered down to the river. We heard the pig-like sound of a stag calling, and then the shriek of a bird of prey from the castle’s falconry centre.
If 200 acres sounds impressive, what’s even more remarkable is that these in turn are surrounded by the 20,000-acre Swinton Estate. Well, if you’re going to stay in a castle, you want a bit of grandeur, don’t you? There was nothing overly grand about the atmosphere, though, as the whole feel of the place was plush but not posh, formal yet friendly, with some down-to-earth Yorkshire hospitality.
Before dinner we relaxed with canapés in the lounge: Swinton Park trout with black pudding and home-cured duck with beetroot on a spelt biscuit. My gin and tonic was made with William Chase gin and Fever Tree tonic, and served with a slice of lime not lemon. Now that’s the perfect G&T. We discussed the menu options in front of a real fire, with gentle classical music playing in the background, and more family portraits in their gold frames looking down from the pale blue walls. ‘The chef doesn’t make it easy to choose,’ said the waiter, and he was right.
In the restaurant, Samuel’s, the tables were decorated with clusters of lilies in elegant glass vases at least three-feet high, reaching up towards the ceiling that was adorned with gold leaf. The impressive and airy room was built by Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, when he bought the castle and estate in 1880. Samuel’s has three AA Rosettes, so the food has to be something special too. Another superlative goes to the castle’s 4-acre walled garden, the largest kitchen garden in the UK. The estate also provides the kitchens with its venison, rabbit, trout and game, making for a seasonal and very locally-sourced menu.
There was a playfulness about the dishes too, with one starter being a West Tanfield Hen’s Egg – a slow-cooked egg with beans, mushrooms and herb toast. Charred mackerel was served with a zing of flavours: beetroot, tarragon, wasabi and sorrel.
Apologies to the fallow deer who had looked so delightful grazing under the trees, but for the main course we both had to have the venison which was a roast loin and a ragout of haunch, with carrots from the garden and an intriguing sauce of venison and estate elderflowers – the sweetness of the elderflowers cutting the richness of the venison.
There was more fun and games for dessert, where a Dark Chocolate Marquise was served with beetroot and blackberries from the garden, while a spiced treacle tart was accompanied by roasted garden figs and liquorice ice-cream. It was seriously fun food.
The next morning was seriously fun, too, as we’d booked a session at the castle’s falconry centre,
And then the time eventually came when we had to drive back through Swinton Park’s arch… back into the real world.
Tell me more about Swinton Park Castle Hotel
Rooms cost from £170 per night including breakfast, though can be as cheap as £70 per person during special offers.
Romantic retreats which also include dinner, champagne, a massage treatment and use of the spa are available from £480 per room.
The hotel also operates a Cookery School and Falconry Centre.
Swinton Park Hotel, Swinton Park, Masham, Ripon, North Yorks
Tel: 01765 680900.
For more information on Fountains Abbey, Harrogate and the surrounding area, see the Visit Harrogate website.
All photos except Featured Image (c) Donna Dailey.