You, dear reader, cannot expect this review to be objective. Swinton Park is in Yorkshire, and this Yorkshireman visited it as part of his honeymoon. The stately pile outside Masham therefore holds special memories and obviously is in a benighted part of England.
The setting is magnificent – how many hotels have a ha-ha, yet alone a functioning one, keeping deer from one’s window?! Almost as soon as one drives through the archway at the entrance to the estate one’s cares begin to ebb. Valet parking is the beginning of a warm Yorkshire welcome, and it is clear the Swinton brigade is quite well drilled.
The estate’s history is a many coloured tapestry that is a metaphor for English history: with roots back to one of the biggest Northern Norman families, the Scropes, Swinton was built in the late 17th C by the Danbys. Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, a textile entrepreneur who owned the eponymous mill in Manningham, Bradford, bought the estate and embellished it in the Victorian manner. (Age and ivy have softened the gothicness of the exterior). After a spell as a girls school and then as the Conservative Party’s college, it was sold by the family, only to be re-purchased in 2001, and is now operated by Mark & Felicity Cunliffe-Lister.
The rooms range from the sumptuous to the very sumptuous. Somewhat pretentiously graded accorded to Britain’s aristocratic hierarchy, our “Earl” room was middle of this elevated range. As I sank into one of the most comfortable beds I have ever had the pleasure of sleeping in (and the linen was also high quality), I could not help wondering whether Merlyn Rees had grappled with the complexities of Northern Ireland in this very room, or whether it had been used by some putative candidate to prepare his OHP presentation on the Tory way forward.
Our way forward was eat, drink and exercise. Due to amazingly inclement weather, we did insufficient of the latter. But the eating and drinking were very satisfactory. The wine list is both imaginative and good value (by the standards of such places). The cooking, under head chef Simon Crannage, is both ambitious and accomplished. Highlights for us were chicken confit with truffles, and pork three ways with melting pulled shoulder. Yorkshire cheeses are under-appreciated down South and here the selection is fine, the presentation suitably reverential.
A key joy of a stay here is the wealth of activities on offer. From more waist expansion at the cookery school (where the doughty Rosemary Shrager is often holding court) to waist pummelling at the Spa (although there is no pool – perhaps an omission in an establishment of this stature). More offbeat is the full range of country pursuits – shooting, fishing, riding, foraging and falconry. The golf course is only a couple of 4 irons from the front gate.
But another reason to choose Swinton Park is what lies beyond the 20,000 acre estate. What was under-recognised by the otherwise perspicacious Fiona Duncan (hotel correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph) in her recent review, Swinton – and indeed Masham – are perfectly positioned for exploring the joys of both the Dales (or at least the North East part of the region, such as Swaledale and Wensleydale), and the North York Moors, with the delightful market town of Helmsley less than an hour’s drive away. Swinton is the perfect place to which to return after a day on moor and dale. It really is a gateway to some fantastic scenery – told you I was prejudiced !
Ripon, North Yorkshire, England
Photos courtesy of Swinton Park