Swinton Park memories
North Yorkshire is quintessentially English. The countryside has heather-clad moors and rolling farmland dotted with hedgerows, woods, and picture book villages. Swinton Park is a jewel in this landscape, a mile or so from Masham in Wensleydale.
The first glimpse when entering through the gatehouse is astonishing. Swinton Park is a magnificent castle, with ivy-clad turrets and castellations, the centrepiece of a 20,000-acre estate. Two hundred acres of parkland containing five ornamental lakes surround it.
The Danby family created Swinton Park in the late 1600s, and development continued long after. Such was the considerable wealth of William Danby that he built turrets and battlements. It became an impressive castle with luxurious interiors of marble, wood, and glass.
Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, the great Bradford textile magnate, bought Swinton Park in 1882. It remained in his family until sold in the nineteen-seventies. After thirty years of subsequent neglect, it was rescued by Mark and Felicity Cunliffe-Lister. They bought it back into the family, and embarked on a complete refurbishment. Swinton Park was opened as a luxury hotel in 2001, with a renowned cookery school in the adjoining stable block. The hotel now combines the style of old English aristocracy with a new ecological awareness.
Our room was called Fountains Abbey, often just abbreviated to FAB, which is an accurate description. Accessed by grand corridors and staircases, it had with views across the park, where wild fallow deer graze. Decorated in calm tones, luxury fabrics and antiques, it’s a masterpiece of luxurious and peaceful understatement.
The huge bed was incredibly comfortable, while the en-suite bathroom had every mod-con, an oasis of calm. There are thirty other rooms to choose from, including a spectacular turret suite that occupies three floors. During our stay, we soon noticed the detail that justifies a four red stars rating. Toiletries are by Anne Semonin and Molton Brown, and there are decanters of whisky and gin on the sideboard. A special mention too for the friendly yet discreet service.
It would have been easy to lock the door, call room service and never reappear again. A tempting thought, but that would be missing out.
Samuel’s Restaurant at Swinton Park
Dining is an essential part of the Swinton Park experience. Samuel’s restaurant has sumptuous décor, Modern British cuisine and an excellent wine list. The Victorian dining room can be approached either by a picture-lined corridor or by regally descending the ornate staircase.
Tall windows on three sides of the dining room give open views over the parkland and lead the eye up to an ornate gilded ceiling. At one end of the room, a mirror set over an enormous marble fireplace adds space and light. Each dining table is simply set with an elegant vase of lilies on crisp white linen.
It’s best to enjoy an apéritif in the bar while mulling over the menu and wine list. This wonderful octagonal space was designed to house artworks acquired from European Grand Tours before becoming the family Chapel. Over Champagne cocktails and nibbles we discovered that Samuel’s offers three menus. There are a seven-course Tasting Menu, a three-course Classic menu and a Garden produce menu with vegetarian dishes.
The cuisine features produce is from the estate, which is a rich source of game, freshwater fish, vegetables and wild ingredients. Food miles and ecology are high on the agenda here, and the kitchen has several awards for sustainability to add to a formidable culinary reputation.
With orders taken, the highly polished parquet floor echoed to our footsteps as we found our table. The wine list offers rich pickings, and there is a sommelier on hand to give excellent advice. We decided on a full bodied white wine, and a bottle of Tahbilk’s Marsanne 2005 fitted the bill nicely. This Australian winery is famous for growing this under-appreciated grape. Mineral aromas and acacia flavours made it a versatile partner.
Armed with a selection of delicious bread, we enjoyed an impressive courgette velouté with parmesan foam, a herald of things to come.
The starters arrived, both being superbly presented fish dishes marrying flavours and contrasting textures. The estate trout with pickled garden vegetables and peppery watercress on a bed of fennel toast was delightful. As was the lemon sole served on top of finely chopped leeks, surrounded by a velvety potato velouté and topped with grated Mrs Kirkham’s Lancashire cheese.
Now for the mains. Halibut fillet, glazed with broccoli purée, with smoked garlic, and toasted almonds and a splendid cube of Crab cake. Perfectly cooked, perfectly balanced.
What could be more evocative of Swinton Park than Grouse? Melting and beautifully pink, surrounded by dabs of butternut squash and lemon caramel purée. It came with portions of braised red cabbage, fondant potato and brambles, while a sprig of flowering purple heather added a visual twist. An exquisite dish.
A refreshing Apple Martini Jelly was served next as an interlude, just as the daylight faded.
For dessert, a warm pistachio and olive oil cake with white chocolate ganache and a portion of raspberry sorbet were delicious. However, the Granny Smith dessert was the star-turn. Apple mousse came intersected by mandolin-thin slices of crisp apple, offset by bergamot syrup and lemon sorbet.
We were both still marvelling at all this excellence during coffee and petit fours in the drawing room. This elegant and romantic setting is an excellent place in which to end a meal. We revelled in its splendour; big bay windows, powder blue and gilded decor, chandeliers and family portraits all contributed to a rare ambience. With comfortable sofas to lounge in, time for a nightcap.
Rest and Play at Swinton Park
For relaxation, there is a conservatory spa, with jacuzzi, sauna and treatment rooms. It’s also easy to relax in the bar or take afternoon tea in the drawing room.
As befits such an estate, country pursuits are legion and suit every taste, age, and ability. There’s golf, archery, fly fishing, shooting, horse riding and pony trekking. Then again, off-road driving, cricket, croquet or quoits are alternative pastimes. The hotel hosts different themed breaks throughout the year, and it makes a superb venue for weddings and civil ceremonies.
We chose to explore the idyllic parkland and walled kitchen garden. A ramble past contentedly grazing deer takes you to the picturesque summerhouse, lakes, and waterfalls. The walled garden deserves a special mention, four acres restored by Susan Cunliffe-Lister, an award-winning gardener. It provides food for the restaurant and cookery school, and flowers for the hotel. It is a riot of colour, full of butterflies, bees, and birdsong.
Falconry was our memorable activity. A Gothic-styled Orangery that had previously fallen into ruin is now a centre for birds of prey. Flying eagle, Snowy, and Tawny owls is life-affirming.
Swinton Park’s dedication to the environment is impressive. As well as the excellent stewardship of the estate, the restaurant has won awards for recycling and sourcing. The hotel has reduced carbon footprint with energy efficiencies, and now has the highest sustainability ratings of any hotel in the UK. Proof that luxury is compatible with green credentials.
Swinton Park is a memorably unique combination of ancestral family home and leading luxury hotel. Now I’m saving up for that turret room suite!