Swinton Park memories
North Yorkshire is quintessentially English. The heather-clad moors and rolling farmland are 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 sight when entering through the gatehouse is astonishing. Swinton Park is a magnificent castle. With ivy-clad turrets and castellations, it’s the centrepiece of a 20,000-acre estate. This includes two hundred acres of parkland and five ornamental lakes.
A little history
The Danby family built Swinton Park in the late 1600s, and it carried on developing 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. In the 1970’s it was sold by the family but then suffered 30 years of neglect.Like a fairy story with a happy ending, it was rescued by Mark and Felicity Cunliffe-Lister. They then undertook a complete refurbishment. Swinton Park became a luxury hotel in 2001, with a renowned cookery school in the adjoining stable block. The hotel now combines aristocratic style with a new ecological awareness.
The rooms are accessed by grand corridors and staircases. Ours was named Fountains Abbey, with views of wild fallow deer grazing in the park. 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 rooms, which include 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 on Samuel’s Restaurant.
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. They also lead the eye up to an ornate gilded ceiling. At one end, 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 adjacent Drawing Room is an elegant and romantic setting too. Big bay windows, powder blue and gilded decor, chandeliers and family portraits all contribute to a rare ambience. With comfortable sofas to lounge in, this is the place for a nightcap.
The cuisine features produce is from the estate. This is a rich source of game, freshwater fish, vegetables and wild ingredients. Food miles and ecology are high on the agenda here. Indeed, 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. It was 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. It was 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. 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.
The warm pistachio and olive oil cake with white chocolate ganache and raspberry sorbet made a delicious dessert. 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.
Rest and Play
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 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 a life-affirming experience.
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 its carbon footprint with energy efficiency. It now claims 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!
If you like Swinton Park, you will probably also enjoy the Wentbridge House Hotel too.