Lord Crewe Arms
Exploring England’s North Country
By Hideaway Report Editor
December 18, 2017
Over the years, I have followed numerous driving itineraries in England and Scotland — through the West Country, the Cotswolds, the Highlands, to name but three — but they have invariably been circular and self-contained. On this trip I constructed a route that links the two countries together. I decided that our point of departure would be York, a historic city at the southern edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park, and that we would conclude our journey in Edinburgh.
After landing in London, rather than making a preliminary four- to five-hour drive up the A1 (M) motorway, we opted to take a fast train from King’s Cross station. The comfortable 210-mile journey to York takes a little over two hours. (It is worth bearing in mind that in Britain there is often a huge difference in the cost of peak and off-peak rail fares. If you travel outside of peak times and reserve your tickets online well in advance, first-class tickets are reasonably priced; otherwise they can be extortionate.)
York is the gateway to a hilly, unspoiled region that extends north for approximately 125 miles to the Scottish border and that spans around 150 miles from the Lake District in the west to the North Sea coast in the east. The city was established by the Romans in A.D. 71, and in A.D. 306 Constantine the Great was proclaimed emperor there. In the ninth century it became a Viking capital, Jórvík. Later, York prospered as a result of the wool trade, and in 1080 work began on York Minster, the largest Gothic cathedral north of the Alps. (One unmissable highlight is the Great East Window, the world’s largest expanse of medieval stained glass.) The Middle Ages also gave York imposing city walls, built on top of the Roman ones, which remain almost completely intact.
In the past, my preferred place to stay has been Middlethorpe Hall, a classically proportioned redbrick mansion dating from 1701, set amid 20 acres of landscaped grounds, next to York Racecourse, about two and a half miles from the city center. Middlethorpe’s 29 lodgings are divided between the main house and an 18th-century stable courtyard. In addition, the property offers a restaurant that sources ingredients from a walled kitchen garden and a spa with a 40-foot indoor swimming pool. Although I still recommend Middlethorpe (it has a rating of 94), on this occasion I decided to try to find somewhere close to the center of the city, from where it might be possible to stroll to the principal attractions, the cathedral chief among them.
When I first heard about Grays Court, I could scarcely believe my luck.
When I first heard about Grays Court, I could scarcely believe my luck. It seemed to be precisely the kind of hideaway for which I am constantly searching (and which is more elusive than many people suppose). Dating in part to 1080, Grays Court is a Grade I-listed building and may possibly be the oldest continuously occupied house in England. If this were not sufficient inducement for a stay, the 11-room hotel is tucked away beneath the city walls and overlooks a private half-acre garden, despite being within a three-minute walk of the cathedral. Initially, all my expectations were fulfilled. After crossing a quiet cobbled courtyard, I stepped down ancient stone steps into an atmospheric reception. As there was only one person on duty and she was on the phone with a prospective guest, we were obliged to sit and wait for a while. However, when the young woman was able to give us her attention, she was so polite that the brief inconvenience was instantly forgotten.
After a brief check-in, she led us up a flight of stairs and gave us a tour of the public areas. Chief among these was the stunning Jacobean oak-paneled Long Gallery. We were also shown a peaceful and fully stocked library and The Bow Room restaurant, a lovely light-filled space with views of the garden, a molded ceiling, a chandelier and a marble fireplace. Having ascended two more short flights of stairs (there is no elevator), we came to our generously spacious room. It too overlooked the garden, with the 235-foot central tower of the cathedral providing a majestic backdrop. Although the décor was quite austere, with a large white sofa, heavy slate-blue curtains and period furniture but no pictures, the atmosphere seemed peaceful and timeless. The adjacent marble bath was modern, well-lit and equipped with a deep tub, though only one sink.
At this point, I was close to euphoric. But it was all too good to last. Having made our way down to dinner, we stood at the entrance to the dining room. No one appeared. I decided to be proactive, so I knocked on the kitchen door and put my head inside. A waitress emerged, but no apology for the delay was offered. We sat down at 7:40, but it was nearly 8:15 before anyone took our order. Not only was it close to an hour before we got anything to eat, the wait between courses was interminable. Ultimately, we grew tired of waiting for dessert and, feeling extremely disappointed and irritated, headed upstairs to bed.
Sadly, the pattern was repeated the following morning. The food was fine, but the meal was so extended that breakfast threatened to morph into brunch. So after complaining at length to the on-duty manager, we checked out. Clearly, Grays Court is chronically understaffed, which is unfortunate, because the property otherwise has many of the qualities required to be an exceptional hideaway.
Grays Court 87
Wonderfully atmospheric public areas, including the stunning Jacobean Long Gallery; idyllic half-acre garden.
The hotel is deplorably understaffed, and in consequence, service in the restaurant is atrocious; hotel guests are charged 15 pounds ($20) a night to park in the hotel’s parking lot.
Good to Know
The location, within a few minutes’ walk of York Minster is unimprovable.
Rates: Deluxe Double, $300; Suite, $360
Address: Chapter House Street, York
Telephone: (44) 1904-612-613
The Grand Hotel
Our quest for a suitable hotel close to the city center continued at The Grand Hotel, an utterly different property that stands just outside the city walls, about a 10-minute walk from the cathedral. A large and imposing redbrick structure that was once the headquarters of the North Eastern Railway Company, The Grand has recently been the subject of a major refurbishment. Alas, once again, our experience did not chime with expectations. On arrival after lunch, our room was not ready, check-in was inefficient and prolonged, and despite the presence of several doormen and concierge staff, the reception was cluttered with suitcases. On the way to our suite, the long, soulless corridors hearkened back to the building’s former incarnation as a business premises. And our accommodations, despite being spacious and well-appointed, were airless and musty.
The only noteworthy aspect of our stay was provided by Hudsons, the fine-dining restaurant, where chef Craig Atchinson was responsible for a superlative nine-course tasting menu accompanied by imaginative wine pairings. Dishes such as sea trout with kohlrabi, violet mustard, chicory and hedgerow berries; North Atlantic stone bass with langoustine, fennel and buckwheat; and glazed beef cheek with hen of the woods mushrooms, horseradish and alliums will live long in the memory. Throughout our meal, the staff were attentive and charming.
The Grand Hotel 86
The fine-dining restaurant, Hudsons, helmed by chef Craig Atchinson, is superb.
Lackadaisical reception and concierge staff; long, soulless corridors; musty and airless rooms.
Good to Know
That there are better alternatives nearby.
Rates: Executive Room, $260; Junior Suite, $380
Address: Station Rise, York
Telephone: (44) 1904-891-545
Leaving York, we headed northwest for 30 miles to the ruins of Fountains Abbey, founded in 1132 and once the wealthiest abbey in England. (Between 1536 and 1541, King Henry VIII seized the assets of England’s religious orders, which collectively owned around a quarter of the country’s land and had an income considerably higher than that of the king.) Today the ruins form a focal point for the remarkable water gardens of Studley Royal Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the few great 18th-century English gardens to survive substantially in its original form.
The Devonshire Arms Hotel & Spa
From Studley Royal, it is a 25-mile drive west to The Devonshire Arms Hotel & Spa, situated beside the River Wharfe on the Bolton Abbey estate, which has been owned by the Dukes of Devonshire since 1753. The setting of the 40-room hotel is extremely scenic, with extensive grounds, including a cricket pitch, backed by the North Yorkshire hills. The property comprises an early-17th-century inn and a modern extension, which together enclose a small formal garden. The extension lacks architectural distinction but, mercifully, is mostly covered by creepers. The main inn, however, is a handsome, classically proportioned structure built of golden stone.
Check-in was at a freestanding desk in a stone-flagged hall, with a beamed ceiling and a large log fire. A number of fly rods were propped in a corner next to the door, testifying to the Wharfe’s abundant brown trout population. As you might expect in an old building, rooms at the lower end of the price range tend to be small. I therefore recommend only Superior Rooms and Luxury Rooms, which range from 215 to 300 square feet. Both categories can be booked in the original inn building. In addition, the property has suites in the extension and two three-bedroom cottages.
We had opted for the Herbert Royle Suite, named for the well-regarded British Impressionist painter, who was born in Manchester in 1870 but who subsequently moved to Bolton Abbey. Both the living room and bedroom were decorated in a traditional style, with heavy floral fabrics, wall-to-wall carpeting, period furniture and around a dozen of Royle’s original landscapes. The living room was furnished with a large sofa in front of a gas fire, while the bedroom came with a canopied four-poster bed. The principal bath provided a tub as well as a walk-in shower and two sinks set into a marble surround. From both the bedroom and the living room, views extended over the estate to distant sheep-speckled hills. Overall, the suite seemed peaceful, comfortable and thoroughly English.
Having relaxed for a while, we headed to the cocktail lounge at the heart of the original inn. There, in addition to a small bar, we found a huge silver cooler set atop a central table containing a variety of bottles of French Champagne. Having settled into deep burgundy-colored armchairs, we ordered two flutes, which were served promptly along with a selection of canapés. The barman was charm personified, as was the waiter who arrived with menus from the adjacent Burlington Restaurant. The timeless and civilized setting seemed to embody the best of the English country house experience.
Having made our selections, we transferred to a corner table in the dining room. The hotel’s young chef, Paul Leonard, already has an impressive résumé, which includes stints as sous chef at Michelin two-star Andrew Fairlie at The Gleneagles Hotel in Scotland and head chef at the Isle of Eriska in the Hebrides. (Both hotels are Harper recommended.) My duck liver with Sauternes, apple and praline was delicious, as was the local Nidderdale lamb with turnips that followed. In the contemporary style, Leonard places a premium on regional, seasonal and foraged ingredients. His presentations are also thoroughly modern, being small and exquisite. Anyone hoping for generous servings of substantial Yorkshire fare after a strenuous day outdoors is destined for disappointment and may well have recourse to the bread basket. The wine list is extensive, but the by-the-glass selection is limited, with the only available French red being a relatively undistinguished Sancerre.
The principal amenity at The Devonshire Arms is a spa, housed within an ancient barn adjacent to the hotel. This has an indoor swimming pool and a Jacuzzi, plus a gym, as well as four treatment rooms. When not being pampered, guests hike, shoot, fish or tour nearby cultural monuments. The extremely picturesque ruins of Bolton Priory, which were painted by J.M.W. Turner among others, are located two minutes away by car. And Northern Yorkshire contains several well-known long-distance hiking trails, including the Dales Way, which runs for some 80 miles from Ilkley to Windermere in the Lake District, and sections of the 268-mile-long Pennine Way, which begins at Edale in Derbyshire and ends at Kirk Yetholm on the Scottish border. (The latter was proposed in 1935 by journalist Tom Stephenson, who had been inspired by his experiences on the Appalachian Trail.)
The Yorkshire Dales National Park covers an area of 680 square miles. Like many such protected areas in England, it is not a wilderness but a region where construction or changes to the landscape are tightly controlled. There are three principal dales: Wharfedale, Swaledale and Wensleydale. The sheltered valleys have rich pasture for cattle, while the exposed hilltops provide summer grazing for sheep. Everywhere, the countryside is divided by ancient dry-stone walls. Even in such relatively wild areas, England’s landscape is a construct, having been designed and maintained over centuries.
We left The Devonshire Arms with regret and drove north to Bainbridge in Wensleydale. The journey is only about 40 miles and can be accomplished in around 90 minutes along the main roads. But much of the pleasure of travel in the Yorkshire Dales comes from exploring the narrow back roads and tiny stone villages — often with the aid of a large-scale Ordnance Survey touring map — perhaps stopping along the way for a simple lunch at a local pub.
The Devonshire Arms Hotel & Spa 94
The extremely picturesque setting; comfortable and atmospheric accommodations; the exceptional restaurant.
The extension lacks the architectural distinction that the lovely setting demands.
Good to Know
The hotel and the estate are owned by the Duke of Devonshire, who lives at Chatsworth (open to the public), a magnificent country house, one of the grandest in England, in northern Derbyshire, 90 miles to the south.
Rates: Superior Room, $400; Suite, $460
Address: Bolton Abbey, Skipton, North Yorkshire
Telephone: (44) 1756-718-111
Set beside the tumbling River Ure, Yorebridge House is a dignified Victorian stone building surrounded by five acres of grounds. At one time it housed a school, but in 2006 it was converted into a boutique hotel of 12 rooms and suites. The property’s contemporary style is immediately apparent in public areas, where shades of pale gray and cream predominate and the furniture is fashionable and, to my eye, somewhat urban in style. Still, the staff seemed extremely hospitable, so we decided not to regret the absence of polished woodwork and traditional chintz.
Located on the ground floor, our room, Rahmoune, proved somewhat snug, though its dimensions were augmented by a sizable outdoor gravel terrace with a hot tub. The origins of its unusual name were soon apparent. Behind the bed was a large carved headboard, which, an information sheet informed us, had been brought from Marrakech by the hotel’s owners. Such exotic touches may appeal to weekenders from London, but visitors from the United States have presumably crossed the Atlantic to experience England, not Morocco.
Overall, Yorebridge House proved comfortable, its staff were friendly and professional and the restaurant was excellent. (My black figs with goat cheese, and grouse with beetroot were both delicious.) However, the hotel’s design and atmosphere are not calculated to appeal to American travelers.
Yorebridge House 88
Tranquil rural setting beside the River Ure; friendly staff; outstanding restaurant.
The interior design has no obvious relationship to the hotel’s surroundings.
Good to Know
Wensleydale is the source of a famous crumbly white cheese that was first made by French Cistercian monks from the Roquefort area, who had settled in the region.
Rates: Rahmoune, $520
Address: Bainbridge, North Yorkshire Dales
Telephone: (44) 1969-652-060
The Yorkshire Dales National Park merges with the 885 square miles of the Lake District National Park, and by the most direct route it is an hour-and-a-half-long drive from Bainbridge to Windermere, the largest and southernmost of the lakes. The Lake District has long been one of our favorite areas of England, with glassy expanses of water reflecting steep 3,000-foot hills and deep glacial valleys. This is an entirely different landscape from the rolling acres divided by neat hedgerows that make up the classic countryside of southern England.
Until the end of the 18th century, the Lake District was little regarded. The land was poor, so there were no great aristocratic estates, a fact famously noted by the poet William Wordsworth in his guidebook to the region published in 1810: “Neither high-born nobleman, knight, nor esquire was here; but many of these humble sons of the hills had a consciousness that the land ... had for more than five hundred years been possessed by men of their name and blood.” Wordsworth was born in the town of Cockermouth, at the northwestern edge of the Lakes, where his family home is now a museum. But most of the other writers and painters associated with the region — Constable, Turner, Coleridge and the art critic Ruskin — were tourists. During the Napoleonic Wars, it was impossible for the English to travel in Europe. So starved of the Romantic landscapes of the Alps, they learned to make do with their own country’s nearest equivalent. And it is this combination of scenic beauty and rich cultural associations that was doubtless responsible for the Lake District’s being added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list in July.
In the relatively recent past, my recommended hotel in the Lake District was Holbeck Ghyll, overlooking Lake Windermere, but it was dropped from The Andrew Harper Collection after several trenchant complaints from members. On this trip I had hoped to visit Gilpin Hotel & Lake House, also near Windermere, but alas, it was fully booked. I am assured by reliable informants that this is now the region’s preeminent property. Denied the opportunity to experience Gilpin Hotel for myself, I made a reservation at Forest Side, which overlooks Grasmere, a village (and adjacent small lake) that lies just to the northwest of Windermere. (Wordsworth lived at Grasmere from 1799 until 1808, in very modest circumstances at Dove Cottage. Today the cottage is maintained just as it was at the beginning of the 19th century.)
Forest Side is a large Victorian house, built of Lake District stone, which was renovated and converted into a hotel in 2014. First impressions count for a lot, and on this occasion mine were negative. The steps leading up to the front door looked as though they might last have been washed or swept around the time of the millennium; the receptionist was abrupt, and her desk and the surrounding area of the lobby were a wilderness of disorganized paperwork. Fortunately, our room turned out to be spacious, bright and tranquil, with a king-size bed, sofa and an array of large sash windows overlooking lawns and woodland. Once again, the interior design was contemporary and wholly lacking in regional character. If I had been blindfolded, led into the room and informed that I had been teleported to Los Angeles, I would have been quite prepared to believe it. One welcome aspect of modernity was the well-lit and stylishly appointed bath.
I soon discovered that my experience with the receptionist was not entirely typical. Other staff members, including the French maitre d’, were charming. The restaurant, which was awarded a star in the 2017 Michelin Guide, has been responsible for much of the favorable publicity that Forest Side has garnered of late. And dinner did not disappoint. We opted for the six-course tasting menu, and it was exceptional. I particularly enjoyed the duck-heart salad with horseradish, burnt green kale and pickled walnuts, and the aged Shorthorn rib with golden chanterelles cooked in bone marrow. Each course came with an interesting wine pairing, and the sommelier could not have been more pleasant or informative. In the morning, breakfast was also outstanding, and my poached eggs with foraged wild mushrooms and sourdough toast were utterly delicious. At both meals, the cheerful young staff members were friendly and energetic. Although I remain unconvinced that the hotel will appeal to affluent American travelers — weekenders from London again seem to be the intended clientele — the restaurant certainly lives up to its laudatory reviews.
Forest Side 89
Exceptional restaurant; charming staff (many of them French); tranquil hillside location.
Scruffy entrance and lobby; indulgent interior design that has no connection to the Lake District.
Good to Know
The Wordsworth Museum, adjacent to Dove Cottage, is fascinating, even for those whose enthusiasm for English Romantic poetry is patchy at best.
Rates: Superb Room, $430; Master Room, $560
Address: Keswick Road, Grasmere, Cumbria
Telephone: (44) 1539-435-250
The southern edge of the Lake District is roughly 90 miles north of Manchester. As a result, Windermere attracts large numbers of visitors and is best avoided in July and August and on weekends, except in winter. The landscape around Windermere is also softer and prettier than elsewhere; my own preference is for the harsher, more elemental landscapes slightly farther north. For example, the 27-mile drive from Ambleside to Wasdale Head, over the Wrynose and Hardknott passes, is spectacular. (At the top of Hardknott Pass, there are also the remains of a second-century Roman fort that was once garrisoned by a detachment of 500 cavalry. And the Wasdale Head Inn is a simple but atmospheric pub generally regarded as the birthplace of British rock climbing.)
I also recommend the drive from Keswick to Cockermouth along the B5289, a minor road that crosses the dramatic Honister Pass before descending to the serene lake of Buttermere. Ultimately, however, it is only on foot that you come to appreciate the region’s true character. The Lake District is a hiker’s paradise — the Lake District National Park contains nearly 2,000 miles of public trails — and there are walks suitable for every level of fitness. (Hotels will arrange for a local mountain guide, or you can engage the services of a qualified Blue Badge Guide.)
From Grasmere, we headed northeast for 55 miles to Brampton, a small market town that lies 14 miles east of Carlisle, the county town (administrative center) of Cumbria, and three miles west of Hadrian’s Wall, the famous Roman defensive fortification built at the beginning of the second century. Farlam Hall is an outstanding 12-bedroom country house hotel that has been a Harper recommendation for many years. A manor has existed on the site since 1579, but the present building dates principally from the mid-19th century. Since 1975, the hotel has been owned and run by the Quinion family — Barry Quinion oversees the kitchen, while his wife, Lynne, and his sister, Helen, run the front-of-house — but at the time of writing, the property is for sale. Forty-two years is clearly a long time to run a family business, but it is always a little sad when such a distinguished tenure draws to a close.
When we visited, in early fall, the Quinions were still very much in evidence and the levels of comfort and hospitality were as impressive as ever. Our tranquil room (No. 2) had an appealing view over lawns and a pretty stream. Its décor was thoroughly traditional, with gold-striped wallpaper, a heavy floral quilt on the king-size bed, full-length curtains, a pair of armchairs and a writing desk. The bright adjoining bath provided two sinks, a walk-in shower and a whirlpool tub.
The hotel’s public areas are similarly traditional, with chintz sofas in front of log fires and period furniture. The large formal dining room has floor-to-ceiling windows and looks out across a small ornamental lake. Barry Quinion’s menus employ Cumbrian products whenever possible — my local lamb was superb — and the service is gracious and prompt. Several well-traveled people of my acquaintance regard Farlam Hall as the exemplar of the English country house hotel. I do not disagree. I can only hope that when the property is sold, its new owners will maintain the standards of excellence that have been established and refined over nearly half a century.
Farlam Hall 94
The dignified old house; lovely, tranquil gardens with a stream and a small lake; warm hospitality; fine cuisine.
The fact that the property is now for sale, having been owned and run by the Quinion family for the past 42 years.
Good to Know
The hotel is just over two miles from Hadrian’s Wall.
Rates: Deluxe Double Room, $320
Address: Brampton, Cumbria
Telephone: (44) 1697-746-234
Lord Crewe Arms
Driving directly east from Brampton, we came to the county of Northumberland, most of which is, by English standards, wild and empty, especially the Cheviot Hills, which extend into southern Scotland. The tiny village of Blanchland is located at the southern edge of Northumberland on the border of County Durham and has a population of around 135 people. Blanchland Abbey was founded in 1165 for a white-robed order of monks, who had come to this remote corner of northern England to live in prayer and contemplation. Today the former abbot’s lodge is the Lord Crewe Arms, a 21-room hotel that also incorporates the village pub. At the beginning of the 18th century, the land belonged to Lord Nathaniel Crewe, bishop of Durham — the city of Durham, with its stupendous Norman cathedral, lies 30 miles to the southeast — but in 1721 Lord Crewe died, leaving his estate to a trust, set up to provide financial support to schools and colleges, including the University of Oxford. Nowadays the village of Blanchland still belongs to Lord Crewe’s trustees, and all the inhabitants are tenants. As a result of this curious arrangement, Blanchland has hardly changed in the past 296 years, and there are few prettier or more atmospheric villages anywhere in England.
On arrival, we made our way from the parking lot through a lovely walled garden, bright with roses and hydrangeas, that was once a cloister for the monks. Nowadays, in sunny weather, guests sit on wooden benches beneath spreading white umbrellas. The main hotel building comprises a succession of medieval rooms, with beamed ceilings, stone-flagged floors, cavernous fireplaces and stone walls hung with heraldic shields, as well as bloodcurdling displays of axes, swords and spears. The accommodations are located in a number of adjacent cottages as well as the main house. Our room, Jeffries Rake, was on the second floor of a converted cottage and accessed by a private staircase. It came with mushroom-colored walls, beige fitted carpet, heavy lined curtains, a writing desk and a leather armchair. A double bed topped with a white duvet and a tartan rug faced an impressive stone fireplace. Overall, it seemed quiet and cozy. The adjacent bath was well-appointed, with a large tub, a single old-fashioned pedestal sink and an effective walk-in shower. Being rather narrow, however, it was convenient for only one person at a time.
After a glass of Pinot Noir in the stone-walled candlelit pub, The Crypt, where hotel guests were greatly outnumbered by villagers downing pints of Lord Crewe Brew, the local ale, we headed to The Bishops Dining Room on the second floor for dinner. There chef Simon Hicks serves sustaining traditional fare, using the best English ingredients. Typical appetizers include “Crewe cured” whipped salmon with toast, and Kentish smoked black pudding with blackened carrot, followed by mains such as rump of veal with hazelnuts and grilled broccoli, and salt-aged porterhouse steak with Truffle Hunter mustard. It being the appropriate season (August to October), I opted for the roasted grouse with spiced red cabbage, which was memorable. The portions are generous, as many of the hotel’s guests spend all day in the fresh air, notably shooting pheasant, partridge and grouse on the surrounding moors. (Many Americans come to hunt on estates in northern England, and we encountered one enthusiastic shooting party from North Carolina.)
Lord Crewe Arms 93
The exceptionally pretty village; atmospheric medieval public areas; the excellent restaurant.
Due to the remote location, there is no cell phone service.
Good to Know
The hotel often hosts shooting parties that have come to hunt on the nearby moors.
Rates: Canny Room, $250; Suite, $300
Address: The Square, Blanchland, Northumberland
Telephone: (44) 1434-677-100
After an idyllic couple of days in Blanchland, we headed north to Scotland. Edinburgh lies a two-and-a-half-hour drive away, but we opted to a take a longer route along the coast in order to visit Alnwick Castle (seat of the Duke of Northumberland, as well as the location for Hogwarts in two of the Harry Potter movies); Bamburgh Castle, built on a dramatic outcrop overlooking a spectacular stretch of North Sea coastline; and the Holy Island of Lindisfarne, which was an important center of early Christianity until the Viking invasions in the eighth century.
As we had been away for two weeks and needed to be back in the United States, we concluded our journey at The Balmoral in Edinburgh. However, travelers with sufficient time who wish to see more of the lovely border region can stay at my recommended Cringletie House hotel, near Peebles, 98 miles north of Blanchland and 20 miles south of Scotland’s capital.