Airs and graces in York

by Helen.Werin

Middlethorpe Hall hotel and spa in York is the perfect spot for a bit of luxury and a lot of mother-daughter bonding

There comes a time in every woman's life when she finds herself sounding like her own mother. In my case it was in the exquisite dining room of Middlethorpe Hall. Elena was sawing at her bread roll with a knife. My own mother's words sprang to my throat as I advised Elena on how to "behave like a lady". Words, I am absolutely certain, my own mother's mother and undoubtedly her mother before her had also spoken.

Middlethorpe Hall is exactly the sort of place that demands impeccable table manners. It's simply the sheer magnificence of the place that compels you to put on your airs and graces and dust off your poshest clothes. Which would, I'm sure, have greatly pleased the man for whom Middlethorpe was built. Seventeenth-century ironmaster Thomas Barlow had grand designs on establishing himself as a 'gentleman'. Thus Middlethorpe is lavishly decorated with antiques and fine pictures that reflect the history and elegance of that period.
And what a history. In its time Middlethorpe has been a girls' boarding school and, incongruously, York's most popular nightclub in the Seventies. In the 18th century, it was also the home of the famous diarist Lady Mary Wortley Montagu and one she described as (sic) "a very pritty place". Wandering past the showpiece staircase and through the panelled dining and sitting rooms overlooking the gardens, it is easy to imagine that Lady Mary would feel the same today. Caught up in this timeless atmosphere, we stepped out onto the carpet-like lawns. The centrepiece is a mighty, centuries-old cedar of Lebanon and we half-expected Colin Firth, tight breeches and all, to come striding towards us.
Despite the reverentially whispered tones in the dining room, I could detect accents, from the Netherlands, New Zealand and the US. However, we were far more interested in our food. It seems the sense of occasion compelled Elena to try dishes she would never have usually contemplated. Cep and egg yolk pasta with baby spinach, followed by roast pork loin and confit belly with a Puy lentil sauce - amazing tastes and textures, all cooked to perfection, which, she says, have tickled her tastebuds for the future.
Almost light-headed with pleasure, we returned to our third-floor room. Middlethorpe's lift is the tiniest I've ever seen. It is more like a wardrobe, because of the practicalities of sympathetic restoration. 
We could easily have spent our days at Middlethorpe, but we wanted to savour some of York's other delights. A 10-minute bus trip from the stop opposite took us right into the city centre. Armed with our York passes, which gave us free entry to 29 attractions, we packed our day with sightseeing. York is very easy to get around by foot, but we took a trip on the landmark Yorkshire Wheel - the North's answer to the London Eye – to get our bearings.
Back on the ground we set off for the York Dungeon for a ghoulish afternoon. Be warned: this is not the place for the faint-hearted or easily scared children. Elena, though she will deny it, and I literally screamed our way around, whether it was in the horrifying plague doctor's surgery or the eerie prison torture chamber, complete with 'demonstrations'. 
Certain we were going to have nightmares, we left the darkness for the tranquillity of a boat trip on the River Ouse. This also started to prove a bit chilly as we listened to a commentary highlighting various landmarks. So we were very pleasantly taken aback when Alan, the gallant skipper, lent us his warm jacket. Not quite Colin Firth, but very gentlemanly nevertheless.
The next day found us in rather a long queue for the Jorvik Viking Museum. We hadn't expected a theme-park-type ride through a 'Viking' village, so the whole experience was rather surreal. Elena confessed to being somewhat bored. I was intrigued, though, by a demonstration of the techniques used to reconstruct a skeleton's face to show what he or she might have looked like.
Afterwards we skipped across town to the York Castle Museum. As a time-tunnel-like experience of everyday life, this really did hit all the right buttons with both of us - even though there are no buttons or computerised displays in sight. The delight here is in the exhibitions showing how things have changed, from fashions and household duties to jobs and shopping. We kept hearing awestruck voices - "Gosh, my grandma used to have one of those” - and younger visitors were amused by toilet arrangements. All were bound by a common thread of wonderment.
Some of York's best sightseeing is to be had by simply walking along the ramparts. Which is how we found ourselves at the Micklegate Bar Museum, set above the Royal Gateway into the city. Many tourists visit for its macabre past involving traitors who lost their heads. We were more enthralled by the stories of different gatekeepers and their families who had lived their through eight centuries. 
No visit to York is complete without entering 13th-century York Minster, of course. As we admired what is, without doubt, one of the finest gothic cathedrals in the world, we were surrounded by an incredible wall of rich Welsh voices. This unexpected treat, courtesy of the fabulous Neath Male Voice Choir, no less, had the effect of being sprinkled with magic dust, such was the awesome atmosphere.
Before we left York we just had time to squeeze in a flying visit to what must surely be the best free attraction in Britain: the National Railway Museum. You certainly don't have to be a train enthusiast to enjoy this. Elena and I were particularly fascinated by the carriages used by Royalty, some much more spartan than you would expect. Sadly, our own railway carriage was awaiting us to whisk us back to reality after our dreamy weekend at Middlethorpe Hall. 



Helen had circumnavigated the world by boat by the time she was nine and has barely stopped travelling since. Her most memorable trip is of travelling around Australia on the back of a beat-up Honda 500 with just a toothbrush and a clean pair of knickers to hand. Over 40 years later she’s swapped boats, buses and bumpy motorbikes for the home comforts of Roly, her motorhome, but she is not averse to a fixed bed occasionally!

Helen mostly works with well-known landscape photographer Robin Weaver. Helen divides her time between writing features with lots of quirky historical interest for UK newspapers and travel supplements and in-depth touring articles for UK and international motorhome/camping/caravanning interest magazines.