If your aim is relaxation – and why wouldn’t it be – then the right destination is Helmsley in North Yorkshire.
Head for the hotel with The Black Swan above the door, because there you will find the perfect weekend break.
The Black Swan is one of those hotels that has the mix just right. It is a lovely base in its own right, of which more later, but it is also in the middle of an attractive market town.
Your room may well look out on the central square, with its delicious deli, its pubs and its shops specialising in country chic.
Step out of the door of the hotel and you are in the middle of this pleasant hub, where Helmsley residents and visitors gather.
Cyclists pass through, bikers congregate to chat, walkers stroll, and those doing nothing in particular stop by for a drink and a chat.
The Black Swan isn’t responsible for this perfect backdrop to its accommodation, but it all adds to the relaxing package.
But once you have had your fill of strolling round the village, then it’s time for a sit down in the cosy country comfort of the hotel. Have some tea, read the papers, relax by the fire – you will soon approach a state of Zen-like calm.
We made the hour and a half journey from Leeds one Saturday morning, and immediately stepped into a calmer, cosier world. It was time to sink into a sofa and...relax.
The Black Swan was an old coaching inn dating back many centuries before it was transformed into a homely boutique hotel.
Think beautifully upholstered armchairs, a pleasing decor of wools and checks, and an authentic and charming floor that is slightly creaky and uneven.
There are forty five bedrooms in all shapes and sizes, tucked away down corridors and in nooks and crannies. They all look different but all have the same charming mix of country style chic, modern facilities, and old coaching house character.
But the Black Swan has another ace up its sleeve – a restaurant which has two AA rosettes.
Head chef Paul Peters offers a menu using ingredients sourced from within 30 miles of the hotel, and changed regularly to make use of the best seasonal produce.
And it’s not all about the evening meal; the Black Swan’s Afternoon Tea menu is an award-winner and the hotel is a member of the prestigious Tea Guild. Thus, it serves a mind-boggling array of teas, and scrumptious food with themes that change throughout the seasons.
It’s hard to tackle both, so we opted to enjoy a dinner that proved to be the highlight of our stay.
A starter of pepper-seared tuna with wasabi was clean and fresh while a beetroot-based starter of golden, candied and red beetroot with goat’s cheese was rich and delicious.
My main course of scallops with parmesan gnochi and smoked chicken was a perfect marriage of textures and flavours while stone bass with lobster risotto came with tastes of dill jelly, horseradish ice cream and lobster bisque to make it a delicious culinary adventure.
I couldn’t resist the STP – a Black Swan deconstruction of sticky toffee pudding. All the constituent parts were there, just rearranged into little piles of deliciousness spread across the plate. There was sponge, there was toffee, there was a heavenly ice cream at its centre – never was a classic pudding made so intriguing.
Pineapple carpaccio was no less an adventure, featuring a chocolate shell filled with pineapple sorbet, with tastes of coconut foam, pina colada and coriander cress for decoration.
We took tea back in the lounge by the fire, while logs crackled and a girl sang and played acoustic guitar in the next room. We were content.
The next day began with church bells, and then kippers. Isn’t it amazing how a three course meal can be followed the next day by a hearty breakfast?
Then it was time to explore the surrounding area. Our first port of call was Duncombe Park, a mere stroll away from the hotel and one of Yorkshire’s foremost historic houses and estates.
The house closed to the public in 2011, but the landscape garden and surrounding 30 acres of parkland are open to visitors, as is the Fountain Tearoom. And this year there is a new attraction on the estate with the arrival of the biggest collection of birds of prey in the North of England.
It contains more than 100 birds in about 40 aviaries and is home to vultures, eagles and an array of native owls and birds of prey.
There are daily flying demonstrations, and on the day we visited there was much drama as a kite bird flew in circles around its trainer’s head, never letting her out of sight but choosing not to land either. We left them to sort it out between them and went for a cup of tea and a sandwich at the excellent cafe.
And then on to visit Rievaulx Terrace, billed as one of the most tranquil and beautiful places in Yorkshire. And that is true. The terrace is a landscaped gem, created to give a stunning view of the abbey below. We feasted on that view and left replete. The Black Swan and Helmsley had left us relaxed and sated for now, but there will be a next time.