Arriving into York to temperatures of 26 degrees and clear skies, it felt like nature knew we were here to enjoy two days of luxurious travel and was already spoiling us.
Over the past five years, I’ve visited this city many times, having worked on a series of books with the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu. I’m familiar with its grand Victorian station and the short walk along the city walls, across the river Ouse and through the narrow shopping streets towards to York Minster. Given an hour or so spare, I’d often take a right down High Petergate towards the Shambles, the wonderfully preserved Medieval street that makes it on every tourist’s must see list. If you take a left from the same spot, in a couple of minutes you come to Bootham Bar, the old defensive bastion for the north road, where you can join the wall to walk around the back of the Minster. Another five-minute walk, in the same direction, brings you to The Grange Hotel.
In my many visits, I’d never once turned left. Like most tourists, I stayed roughly within the city walls, which is why The Grange Hotel has designed a packaged to encourage guests to explore a bit further afield and experience something of the wider county of Yorkshire.
That said, the hotel itself, although slightly off the beaten track, is at the same time very accessible. There is a more direct walking route from the station, which takes no more than 15 minutes, crossing the river on the pedestrian path of the railway bridge and along a residential street of grand, four-storey terraces. Indeed, most buildings in York have an air of grandeur about them, and if you keep your eyes peeled for the blue plaques you’ll find a piece of history and a story behind many of them.
The Grange Hotel, a Grade II listed Regency townhouse, has its own tale to tell. It was built in 1829 by a wealthy ecclesiastical family who occupied it until 1924 when it was converted into flats to house their expanding family. During World War II, the flats were occupied by women service personnel who used its brick vaulted cellar as an air raid shelter. In the years that followed it remained in multiple-occupancy until 1989 when its current owners restored it to one large townhouse, which they opened as a luxury four-star hotel.
The feel of it now, with its welcoming sitting room where you can pick up a newspaper and sink into the deep cushions of a sofa, is of a home, albeit a luxurious one. There’s a nod to the city’s famous racing tradition with commemorative scarves given to race winners displayed on the walls of the main staircase, some of which are almost as old as the house itself. The old cellar and its exposed brickwork is still there too, now The Ivy Brasserie, a cosy, AA 2 Rosette restaurant, aptly named after the creeping greenery that covers most of the building.
Fitting with the Country House ambience, the hotel’s Discover Yorkshire experience includes a four-and-a-half-hour chauffeur driven tour of the surrounding countryside in an immaculately polished Range Rover Sport. Our chauffeur and guide for the afternoon is Howard, owner of the Yorkshire Chauffeur Co, which has paired with the hotel to offer this two-day package.
Dressed in a checked, Brook Taverner shirt and Moon Tweed jacket, Howard is every inch the Yorkshire gent, placing a small step on the gravel drive to make it easier and more graceful for us to get into the car. Turning left again out of the hotel we head away from the city and north on the A19 into the surrounding countryside. Within minutes we’re surrounded by farm land where the elevated seated position of the Range Rover allows us to peer over the hedgerows and stone walls. The land is largely flat and the soil here is rich, used mainly as arable land, growing barley, wheat, rape seed, carrots and potatoes. We drive through Sutton-on-the-Forest, a small village mentioned in the Domesday book. Although Howard is quick to point out the tour is designed to be relaxing and not a history lesson, it’s hard not to get drawn in to the fascinating past of the area through which we’re travelling.
Having grown-up on a farm and lived in the surrounding villages for most of his life, Howard knows the area in a deep way that can’t be gleaned from a guide book alone. Even his name merges seamlessly into the landscape as we weave through the Howardian Hills to the left, an area of outstanding natural beauty, towards Castle Howard.
Many will recognise this magnificent 18th century house from its use as a TV and film set, most recently for ITV’s Victoria and from 1981 and 2008 in the TV and film adaptations of Brideshead Revisited. We spent two hours here, but you could easily spend a whole day and still not get around all its 1000 acres of land. It soon becomes clear that these four-and-a-half hours are only going to whet the appetite to discover more of this beautiful county.
The afternoon is designed to be flexible. If you spot somewhere you’d like to stop you can get out to explore, without worrying about where to park. Similarly, if you want to extend your trip you can, and it seems there is no limit to this, as Howard tells us of one American couple on a tour of England’s cathedrals, who used The Grange as a base from which to travel in style as far as Durham in one direction and Peterborough in another.
Our winding route takes us past Byland Abbey, Newburgh Priory, Hovingham and the market town of Helmsley, where we stop for a mosey around its quirky independent stores and a local dairy’s ice-cream. Once again, I list it as a place to return with more time.
Before we head back, Howard pulls in next to a grazing field in Crayke, where we look across miles of the farmland to the towers of York Minster on the horizon. It’s a view carefully preserved by city planners for centuries, who seemingly have always known the secret of turning left to enjoy it.
The Discover Yorkshire Experience costs £498 (based on two sharing at £249 per person). The package includes two nights at the four star, The Grange Hotel, York, staying in a Standard Room with full Yorkshire breakfast each morning; a three-course dinner in the Ivy Brassiere on the first evening; a 4.5-hour tour with The Yorkshire Chauffeur Company; entry tickets to Castle Howard and a North Yorkshire Cookbook, which features a recipe from The Grange Hotel’s Head Chef, Will Nicol. Upgrade to a Premier Room for £538 total/£269 pp. Prices quoted are for Sunday to Friday stays. A supplement of £30 per room is charged on Saturday. The hotel also offers a bespoke chauffeur driven tour and all tours can be extended for an additional cost of £45 per hour. For details call 01904 644744 or visit www.grangehotel.co.uk