Serene stay at Black Swan
Scenic walks, gourmet food and a historic hotel – Sarah Brealey is in short break heaven in Yorkshire.
It seems wonderfully tucked-away, yet Helmsley on the edge of the North York Moors is easily reached for a long weekend.
Here is a town which has charm in spades and knows it. There is a castle, a choice of pubs, a good fish and chip restaurant, several cafes and shops of the kind that indicate this is a rather upmarket place. Around the large market square there are two delis selling local beers and cheeses, while ice-creams, clothes and antiques are equally available.
With the picturesque town to potter round and plenty of walks on the doorstep, there is no real need to take the car unless you want to explore further afield. And it may even be quicker by train than by car – it took us four hours from Norwich station, including one change of train at Peterborough and on to a bus at York, to stepping off the bus outside our hotel.
Our hotel was the award-winning Black Swan, in pride of place at the head of the market square. Its large facade is Georgian stone in places and half-timbered Elizabethan in others. The next-most imposing building on the market place is the town library – with a 'Save Our Library' banner giving the only slightly unwelcome reminder that this is 2011. At the hotel there is a bar and a cosy lounge, with a real fire burning on colder days – the perfect place to while away an hour or two with a newspaper or book.
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The rooms are named after local villages and decorated in traditional, comfortable style. Ours had a view of the market place so we could keep an eye on the comings and goings. Bathrooms are spacious with dressing gowns and slippers thoughtfully provided.
Breakfast is just the thing to set you up for a bracing walk on the nearby North York Moors. The full Yorkshire breakfast is cooked to order and high quality, and refills of tea, coffee, juice and toast are offered liberally. For those who fancy something different there are alternatives from smoked haddock with a poached egg and mustard sauce to scrambled eggs with smoked salmon or boiled egg and soldiers. Pastries, cheese, fruit yoghurt and cereal are there to fill up any corners.
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The tea-room at the Black Swan holds a top tea place award from the Tea Guild, and is well worth visiting even if you are not staying in the hotel. The tea menu is extensive and covers everything from Darjeeling to Ceylon UVA to China White Ying Zhen Silver Needle. I had the flowering osmanthus, a green tea with a peachy taste that provides a spectacular visual display as well. Served in a clear glass teapot, it arrives as a tightly-furled bud which gradually unfolds in the hot water to reveal brilliant orange petals. The tea-room manager is clearly knowledgeable as well as enthusiastic on the subject of camellia sinensis, and can recommend the best tea to match what you are eating.
While you are there you can get lunch, or a slice of carrot cake, or fancy chocolate gateau, but we went for the full afternoon tea. The traditional (there is an afternoon tea of the month too) comes on a tiered stand with dainty sandwiches, two still-warm scones and lashings of clotted cream and jam. Then there are the dainty cakes, which on this occasion included a splendid tart with a custard filling and a vivid green pistachio cake shaped like a tiny loaf and tasting of marzipan. My favourite was the lemon posset, which came with a slick of raspberry sauce. It was really very good – sweet and sharp, flavours hanging in perfect balance.
You need to not have afternoon tea too late if you are to do justice to dinner, which is also not to be missed at the Black Swan. We ate there twice and both times it was a memorable experience, from the amuse-bouche of cauliflower velout� with truffle foam to the plate of Yorkshire cheese. In between there was a starter of ham hock terrine which came with apple foam and a slice of dried apple; gnocchi served with broad beans, pea shoots and tiny vegetables; tender, slow-cooked feather of beef with velvety mash, and potato rosti served with a butch-flavoured combination of wild mushrooms, salsify, baby onions and port sauce. My favourite bit of showmanship was my starter on the second night – a humble-sounding carrot veloute (aka soup) which arrived in a jug. The soup plate was empty except for a few cubes of pickled carrot, with a spoonful of thyme cream perched on top and a few pea shoots arranged on the bowl. A waiter poured in the soup with a flourish and gradually the herb cream began to melt into the soup. Another nice touch was the interesting bread (cheese and tomato or beer as well as white and brown) which was repeatedly offered – ideal for those who had worked up an appetite on the hills and valleys around.
There are several great walks you can do from the hotel. The Cleveland Way starts in Helmsley and runs alongside the River Rye through a tree-lined valley before passing the Kilburn White Horse. If you are fit you can make it to Sutton Bank, nine miles away, which has breathtaking views across the Vale of York. You can watch the gliders and have reviving tea and cake at the visitor centre.
If you do not feel up to those distances you can visit the graceful and imposing remains of Rievaulx Abbey, less than three miles from Helmsley.
We saw three hares and a roe deer, and returned revived by the fresh air, but tired enough to sleep soundly.
NEED TO KNOW
The Black Swan, Helmsley – telephone 01439 770466 or visit www.blackswan-helmsley.co.uk A Linger for Longer special offer is �82.50 per person per night when you stay any two consecutive midweek nights (Sunday-Thursday) throughout April. It includes a four-course dinner on one evening in the Rutland Restaurant and one two-course dinner in the Black Swan Brasserie, plus full English breakfast. If your stay includes either a Monday or Tuesday night the package includes a round of golf each at Kirkbymoorside golf course. The Yorkshire's Finest package with eight-course seasonal tasting menu, seasonal afternoon tea of the month, chilled half-bottle of house champagne in your room on arrival, full English breakfast and overnight accommodation with a complimentary upgrade to a feature room (subject to availability), costs from �295 per couple (extra night's bed and breakfast is �125 per room) based on two sharing. Valid throughout April, May and June. The direct trains from Norwich to Peterborough are with East Midlands trains, and this is cheapest if booked in advance. Sarah Brealey travelled from Peterborough to York by rail with East Coast Trains: advance return fares, booked online, start from �13.40 standard class or �48.10 first class. Book via www.eastcoast.co.uk, telephone 08457 225225 or visit any staffed station.