An English aristocrat's manor has become a hotel with trained hawks and wonderful food.
The country houses of England are meeting the challenge of survival in the twenty-first century with commendable ingenuity. At Chatsworth the Duchess of Devonshire runs a thriving wholesale and retail garden-furniture business. At Houghton the Marquis of Cholmondely is selling reproductions of his ancestor Sir Robert Walpole's furniture. And at Swinton Park in Yorkshire, Mark Cunliffe-Lister, nephew of the present Earl and Countess of Swinton, and his wife, Felicity, have turned the historic castle into a luxury hotel.
Mark, a geophysicist, and Felicity, a lawyer, quit their jobs in London and bought back Mark's ancestral seat from an educational trust and opened the hotel a little more than a year ago. "Mark had always planned to move back to Yorkshire," Felicity says. "He will inherit the title and be responsible for the estate one day. Making the house into a hotel was the best way to make it pay for itself."
A four-hour drive north of London, Swinton Park stands at the gateway to the Yorkshire Dales, an area of England where open moorland meets the stone walls and tucked-away hamlets of sheep farmers. Some of the rugged hills are wooded, while others display the soft purple haze of heather.
My husband and I swooped through the pretty village of Masham to the great arched gate of Swinton Park, where we planned to spend two days. As we approached the castle, the tower and battlements loomed, and it was not until we stepped inside the front hall that the grandeur gave way to a sense of the castle as a former family home. Portraits of previous occupants lined the walls, and open fireplaces warmed both the dining and drawing rooms. (I later lounged with my feet up on one of the huge drawing-room sofas.)
Built in 1695, Swinton Park owes much of its present form to Samuel Cunliffe-Lister, first Baron Masham, who bought the estate in 1882 and made it one of England's most important country houses. The hotel's restaurant, Samuel's, serving modern British cuisine with an emphasis on local game, was named after him.
Philip Cunliffe-Lister, the husband of Samuel Cunliffe-Lister's granddaughter, was a Cabinet member in the British government from the 1930s to the '50s. Shooting parties at Swinton Park included many important figures of the day, such as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and crooner Bing Crosby, apparently a notable shot. Philip was even a friend of Winston Churchill's, as evidenced by the framed birthday telegram hung in the first-floor gallery along with other family memorabilia.
Absorbing the history of the place was fascinating, but we found it impossible to stay inside on a warm spring day in some of Britain's most ravishing countryside. My husband and I enjoy walks with a purpose, so we decided to try the medieval sport of falconry. We were escorted through the 200 acres of parkland by a trained Harris hawk, Misty, and her handler, Tom Graham. Misty swooped from branch to branch and occasionally hurtled down to land on our gloved arms as we headed toward the lake and though the deer park. If we had had more time, we would have taken advantage of other traditional country pursuits, from clay-pigeon shooting in the walled gardens to deer hunting and pheasant and grouse shooting. Equestrians can head to a local cross-country jumping course.
After a day outside, we felt we had earned a rest, and the aromatherapy massage we had in our room left us so indolent that it was almost too much effort to go downstairs to try out the powerful spa bath. Relaxing is high on the priority list at Swinton Park, and the 20 guest rooms, each decorated with a local theme, such as castle, garden, town or dale, are large and comfortable. But my husband, an interior decorator, was baffled by the iron-rose arch swathed with artificial flowers above the bed in our room, Castle Howard. He was expecting more sumptuous furniture, in the Victorian country-house style. (Luckily, the bathrooms were big and luxuriously refurbished--a pleasant surprise in a British country hotel, where they are often spartan.)
In the common rooms, the marriage of castle and comfort is more successful. The spa retains the original stone floors and decorative leadwork, while the Jacuzzi and gym equipment are appropriately modern.
After cocktails at the Roman-themed bar, where neoclassical murals inhabit a space that was once the family chapel, we headed to dinner. Chef David Spencer, a plain-speaking Lancashire man with classical French training in the Escoffier tradition at the Great Midland Hotel in Manchester, spent several years as private chef to the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire before coming to Swinton Park. Much of the local fish and game on his menu comes from the estate: The pike for a fish terrine was caught by a sous-chef in one of the lakes; grouse shot on the estate shows up on the menu on the Glorious Twelfth (August 12 is the first day of the British grouse-shooting season). Spencer keeps careful control over quality: "I know everything about the meat. The deer are from the park here, I use a village butcher, and the freshness shows." The attention to detail is evident in the roast venison, served with crushed celeriac, braised red cabbage and a date reduction, which we found sublime.
Leaving Swinton Park the next morning, driving past herds of deer and the glittering lake, we felt both pampered and peaceful. Until I realized I'd accidentally left half my clothes in the closet--perhaps as an excuse to go back, or more likely, because I didn't want to leave.
Swinton Park, Masham, North Yorkshire; 011-44-1765-680-900 or www.swintonpark.com; doubles from $150.
Raffaella Barker is the author, most recently, of Summertime.