As a member of the Historic House Hotels group, any drinking you do at Middlethorpe Hall – or its siblings, Hartwell House in Oxfordshire and Bodysgallen Hall in North Wales – goes directly into supporting the property and the National Trust. That slides this stately home neatly into the same species as theatre bars and restored gin palaces, where the more you drink, the more like a Medici you become in your patronage of the arts, our nation’s history and things.
This is a way to have a fiercely heavy yet virtuous weekend, with the added bonus that if your patronage gets heavy to a Hemingway-ish degree, you’re also just one elaborate 17th century staircase away from bed.
But I feel fraudulent, because our drinking this weekend doesn’t look set to keep Middlethorpe in damask tablecloths and crystal decanters. Jules is a broken shell of a person after two months of 100-hour weeks at work, and wants peace. I’ve just broken up with somebody, and want platonic yet tender spooning, and to be told I did the right thing. So instead of drinking down the National Trust deficit, we spend the first day swimming in the mosaic-tiled pool at Middlethorpe Spa. We steam room til it hurts. We have massages in an incense-scented attic room and then read newspapers by the spa fireplace. Wearing slippers. Hard to think of a scene less in keeping with the debauchery-luxe vibe that I convinced myself when booking was going to be this property’s USP.
But eventually we make a massive concession to not being pensioners yet, and go back to our bedroom to dress for dinner. This is a room that also makes the vision of a messy Byronic weekend feel very distant. It’s enormous, big on chintz in a non-ironic way, and comes with homemade shortbread and a decanter of sherry. The bed’s four poster and draped with silk. Stretched out at full length with my hands and feet pointed, I still can’t reach across it. That spooning I’m after isn’t going to happen organically; you could jam another four people in with us before anybody’s personal space would be sacrificed.
We’re ushered for pre-dinner cocktails into a parlour built to the same scale as our bed, for the giants roaming the Yorkshire moors in the 17th century. Even on a busy weekend – the restaurant’s booked out, the hotel almost full – there are fewer people in the parlour than there are oil paintings on the walls. Everybody speaks in muted voices. Everybody’s in eveningwear. Rain hits the eight-foot windows. It feels like we’re in live-action Cluedo.
Despite the lingering feeling that we’re a few seconds away from somebody being murdered with the candlestick in the dining room, we still spend hours there, working through the restaurant’s winter menu. It’s rich, solemn, involves a lot of ox-cheek and truffles: more or less the Middlethorpe Hall experience condensed onto bone china. We’re offered caraway seed rolls from silver baskets; we’re brought small, elaborate castles of chocolate and mint with our coffee. And we get back to our bedroom before midnight, holding a choice of DVDs from the reception desk’s library that make it plain the correct order to hit things up is film list first, then wine list, rather than extremely the reverse.
Drawing a veil over what films we do or don’t watch that night, and how much they are or aren’t meant for children, we make it to breakfast the next morning with no regrets, and a plan.
Because if Middlethorpe has an edge on the other Historic House Hotels, it’s being so close to town. Hartwell House and Bodysgallen Hall are places to embed for days at a time, countryside everyside. But from Middlethorpe it’s a half hour’s easy walk to the city walls of York.
Two things I know from some limited research into York are: ancient walls, good ales. We test out both, walking windswept sections of the city walls and stopping at pub fireplaces along the way. With the balance massively favouring the latter. We’ve walked the full circle of the city – not as impressive as it might sound, York packs a lot into a pint-sized footprint – before we end up in the House of Trembling Madness. It’s the polar opposite of the evening before, a tiny, Viking-styled bar upstairs above a bottleshop, serving clay bowls of venison stew and tankards of craft beer.
We stay late into the night, surrounded by candlelight and taxidermy and pretending this carries as many cultural points as the Jorvik Viking centre we didn’t bother going to. It’s the very small hours by the time we take the five minute cab ride back to our bedroom. The lights in the parlour are still on though, and drinks are still being served, for anybody who wants to support our country’s architectural heritage more dedicatedly than we’ve done tonight.
Leaving the next day it’s pretty obvious that I haven’t proved anything about the wild times you can have at Middlethorpe Hall, although I stand by my claim. That debauched, gin-sodden lost weekend is there for the taking, I’m sure of it. But if you happen to want a weekend that’s higher on historic walks and hot tubs than it is on ABV, turns out Middlethorpe Hall can also rise to that occasion.
The tasting menu at Middlethorpe Hall restaurant is £99 per person with wine flight. Middlethorpe Hall, Bishopthorpe Rd, York, YO23 2GB. For bookings or more information, call 01904 641241 or visit the website.