The Wensleydale Hotel, Middleham – Review
By Karl Hornsey
Something is stirring in Middleham in the Yorkshire Dales, and it’s something that, in time, may well become as synonymous with the village as its legendary horse racing connections. It’s six months since The White Swan became The Wensleydale Hotel, and there can be no doubt that the impact of the new owners goes far further just a lick of paint and a change of name. There’s an aspiration to move the hotel a little up the pecking order, but without taking it out of reach of the masses. And the early signs are very promising indeed.
But, before I get ahead of myself, a little back story is required. Middleham is located on the edge of the Yorkshire Dales National Park and on the outskirts of the glorious market town of Leyburn. It’s pretty much been known for two things – its castle, which is well worth a look, by the way, and as a base for one of the county’s largest horse racing fraternities. This means that there’s generally plenty of life about the place all year round, and that anyone opening a pub, hotel or restaurant has enough passing trade and locals to give them half a chance of succeeding.
That said, there is plenty of competition, with three pubs already occupying the market square, and this may go some way to explaining why The White Swan fell on hard times. To its rescue has come French hotelier Charles Merchie and his Yorkshire-born wife Fiona, who have embarked on an ambitious renovation project that is set to take up to three years to come to fruition.
“Original features and charm”
Their aim is to create a small boutique-style hotel, with a restaurant offering the best in traditional continental and British cuisine. With a nod to the racing industry that dominates the village, the restaurant has been renamed as The Tack Room and includes several items of racing paraphernalia. The Wensleydale Hotel has now been open for six months, so it seemed like a good time to assess how the plans are panning out.
There’s little doubt that the priority over the last six months has been on the restaurant area, bar and reception, and on getting the menu up and running. The downside to this means that there’s still a fair amount of work to be done in getting the rest of the building up to the standards required of a boutique hotel. The second phase of the upgrade will start shortly, now that the summer season has been and gone, and there’s a degree of TLC needed in the hallways and stairs, while the room in which we stayed would benefit from more colour and an imaginative touch to give it a little more vibrancy.
One of the great aspects with our room, and the hotel as a whole, is that it retains many of its original features and charm, to which have been added a comfortable bed with Egyptian cotton sheets, large flat-screen TV, a couple of chairs and a fresh bathroom unit. It was also very clean, so the improvements should be easy enough to put into place. We enjoyed a decent night’s sleep and were woken by the relaxing sound of the horses making their way through the village and on to the gallops.
“Passion comes through”
While aiming the menu in The Tack Room at a high standard, it’s clear that Charles Merchie is keen to still attract passers-by, casual tourists and locals to the hotel, with an excellent a la carte menu on offer at £27 for three courses. And given the quality of the food, that is an absolute steal. It’s clear on talking to Charles that he has a huge passion for his work and is delighted to be back in the kitchen and doing the thing that he loves most in life after several years as general manager of the Feversham Arms in Hemsley and the Swinton Estate near Ripon. This passion comes through in everything he says and does, and it’s a certainty that much of his life is spent dreaming up the best food partnerships to put on a plate.
From the seven starters on the menu, I chose the Tuscan bean soup, rich with fresh cavelo nero and a delicious homemade sourdough bread, while my wife enjoyed her pheasant and chestnut terrine, served with eyewateringly sharp pickled onion and a light beetroot chutney. This was followed by a moist and flavourful Wellington of pork tenderloin, while I opted for the Swinton Estate grouse, served with fondant potato, hispi cabbage and blackcurrant
Too many menus these days leave it to the imagination as to what you might actually end up with, so I’m delighted to say that what Charles writes on the menu, is what ends up on your plate. It’s also predicated on being as fresh as possible, and the grouse certainly falls into that category, with its almost liver-like consistency and a mild gamey aftertaste contrasting perfectly with the sharp blackcurrant. All of which was rounded off by a British favourite – sticky toffee pudding – and that most classically France dessert, Tarte Tatin. Too often with high-end dining, it’s easy (and dispiriting) to come away still hungry, but there was no such danger here, with the three courses amounting to a top quality and substantial meal.
“Eye for detail”
The following morning saw us back at the table for a choice of Full Yorkshire breakfast or a continental, which lived up to the same standards, using quality ingredients, cooked well, brought to us by the charming and super-efficient general manager Rui, who, along with his wife Vera, oversee all things front of house.
As a previous visitor to Middleham, and indeed having stayed in the old White Swan many years ago, I was eager to see what was afoot in the village and at The Wensleydale Hotel. I’m delighted to say that the place is in safe hands. If the next phase of the project and the improvements to the bedrooms and other communal areas is done with the same eye for detail as the restaurant and menu, then I look forward to returning soon.
The Wensleydale Hotel, Market Place, Middleham, North Yorkshire, DL8 4PE
Prices from £80 per night based on 2 adults sharing a double room with bed and breakfast
01969 622 093