July 2020. A week in Norway with friends was looking increasingly unlikely, so we started to look for UK destinations, along with millions of other British would-be holidaymakers. The problem was, as we were two families travelling with 4 kids aged between 8 and 13, we needed something with enough room and activities. As fast as my friend was finding potential places to stay, they were getting booked up. Until one day she emailed a link to one that was big enough, with a pool and a tennis court, and was still available. The only catch? It was a twenty minute drive from where I live. I had never really considered holidaying in Yorkshire in terms of hiring a house, but our friends were from London, and we guessed it would be convenient for us and a proper getaway for them.
The Red House estate near York was a private prep school for nearly one hundred years until it closed due to dwindling numbers in 2001. Set in 70 acres of land, including a stretch of the frequently flooding River Ouse, the main house isn’t grand, but welcoming in a no-nonsense red brick. Pupils at the school had a swimming pool, tennis and croquet, and all of those things are still available in the grounds. We rented Prince Rupert house, a wing of the main house which used to house the school dorms, kitchen and laundry rooms. There is no trace of that institutional feel now, only some old photos on the wall showing Edwardian children at the school indicate its history. The reference to Prince Rupert is due to the Royalist sympathies of the Slingsby family, who built the house in the early 1600’s. The nearby battle of Marston Moor between the Roundheads and Cavaliers took place in July 1644, and Prince Rupert was defeated by the Parliamentarians in the most significant battle of the English Civil War. After their defeat at Marston Moor, the Royalists effectively left the North to its own devices.
So we were holidaying in a location with loads of history, and in a part of North Yorkshire which I really didn’t know. We often drove through Moor Monkton on our way to York or the Coast, but this was our first time visiting the area.
After a first day spent largely at the house, with the kids enjoying the pool (despite the predictably half-hearted English weather), we headed off on day two to Castle Howard. The house was closed, but grand country houses are lost on children anyway, so we went mainly to enjoy the gardens, grounds and adventure playground. The drive to Castle Howard from the main road is nothing short of spectacular. I don’t think any Tuscan palazzo or French chateau can match it for sheer scale and grandeur. The drive from the A64 to the house is a long straight road – unusually there is no view of the house until the last minute. Instead you approach the house along an avenue lined with ancient trees. After the spectacular approach, the gardens and house are no anti-climax. We explored the walled gardens and wandered around the grounds for most of the afternoon, the kids would have been happy to spend all day at the adventure playground. We had to book our visiting slot in advance but there was no queueing in the cafes or at the ticket office. I was excited to see the moving artwork created for Yorkshire Cancer Research by my friend Anita Bowerman in the grounds – a huge tree hung with steel boots, created as part of their “Give Cancer the Boot” campaign.
The next day we enjoyed some better weather at the Red House. I explored the unique private chapel which was built by Henry Slingsby between 1600 and 1620.
The chapel is unassuming from the outside, apparently because at the time it was considered suspicious to have your own chapel, especially one of this size, as the authorities couldn’t check that Catholic activities weren’t going on. Inside it is full of interest – the wall paintings are sadly faded and darkened, and some movement in the walls has damaged them. But the very early staircase taken from the original house is in excellent condition. A set of unique wood carvings dedicated to local gentry families (presumably friends of the Slingsbys) decorate the walls, also taken from the original old house. Some are easily recognisable – the Fairfax family of Gilling Castle (now owned by Ampleforth Abbey), Sir William Savile who also fought for the Royalist cause in the civil war. Others like Watterton or Wall Bethel are more obscure.
The first properly sunny day meant a trip to the coast. North Yorkshire is blessed with some stunningly diverse coastline, from the historic fishing town of Whitby to the wide open spaces of the beach at Filey and Reighton Sands. We headed off to our cabin in Filey (more about this later), an ongoing renovation project that is just about ready for holidaying in. Even with everyone in the UK on staycation, the beach at Filey still has plenty of space. When tides are out, there is an expanse of clean, smooth sand as far as you can see, from the town itself to the cliffs at Flamborough. The North Sea is unforgiving and you have to be careful with its tides and undertow, but the children braved the cold and happily jumped waves and warmed up on the sand.
That evening, knowing that we would be bored of cooking for ourselves, I booked barbecue master Andy Annat of Crackerjack BBQ to set up in the garden at Prince Rupert house and cook for 10 of us. The luxury of simply being able to be served food and have all the plates and cutlery cleaned away for us, after months of cooking at home, made the evening very special. Andy’s food as ever was well thought out and balanced traditional BBQ fare for the kids with dishes like hoi-sin chicken and tofu skewers for the grown ups along with a delicious range of salads and sides.
Food dominated our last day of the holidays too. Relaxation of the lockdown rules meant that restaurants were open, so for the first time since March we headed out for a pub lunch. The Alice Hawthorne in Nun Monkton is a much-loved pub restaurant a short drive from the Red House. Recently renovated, the interior is immaculate, and the food and service was pretty faultless too. Nun Monkton is a ridiculously pretty village, with no through road. Cows graze on the village green, and a tree-lined avenue leads to the church and an enormous weeping beech tree.
After our big lunch we went back to Prince Rupert House and sadly packed our bags, knowing that we would miss the house with its elegant hallway, the sound of horses at the livery yard pottering down the drive and the sense of being somewhere full of history and stories. Our first Yorkshire staycation had been a success – exploring the history, coast and countryside of this remarkable place.
Red House Estate http://redhouse.orpheusweb.co.uk/
Castle Howard https://www.castlehoward.co.uk/
Anita Bowerman artist https://anitabowerman.co.uk/
Andy Annat BBQ catering https://food.andyannat.com/
The Alice Hawthorn pub and restaurant Nun Monkton https://www.thealicehawthorn.com/