By Maggie Majstrova
As we rattle through the English countryside in a rather crowded train carriage, I’m struck by the number of weekend trip destinations afforded to my fellow Londoners by the UK’s extensive rail network. Having spent most of my life in the capital, I suspect I haven’t explored the rest of the country nearly as much as it deserves.
Well, now’s a good a time as any.
Located in the rural village of Barnby Moor on the border of Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Lincolnshire, Ye Olde Bell Hotel & Spa is a privately-owned country hotel dating back to the 17th Century. Over the last decade, local couple Paul and Hilary Levack oversaw a full-scale renovation of the hotel, which now boasts four prestigious AA Rosettes, as well as the addition of a multimillion-pound spa.
A short taxi ride from Retford station, just under 1.5hrs from London’s Kings’ Cross, the hotel grew to prominence as an important stop between London and Edinburgh with the inauguration of the postal service in 1635. The renovation by Homestead Interiors has stayed true to the history of the building, with its lush fabrics and antique furniture, while bringing it firmly into the 21st century.
After a little confusion with our booking, we’re checked into one of the hotels’ 59 bedrooms. Ours is a spacious split-level double with views of the nearby fields, ample closet space and all the necessary amenities.
For the remainder of the afternoon, we’re booked into the spa. It has, since its launch, been awarded 5 bubbles by the Good Spa Guide and it’s easy to see why. With interiors that combine indulgence and luxury, you could easily spend an entire day there without running out of things to try. From the heated indoor-outdoor vitality pool, outdoor alpine lodge relaxation areas, steam room, Herbal Laconium, saunas, the snowstorm experience, hot and cold shower walk, salt inhalation room, foot massage pools, six treatment rooms, the Herbal Garden Brasserie and extremely attentive spa butlers, the spa has truly thought of everything.
Spa access includes a two-course lunch at the Brasserie, which we pick from a menu split into three sections from light dishes to richer ones. AA Rosette winning chef Richard Allen planned the menu around the health benefits of its ingredients, without compromising on their indulgence.
Both our crispy hens’ egg, ham hock and pea and smoked salmon starters are sublime. Each dish celebrates the freshness, lightness and colours of summer – particularly topical once we learn that Barnby Moor is in a sort of weather bubble, rarely having to close the outside areas of the spa, even when other parts of the country suffer from rain, snow or other adverse weather conditions.
By the time our mains arrive (sea bass and pea risotto and butternut squash risotto with goat’s cheese bonbons and beetroot; both excellent), we’re completely taken over by the glamorous mood of the spa.
We spend the rest of the afternoon sampling the spa’s unusual experiences. Admittedly, some are a little quirky, like the custom-made snowstorm experience. Replacing the customary post-sauna dip in a freezing pool, it is the first of its kind in the world. Upon pressing a button in the wall, we’re transported to the mountains of Europe, with snow falling from the ceiling.
Slightly more traditional are the Herbal Laconium and two saunas. The herbal inhalation room uses herbs from the hotel’s garden to produce infused steam in a room with two full size windows and two walls clad in ancient timbers from Southern Germany. Both the Stonebath (one of only three in the UK) and the traditional Alpine sauna are spacious, a little theatrical and expertly equipped.
After we rather reluctantly leave the spa, we opt for dinner in one of the two hotel’s restaurants alongside a selection of other hotel guests and locals.
St Leger Bistro boasts a relaxed atmosphere while Restaurant Bar 1650, named after the origin of Ye Olde Bell, offers an elegant AA Rosette dining menu. It’s a little dark, with its rich oak panelling, and slightly nonchalant, on account of its servers. But it offers a classic menu of souffle and chicken escalope alongside crowd pleasers like burgers and curry.
Our two-course dinner is generally well made, though some dishes are less of a hit than others. The beef burger, for example, comes in a smoked cheese bun: not only entirely too large to handle but also a little greasy from the melted cheese. The crab bisque, on the other hand, is absolute perfection. It’s light and creamy, utterly celebrating the sweetness of crab meat.
Although there are two rather large weddings booked into each of the hotel’s suites, you wouldn’t know it…at least until we retire for the evening: our room, above one of the suite entrances, could benefit from a little soundproofing (admittedly not available in 1650).
We conclude our stay the next day with a Mini Turkish Ritual Massage, which focuses on releasing tension in the neck, back and shoulders though the use of light fabric used to gently stretch the body, particularly the joints. The sensation is a little unusual at first, but combined with light music, aromas from saffron massage balm and expert massage movements, I’d wager a bet that there are few kinks this treatment couldn’t work out.
Far too quickly, our stay is over. Should you heed my recommendation and book your spa experience immediately, I’d recommend considering a second night’s stay. Not only to be able to make the most of the spa itself, but also because of the wealth of local attractions and picturesque rural walking and cycling routes. For us, that will need to wait till next time.
Maggie was a guest of the hotel. For more information, see Ye Olde Bell Hotel & Spa‘s website.