The two and a half hours from Edinburgh to York by train is a nice length of journey and a hotel you can walk straight into from the station platform makes an ideal base for exploring the small historic city centre.
We probably most readily associate York with its Roman era. Its Walls are a lasting reminder of its Legionnaires. But actually the Romans capitalised on a site already identified as an key centre for trade, administration and trade. The River Ouse which was navigable to the North Sea made a perfect highway to the city for the Vikings. Then there is its religious legacy and its glorious Minster. No wonder it became an important crossroads and ultimately a key railway hub. The cakes are a modern indulgence and very necessary if you want to do justice to exploring the city. York has become the ultimate place for afternoon tea, thanks to the fame of the Betty’s cafes and probably with a nod to its tradition of sweat making most notably by Rowntree’s and Terry's.
Budget or boutique?
The Principal York is a hotel on a grand scale. Built in the age of the train, to the highest Victorian specification, the Principal does things with panache. It’s an architectural delight with what is said to be the longest hotel lobby corridor in Europe and an amazing “hanging” staircase. The Garden Room is both stunningly elegant and the comfortable heart of the hotel.
With England’s more relaxed approach to face masks, it does feel different but the staff and behind-the-scenes routines are covid-compliant throughout the hotel.
I have to admit I’ve been upgraded to a junior suite, so it’s huge – from the bed to the TV – and it has a walk-in shower large enough for a family. The windows frame York’s most iconic building, the Minster, and it’s all too easy to linger to admire the view.
Wining and dining
The Refectory is light and airy and plays well both for buffet breakfast and after-dark bistro dining. The delicate crab starter was the star player with its soughdough wafers and salad supporters, while charred halloumi and peaches teamed up nicely. From the mains, the confit duck scored with its rich saffron sauce and bed of spring veg, but it had a strong team to choose from with steaks, burgers and other gastro style dishes on the bench. Spatchcocked churrasco chicken delivered on its flavours, leaving us with no room for extra-time desserts.
Worth getting out of bed for
As there is so much history to explore in York, it’s worth concentrating on one aspect. I’ve enjoyed walking in the footsteps of the Romans on previous visits, so this time I headed to the Jorvik Viking centre for a crash course on a different era. Although this really is a family-friendly adventure with a “time car” journey through Viking life, it is also based on real archaeological finds from beneath the city streets.
With history under my belt, it was time for a thoroughly modern afternoon tea at Fenwick, one of the two independent family-run department stores in York. Its Café 21 is the new pretender to the tea crown. The contemporary dining space serves treats devised by Terry Laybourne, a Michelin-stared chef who has made his mark in Newcastle. Delicate sandwiches and imaginative patisserie really do deserve that glass of champagne. But Café 21 may have to watch its back when the Principal brings back its popular Twilight Teas in the Garden Room with its views of the Minster.
A work-out in the hotel gym and swimming pool takes you down to what was once a popular jazz club. Tiles closed many years ago but some of the walls are still covered in the sumptuous glazed tiles. It certainly adds panache to going to the gym.
The Principal and its staff make you feel so at home that a train trip south is all too tempting. Maybe next time I'll take in the St Nicholas Fair and its Christmas street markets, one of its food festivals, or the horseracing in the summer.
Prices start from £200 for two sharing a double for B&B. The Principal York, Station Road, York. YO24 1AA (theprincipalyork.ihg.com)
Visit York www.visityork.org