I’ve always been suspicious of stately homes and chateaus as relaxing places to stay, especially with kids, but Swinton Park is one of a still relatively rare breed of country-house hotel that actively welcomes families and makes everyone feel at home. The lack of stuffiness was obvious from the moment we checked in, when my three boys found goodie bags with teddies, colouring books and gingerbread men in our enormous corner room set up with two extra beds and a cot (there are several suites too). My husband and I, meanwhile, were pleased by the understated luxury of the décor – and by the complimentary carafes of gin and whisky…
Resisting the urge to flop and guzzle but deterred from exploring the vast grounds with their fallow deer by the freezing drizzle obscuring the view from our windows, we headed off down to the hotel’s enormous games room, where the kids were delighted to find ping pong, loads of traditional board games, books, and plenty to amuse toddlers too. There’s also a full-size snooker table and several big squishy sofas and armchairs in which to curl up and read the papers.
'The boys found holding an owl and then having a hawk swoop down from the trees and land on their hands truly exhilarating. The experience was made all the more unforgettable by them having to hold – in gloved hands – dead chicks or parts thereof, serving as lures.'
With my husband and oldest son engaged in a fierce Monopoly battle and his brothers playing happily with other young guests, I took the opportunity to slope off to the small spa for a very good full body massage followed by a relaxing half hour of herbal tea drinking and magazine browsing. I returned refreshed enough to brave the great outdoors with the kids, who took some of the hotels’ free bikes and scooters our for a spin. Appetites fully stoked, we enjoyed a family dinner in the cosy bar – there’s a kids’ menu available all day. We could also have eaten in the more formal restaurant, although under-8s do have to eat there before 7pm (baby-listening is available for parents who wish to eat later).
The main events came the next day. Each morning, the hotel falconer welcomes guests to meet her birds and watch a short flying display in the grounds for a small donation, and you can also book various ‘flying experiences’. We opted for a taster session following the display, which give us the chance to handle some of the birds ourselves. Both the boys and my husband found holding an owl and then having a hawk swoop down from the trees and land on their hand truly exhilarating. The experience was made all the more unforgettable by them having to hold – in gloved hands – dead chicks or parts thereof, serving as lures.
Given that the weather was by now totally foul, the boys weren’t able to spend too long trying out the wonderful play equipment in the grounds – tyre-swings fashioned as horses and a treehouse with a slide. Indeed, I was very glad that we had an afternoon activity planned for the older boys, in the form of a Young Chefs lesson in the hotel’s renowned Cookery School, run every half term for ages 5–9 and 10–14. Over three hours of intense concentration and activity, Ethan and Ripley cracked eggs, chopped veg, deboned fish, and much more besides. By the end of the session, they’d cooked their very own dinner to take away in goody bags - minestrone soup, fishcakes, cheese, spring onion and chilli muffins, and incredible chocolate brownies.
The secret to a successful country house weekend with kids is to find somewhere that offers a feeling of pampering and luxury without making you feel that either you or your offspring have to stand on ceremony. Swinton Park offers just that: you have a sense of occasion, of being spoilt and of getting away from domestic drudgery, but it’s also the kind of place where you can feel comfortable kicking off your shoes and sprawling out on the sofa with a coffee or a beer while the kids run around, playing and making friends.
Swinton is a great place to take the family any time of year, but I can vouch for the cookery courses if your kids are at all interested in food. You might also come for Mother’s Day lunch (perhaps followed by a cookery course or spa treatment for Mum), a Father’s Day lunch (maybe followed by a fishing expedition or falconry experience), Family Falconry & Nature Days, Easter Egg hunts with egg-rolling and egg-and-spoon races, Children's Activity Days with face-painting, pony-rides, falconry displays and treasure hunts in the parkland, and even an Alfresco Food Festival, with guided tours, cookery and cooking demonstrations, and family activities. In better weather than we experienced, you might also be tempted to order a picnic to take out in the grounds, to which a walking trails map is provided in your room.
Book your family break at Swinton Park and find out more about family holidays and breaks in Yorkshire. The Swinton Park estate is also home to The Bivouac.